Abu Ghraib and American Moral Authority

We in the Kennedy family are immensely proud of Rory and all her accomplishments. Her compelling and important films expose injustice and challenge us to end it. Her latest documentary, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, describes in vivid terms how America has lost its way in Iraq and demonstrates that responsibility for the abuses at Abu Ghraib reaches to the top of the Bush Administration. The film's debut this month will add to the growing public demand for a thorough investigation of abusive interrogation and detention practices that violate America's fundamental ideals. Reforms are obviously needed to hold those responsible accountable and ensure that such abuses are not repeated.

The images of cruelty and perversion are still difficult to look at. An Iraqi prisoner in a dark hood and cape, standing on a cardboard box with electrodes attached to his body. Naked men forced to simulate sex acts on each other. The corpse of a man who had been beaten to death, lying in ice, next to soldiers smiling and giving a "thumbs up" sign. A pool of blood from the wounds of a naked, prisoner attacked by a military dog.

These images are seared into our national conscience. The reports of
widespread abuse by U.S. personnel were initially met with disbelief, then incomprehension. They stand in sharp contrast to the ideals America has always stood for: our belief in the dignity and worth of all people, our unequivocal rejection of torture and abuse, our commitment to the rule of law. The images horrified us, and severely damaged America's reputation in the Middle East and around the world, and made the war on terrorism harder to win.

It may well be the steepest and deepest fall from grace in our history. Yet at every opportunity, the Administration has tried to minimize the problem and avoid responsibility for it.

They call it the work of "a few bad apples"--all conveniently lower-rank soldiers--in a desperate effort to emphasize the role of senior military officials in exposing the scandal and insulate the civilian leadership from responsibility.

The lower-rank soldiers have been held responsible. But what about their superiors, who encouraged their conduct? No action -- criminal, administrative, or otherwise -- has been taken against the high civilian officials responsible for approving and encouraging torture and mistreatment by U.S. officials in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and elsewhere. We know about the actions against Charles Graner, Lynndie England, and others. But what about William Haynes, Alberto Gonzales, Jay Bybee, John Yoo, David Addington, Douglas Feith? Bybee, who signed the notorious Justice Department memorandum redefining torture, was confirmed to a lifetime position as a federal appellate judge. Haynes, the Navy General Counsel who made the Bybee Memorandum official policy for the military, was nominated for an appellate judgeship. Gonzales is now the nation's Attorney General.

It is clear that further investigation of the abuses is needed. The American people deserve a thorough review of all detention and interrogation policies used by military and intelligence personnel abroad, and a full accounting of all officials responsible for policies that allowed the abuses to take place.

What we got instead were nine incomplete and self-serving internal
investigations by the Pentagon. None of the investigators were given the authority to challenge the conduct of the civilian command. The report of the Schlesinger Panel found that abuses were "widespread" and that there was "both institutional and personal responsibility at higher levels." But Secretary Rumsfeld refused to let the panel to consider personal accountability for the abuses.

The Republican rubber-stamp Congress was complicit in the Administration's efforts to evade responsibility. The Military Commissions Act, enacted last summer, was intended to reinforce the protections of the Geneva Conventions which have guided our men and women in uniform so well for decades. But the new law still leaves much uncertainty. It emphasizes that murder and rape are clearly out of bounds, but it is far less clear about other atrocities such as placing detainees in stress positions for hours, or throwing cold water on their naked bodies, or subjecting them to water boarding.

Inexplicably, the Administration and the Republicans in Congress refused to state unequivocally in the Act that such practices are be prohibited. The Army Field Manual prohibits these practices, but the Administration refuses to limit its other interrogators. That leaves open the possibility of further abuses, and it puts our men and women serving overseas at greater risk.

What is urgently needed is the enactment of specific legislation prohibiting such abusive interrogation techniques and restoring the right of detainees to challenge their detention through habeas corpus petitions.

The nation's standing as a leader on human rights and respect for the rule of law has been severely undermined by these atrocities. Some claim that the behavior is acceptable, because terrorists do worse. But by lowering our standards, we also reduce our moral authority in the world. The torture scandal has clearly set back our effort in the war on terrorism. The widespread perception that the U.S. condones torture strengthens the ability of Al Qaeda and others to create a backlash of hatred against America around the world.

An essential part of winning the war on terrorism and protecting our country for the future is safeguarding the ideals and principles that America stands for at home and around the world.

That includes the belief that torture is beyond the pale. The vast majority of Americans strongly reject the cruel interrogation tactics used in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo. The American people hold fast to our fundamental values.

The challenges we face in the post-9/11 world are obvious, and the stakes are very high. Working together, we have met such challenges before, and I'm confident we can do so again. Nothing less than the rule of law, and America's respect in the world are at stake.