The United States has always promoted the high ground of restraint and temperance to the rest of the world when faced with acts of terrorism abroad. But as these cowardly and heinous acts have now migrated to our own homeland, are we exercising the same restraint and temperance that the rest of the world has come to expect? Are our actions consistent with our principles, our values and our laws?
More than 100 people have died in American custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, "most of them violently," and a quarter of those deaths were "investigated as possible abuse by U.S. personnel," according to a 2005 Associated Press story based on government data.
The executive branch has admitted that Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri, who is charged with organizing the 2000 attack on a U.S. destroyer in a Yemeni port and is now in pre-trial hearings at Guantanamo, was among terrorist suspects subjected to torture. U.S. government documents released at the direction of the judge presiding over these pre-trial hearings have provided details of the confirmed scope of torture inflicted: waterboarding, which simulates drowning, and a staged mock execution using a power drill while being interrogated in secret U.S. detention facilities.
Dating back to 2008 and consistent with his constitutional oath of office, the current chief executive repeatedly vowed that, while he opposed "partisan witch-hunts," he would instruct his attorney general to "immediately review" the evidence of criminality in these torture programs because "nobody is above the law."
The executive branch has since acknowledged on several occasions the existence of and our participation in torture programs. "We crossed the line, and that needs to be understood and accepted. And we have to, as a country, take responsibility for that so we don't do it in the future," President Barack Obama said in August.
The federal law that applies to torture against detainees is 18 U.S.C. 242, which makes it a criminal offense for any public official to willfully deprive a person of any right protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.
Our Bill of Rights and domestic and international laws do not condition the right not to be tortured on citizenship or nationality. All applicable international laws apply to U.S. officials. The prohibition against torture is universal and covers all countries both regarding U.S. citizens and persons of other nationalities.
According to the 1999 Initial Report of the United States to the U.N. Committee against Torture, " the use of torture is categorically denounced as a matter of policy and as a tool of state authority. … No official of the government is authorized to commit or to instruct anyone else to commit torture."
We now find ourselves (again) with an opportunity to do the right thing. Specifically, to uphold the principles and values of our Constitution and for our chief executive to hold true to his oath of office.
The Senate Intelligence Committee's report on U.S. torture addresses the executive branch's program(s) of interrogation and the behavior of those responsible for their execution. The executive branch, playing on America's fears of terrorism, continually assured the nation that programs were providing actionable results while asking for America's "trust" in their undisclosed methods in the name of national security. But it turns out that they were kibitzing with words and interpretations to allow (or justify) what are now known and confirmed as unethical, immoral practices — torture.
Asking for our trust is an organization of the executive branch that has been found to have destroyed information on their practices of torture, illegally removed equipment from the legislative branch and conducted illegal surveillance of the legislative branch. And now, again in the interest of national security, the executive branch is redacting the Senate's report and asking citizens to once again "trust them." The subject report will either exonerate those organizations and individuals responsible for torture or provide an instrument leading to their accountability. Additionally, it will provide truth to citizens about the value of information received from torture. It should be released in its entirety.
There is nothing that could be more damaging to the fabric of our nation and its principles than pardoning those responsible for the abhorrent acts of torture, regardless of political stature or position. As our chief executive has stated, "nobody is above the law." There is no justification for torture, or the authorization to commit the act. Terrorism is, indeed, cowardly and against every principle that our nation stands for. And, those committing terrorism should rightly be brought to justice and held accountable — but within the framework of our standing values and principles of jurisprudence.
Leif H. Hendrickson is a retired brigadier general in the United States Marine Corps. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.