The United States did it. Pres­i­dent George W. Bush knew about it. And he lied about it to all of us.

This is all infor­ma­tion that can be gleaned by the roughly 140,000 for­merly clas­si­fied doc­u­ments obtained by the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union (ACLU) via Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act requests. ACLU researcher Larry Siems then got the unen­vi­able task of read­ing through all of those documents.

It took him two years.

As part of the project, he started The Tor­ture Report, a web­site devoted to the research. More recently, with the com­ple­tion of his research, he pub­lished The Tor­ture Report: What the Doc­u­ments say about America’s Post 911 Tor­ture Pro­gram.

Here are some of the low­lights con­tained in the moun­tain of documents.

Our foray into tor­ture began less than a week after the World Trade Cen­ter came down. Pres­i­dent George W. Bush sent a 12-​​page mem­o­ran­dum to the National Secu­rity Coun­cil, autho­riz­ing the Cen­tral Intel­li­gence Agency (CIA) to cre­ate and man­age a set of secret pris­ons around the world. These secret pris­ons would be used to tor­ture pris­on­ers, actions which are crim­i­nal offenses under U.S. civil­ian and mil­i­tary law.

Many of those who were ordered to com­mit these crim­i­nal offenses were under­stand­ably con­cerned about the legal­ity of their actions, and their poten­tial crim­i­nal lia­bil­ity for car­ry­ing out those orders. They expressed those con­cerns to their supe­ri­ors, and the mes­sages went up the chain of com­mand. In response, those in com­mand lied to them. They were told that the law had been changed, and that they were legally shielded from pros­e­cu­tion for com­mit­ting acts of torture.

At that point, they fol­lowed the orders, and began tor­tur­ing detainees. This hap­pened not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also at Guan­tanamo and U.S. Naval bases on Amer­i­can soil. And, of course, it hap­pened in those secret pris­ons estab­lished by Pres­i­dent Bush less than a week after the Sep­tem­ber 11 attacks.

Who were the unfor­tu­nate recip­i­ents of this crim­i­nal behav­ior? Some of them were guilty of crimes asso­ci­ated with terrorism…but once they were tor­tured, they could never be pros­e­cuted for the crimes, because the tor­ture couldn’t be pub­licly acknowl­edged. Oth­ers were inno­cent peo­ple detained due to mis­taken iden­tity. Still oth­ers were inno­cent peo­ple detained because they were men­tioned by the tor­tured peo­ple who were detained due to mis­taken iden­tity. In many cases, once it became clear that some­one was mis­tak­enly detained, they were tor­tured in order to gen­er­ate a false con­fes­sion so as to jus­tify their orig­i­nal detention.

Some of the tor­tur­ing was done by the CIA. In other cases, it was sub­con­tracted to other coun­tries, typ­i­cally enemy coun­tries to the eth­nic­ity of the prisoner.

Along the way, they sup­pressed and destroyed evi­dence of their actions. Even­tu­ally, though, they real­ized that they had a grow­ing issue. The CIA Inspec­tor Gen­eral noted that they had a prob­lem with the “dis­po­si­tion of detainees and par­tic­u­lar inter­est in those who, if not kept in iso­la­tion, would likely divulge infor­ma­tion about the cir­cum­stances of their deten­tion.” That is, once the pris­on­ers saw the “tor­ture fac­to­ries”, they could no longer be per­mit­ted to be free, regard­less of their innocence.

The US gov­ern­ment had a dif­fer­ent prob­lem on their hands, too. As hard as the high­est reaches tried to con­vince peo­ple in their orga­ni­za­tion that the tor­ture was per­fectly accept­able and nec­es­sary, peo­ple through­out the gov­ern­ment sought to high­light and/​or stop the tor­ture. The 140,000 doc­u­ments are filled with many such instances of this.

It’s bad enough that the tor­ture was ordered at all. What makes it worse is that the peo­ple who were doing the order­ing were repeat­edly and vehe­mently told that the tor­ture was not deliv­er­ing the desired results. In fact, their con­sis­tent response to such infor­ma­tion was to demand that the pris­on­ers be tor­tured more severely.

And we have heard sto­ries from the few that man­aged to be released, sto­ries that hap­pen to be cor­rob­o­rated by the Depart­ment of Jus­tice.

The pro­hi­bi­tions against tor­ture are in place for many rea­sons. Among them is pro­tec­tion of our own cit­i­zens abroad. After all, what sort of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion would we have for out­rage at the Pol­ish gov­ern­ment for tor­tur­ing Amer­i­cans, when the United States was tor­tur­ing peo­ple on Pol­ish soil? More­over, those who have actu­ally com­mit­ted acts of tor­ture quickly learn that it is ter­ri­bly inef­fec­tive. They dis­cover that they get lower-​​quality infor­ma­tion, if they get any at all. Most Amer­i­cans are for­tu­nate enough not to know any­one who has tor­tured, but that also means that they don’t get to learn just how use­less it is. Instead, they watch tele­vi­sion and movies, or read David Bal­dacci, and assume that tor­ture is as effec­tive in real­ity as it is in fiction.

In the end, our offi­cial sanc­tion­ing of tor­ture comes at a great cost, and yet pro­vides minis­cule ben­e­fit at best.

And we are all worse off for it.