Unlike most recent attorneys general, Eric Holder is acting as the law says he should: as the chief law enforcement officer of the United States government. Not the president’s lawyer and political fixer, as Presidents Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush often used their attorneys general.
Both President Barack Obama and Mr. Holder have demonstrated that they recognized the attorney general’s legal independence. Mr. Obama left the decision to Mr. Holder whether to examine abuse of prisoners held by the Central Intelligence Agency. Mr. Holder promptly named a veteran fed-eral prosecutor to determine whether a full criminal investigation is warranted.
Mr. Holder knew and probably shared the president’s desire to keep any controversy over Bush-era abuses from distracting attention from the primary Obama administration goals. But the release of a long secret report describing how interrogators threatened to kill one detainee’s children and choked another to near unconsciousness forced their hand. Mr. Holder had no choice but to go forward with a preliminary review. He said he realized that it would be controversial. But he said, “As attorney general, my duty is to examine the facts and to follow the law.”
Mr. Holder’s personal views on the past treatment of suspected terrorists were well known. In an April 15 speech at West Point, he declared: “Discarding the very values that have made us the greatest nation on earth will not make us stronger — it will make us weaker and tear at the very fibers of who we are.”
A close look at the text of the heavily redacted 259-page 2004 report by the CIA’s inspector general shows that it recounts incidents of the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” that clearly amount to torture. For example, earlier reports often had said that waterboarding or simulated drowning had been used against only three detainees. The report disclosed that it was used 83 times on one of them.
Other incidents included “hard takedowns,” in which detainees were slammed repeatedly on the concrete floor, and suggestions that the interrogators might “bring your mother in here” or “bring your family in here.” The report said they wanted the detainee to infer that his female relatives might be sexually abused.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney has led the counterattack. He contends that the CIA’s methods were legal and effective methods of extracting information. Others say that the same information could have been elicited without torture.
As Mr. Holder’s review proceeds, it should extend to who supervised the torture and who drafted and issued the memos intended to provide their legal justification — not just the lower-level employees and contractors who did the interrogating.
And, rather than calling for criminal prosecutions, it would be wise to limit the exercise to a full disclosure of the torture program all the way up to the top and let publicity and humiliation become sufficient punishment.