Our Obligation to Investigate (Sen. Robert Byrd)

In President Obama's inaugural address, he declared that "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake."

The President's statement referenced false and disingenuous choices of the Bush Administration. As the facts continue to come to light about exactly what happened at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, and other U.S.-run secret prisons around the world, it is increasingly impossible to ignore that the U.S. government violated the basic human rights of prisoners. Not only did these insidious tactics sacrifice our national integrity, but they may also have compromised our security as well.

The recently leaked report from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), as well as the four released memorandums from the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), confirm our worst fears. These documents point to brutal, inhumane acts which were repeatedly carried out by U.S. military personnel, and which were authorized and condoned at the highest levels of the Bush Administration. These acts appear to directly violate both the U.N. Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions. Spain and the United Kingdom have already initiated investigations of Bush Administration officials who approved these acts. The United States needs to investigate as well. To continue to ignore the mounting evidence of clear wrongdoing is a national humiliation.

Additionally, U.S. military officials have come forward with accounts of the damage these policies have done to our military's ability to prosecute detainees. According to those officials, because torture was used as an interrogatory method, prosecution may not be brought against individuals who may, in fact, be terrorists.

The ICRC report of cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment, described clearly as torture, was sent to the Bush Administration in February of 2007, and since that time, there has been a refusal to investigate and, if needed, prosecute these acts. The OLC memos confirm that the Bush Administration permitted torture of detainees that included waterboarding, defined by Attorney General Holder and others as torture. These despicable acts illustrate clear and recurring violations of both domestic and international laws. Article 146 of the Geneva Conventions obliges the United States to investigate allegations of "grave breaches," while Article VI of the U.S. Constitution clearly indicates that "all Treaties...shall be the supreme Law of the Land." And in June of 2006, the Supreme Court affirmed that the United States must abide by the Geneva Conventions in its treatment of all prisoners.

The rule of law is not just a lofty concept to which we should aspire only when convenient. It is a fundamental principal upon which our Republic was founded, and it is the foundation of our free society. I understand the desire to look forward and to forge a new path on high ground instead of on the low road of the past eight years. But to use the need to move on as a reason not to investigate basic human rights violations is unacceptable. Excusing individuals at the highest levels of government from adhering to the rule of law, whether in wartime or not, is a dangerous precedent, for it undercuts the principle of accountability which permeates representative democracy.

Sadly, the world will discover more and more about the acts committed at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, and elsewhere around the world. There is no avoiding that eventuality. It is our choice as a nation whether to pursue the path of truth ourselves, or leave the details of the abuse to be painfully revealed by others. Releasing the OLC memos was a courageous and admirable first step. But we must not stop there.

Whether it is through an independent investigation, a "Truth Commission," a Congressional investigation, or a criminal investigation by the Department of Justice, action must be taken. As long as those who condoned and approved these despicable acts are permitted to escape the consequences, we allow our moral standing in the world to be severely compromised. September 11 did not suddenly legalize torture, nor did it exonerate those who authorized such a heinous deviation from the rule of law. How we address these abuses will shape the image of the United States for decades. In order to truly clear our good name and put the past behind us, the United States must strive to be sure that this dark period of sick and secretive torture schemes receives the scrutiny it deserves.