Commentary: Caution needed in pursuing torture inquiry

This editorial appeared in The Miami Herald.

The Obama administration's decision late last week to release photographs depicting alleged abuses at U.S. prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan is sure to add fuel to the fire over whether to investigate allegations of torture during the Bush years. The two issues are not, strictly speaking, related. The photographs deal with instances of wrongdoing at detention facilities, whereas the torture issue involves practices explicitly endorsed by Bush administration lawyers. This distinction will surely get lost in the heat of debate.

The right and wrong of torture is not up for discussion. It's wrong. That's why President Bush said repeatedly and without equivocation when he was in office that the United States does not torture, period. If his government engaged in practices that did not square with his statement, the public needs to know how it happened and why.

We believe President Barack Obama's initial instinct – to avoid a huge and ugly debate over blame for mistakes in the war on terror – was correct. But the battle has already been joined, what with the release of previously secret memos on torture and the forthcoming pictures that promise to rival those of Abu Ghraib. Even former Vice President Dick Cheney wants to release still-secret memos that purportedly show that extreme interrogations yielded results.

If wrongdoing was committed at upper levels of the government, an inquiry by Congress can hold individuals accountable. That is very different, however, from an effort that aims primarily at humiliating former officials.

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