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Move forward by looking back on torture

Eight years ago, two Justice Department lawyers — John Yoo and Jay Bybee — put the finishing touches on a secret memo to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. With this document, known as the "torture memo," and a second memo issued the same day approving specific interrogation techniques, the United States officially authorized torture for the first time in its history.

Yet no one responsible for authorizing these tactics has been held to account. Not Yoo. Not Bybee. Not Daniel Levin or Stephen Bradbury, the Justice Department lawyers who succeeded them and continued to authorize brutal techniques. And not President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney, both of whom have, since leaving office, admitted in public statements to giving these tactics the green light.

When asked about accountability for torture, President Obama has insisted that we should look forward, not back. But on this issue, we cannot move forward without looking back. Unless we acknowledge that what the United States did was not just a bad idea but also illegal, we risk treating torture as simply another policy option.

If another country's leaders authorized torture and got away with it, our State Department would condemn them in its annual reports on nations' human rights records. And it would be entirely justified.

The United Nations Convention Against Torture — a treaty that we played a central role in drafting and we ratified under President Ronald Reagan — prohibits torture and cruel treatment and compels criminal investigation of credible torture allegations. Torture is also a felony under U.S. law and a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.

The Justice Department is investigating allegations of torture at the CIA's secret prisons — but is considering only the actions of interrogators who are reported to have exceeded the brutality authorized by the Justice Department and Bush's Cabinet. Why are only the underlings being investigated?

The answer is politics. A torture investigation that could implicate the former president and vice president would be too divisive, some say.

But there is an even larger political obstacle: fear. The Democratic administration is afraid of appearing more concerned about the rights of terrorism suspects than about the security of the nation.

Here Obama should take a page from David Cameron, Britain's new Conservative prime minister. Shortly after he took office, Cameron announced an official public inquiry into allegations of high-level British complicity in the torture of terrorism suspects.

Why was Cameron able to do what Obama was not? In some measure, it is because Britain has learned from its past. After early skirmishes with the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s, Britain responded much as the Bush administration did after Sept. 11, 2001. It interned hundreds of suspects without charges and interrogated them using torture and brutality. The tactics backfired and created a public relations disaster for the nation.

But Britain did not insist that it look forward, not back. Instead, in 1971 Prime Minister Edward Heath appointed a commission to look into the practices. The next year, the commission issued a report finding that the tactics violated domestic law. In the United Kingdom today, there is widespread public agreement that such tactics are never permissible. In the United States, by contrast, polls consistently show division over whether torture may be justified.

It was only by looking backward, in other words, that Britain moved forward. We must do the same.