Moral drift


A new report by a nonpartisan legal research group says that, despite years of debate and speculation, U.S. agents engaged in torture during interrogations of foreign detainees.

The report by a task force of the Constitution Project, founded in 1996 to monitor government surveillance, openness and checks and balances, said that after a go-ahead by the George W. Bush administration, U.S. forces “used interrogation techniques on detainees that constitute torture.”

“American personnel conducted an even larger number of interrogations that involved ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading’ treatment,” the 577-page report said, and many “actions violated U.S. laws and international treaties.”

The panel was co-chaired by two former members of Congress — Republican Asa Hutchinson, a former undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and Democrat James R. Jones, a former ambassador to Mexico — and sought to forge a consensus on the issue after an exhaustive review.

The group’s report said public evidence showed that the Central Intelligence Agency waterboarded detainees, used sleep deprivation, held prisoners for long periods without clothing, and chained them purposely in uncomfortable positions.

As other critics previously asserted, such harsh treatment did not, in the end, serve U.S. aims. The torture “damaged the standing of our nation, reduced our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary, and potentially increased the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive,” the report said.

At the same time, there was “no firm or persuasive evidence” that the cruelty yielded valuable information that could not have been gotten in other ways. In fact, the task force’s report said, “There is substantial evidence that much of the information adduced from the use of such techniques was not useful or reliable.”

According to the New York Times, Mr. Hutchinson said that, as a former member of the Bush administration, he “took convincing” on the torture issue, but after studying the evidence he did not deny what U.S. agents did.

“This has not been an easy inquiry for me, because I know many of the players,” Mr. Hutchinson told the Times. “The United States has a historic and unique character, and part of that character is that we do not torture.”

The Constitution Project report does not let President Obama off the hook either. It faults his administration with engaging in too much secrecy, saying the refusal to divulge the government’s record on torture “cannot continue to be justified on the basis of national security.”

This document is an indictment of the nation’s moral drift after the shock of 9/11. The United States can no longer assume the high road of moral leadership while engaging in brutality condemned by the family of nations. It’s time for the country to decide which America it wants to be.