Why a Presidential Commission on Torture Is Critical to America's Security


Moving Forward by Looking Back

By Thomas R. Pickering and William S. Sessions

President Obama declared in his inaugural address that the United States is "ready to lead once more." Not content to merely say the right thing, he took several significant steps to act on his words within the first days of his presidency — signing, for instance, executive orders to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and secret CIA facilities around the world.

The president understands that no democracy can lead if it engages in activities that damage its defenses and undermine its system of government. And that is what torture does.


Investigations by Congress and other bodies have shown that, since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, government officials have encouraged and acquiesced in prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel, and detainees have been transferred to countries that are known to torture. In many cases, the perpetrators of abuse and torture were given the support and encouragement (tacit or explicit) of their superiors, possibly as high up the chain of command as the president himself.

In other cases, particular units were apparently given the freedom to bypass the chain of command, and members of those units could ignore orders.

Detainee mistreatment flies in the face of American ideals — and it strengthens the case of those who fight against us. These methods yield suspect information, and they put our troops, and indeed all Americans, at greater risk of torture and abuse if they are captured by our enemies. When we lower our standards of detainee treatment, others may follow suit; we also provide our enemies with a far better recruiting tool than they could ever produce on their own. And where efforts are made to find legal loopholes and bypass congressional controls, they strain the foundation of our republic by undermining the rule of law.

Closing the doors on the places where torture has occurred — as well as on the attitudes that allowed it to happen — is a crucial first step toward strengthening our position in the world.

But it is only a first step. America needs President Obama to name a nonpartisan commission to investigate the post-Sept. 11 policies and actions regarding the detention, treatment and transfer of security detainees. The mandate of this commission would not be to conduct a criminal investigation; that is the job of our criminal justice system. Rather, this commission would serve the vital purpose of presenting a full picture of policies and actions that followed the 2001 terrorist attacks. We must understand how we got where we are today to ensure that we correct our past mistakes and change our policies going forward.

Taking this step would be fully consistent with President Obama’s commitment to move our country beyond the policies of the past to begin restoring the rule of law.

The chairmen of both the Senate and House Judiciary Committees have called for the creation of a commission to investigate our country’s actions after Sept. 11, including examining questions regarding the detention, treatment and transfer of prisoners. We commend them for their commitment to ensuring a full understanding of what happened and what was authorized in Americans’ names. We believe that a presidential commission is the best way to accomplish this goal. It could move forward quickly and provide the public with the objective and nonpartisan answers that our country needs.

It is in the interest of our nation’s security that President Obama should immediately appoint such a commission. To move ahead, make our country safer and strengthen the leadership position of the United States, we must have a full understanding of detainee policies and their consequences. Only then can we prevent any mistakes of the past from being repeated.

Thomas R. Pickering, co-chairman of the International Crisis Group, was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 1989 to 1992. William S. Sessions was director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations from 1987 to 1993.



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