EDITORIAL - Probing torture: The Justice Department is right to seek answers

Written by Susan Mannella on .

The appointment by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. of a federal prosecutor to look into reports of CIA torture of prisoners was controversial but necessary.

A fundamental argument against such a move was that the new administration of President Barack Obama should focus on the problems of the present and future, rather than dig up the bones of the more odious deeds of eight years of President George W. Bush. In general, Mr. Obama has done that.

Another case against the probe is concern that it may set off bureaucratic combat or, more seriously, inflame the sort of noncooperation between the CIA and the Justice Department, which includes the FBI, that was part of the basis of U.S. agencies in general failing to read and share intelligence that could have headed off the tragic 9/11 attacks.

The other side of the argument -- which carried the day -- was the general abhorrence that most Americans have for the torture of captives. Whose flesh does not crawl when reading about U.S. government employees or their contractors beating up or waterboarding people who have not been brought to trial and may be guilty of nothing other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or of having a name that causes someone to assume they are some kind of subversive?

Americans' opposition to torture is neither a liberal-conservative issue nor a Republican-Democratic one. Disgust at the practice runs from the American Civil Liberties Union to the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a conservative who was tortured as a prisoner by the North Vietnamese. It is also an issue that runs beyond American xenophobia, which sometimes rears its unattractive head in times of stress, such as wars. It is important to remember that the Bush administration labeled some American citizens "enemy combatants" and could easily have tortured them.

In the end, Mr. Holder's decision to name an investigator, veteran prosecutor John H. Durham of Connecticut, was correct. If the process leads to decisions to prosecute CIA employees or U.S. contractors who used torture or even those who set the policies that resulted in these practices, so be it. Most CIA employees will appreciate the clarity and guidance this will provide them for the future, regardless of who is president and what are the circumstances under which they hold interrogations.

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