U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. on Monday asked a respected prosecutor to investigate whether CIA interrogators violated the law in subjecting suspected terrorists to "enhanced interrogation techniques." The wisdom of his action was vindicated by the release of a redacted 2004 report documenting cruelties both familiar (such as waterboarding) and newly confirmed (threatening a prisoner with a gun and power drill). Citizens who thought they were inured to barbarism inflicted in their name will be shocked by the document.
The report, by the CIA's inspector general, concludes that some interrogators exceeded even the minimal limits imposed by Bush administration lawyers. It's important to determine whether the interrogators also violated laws against torture. Still, as Holder emphasized, the scope of the inquiry is limited. It's a "preliminary review" that might not produce a full-scale criminal investigation. It concerns only the interrogation of "specific detainees at overseas locations," not interrogation policies in general. And it is not directed at "anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of
Notably, the new inquiry will be conducted by career prosecutor John H. Durham, who already is investigating the destruction of videotapes of CIA interrogations. That's a valuable credential, but there is a political dimension to the choice as well. Durham was given his current assignment by former Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey, a George W. Bush appointee. That bow to bipartisanship is doubly important because Holder was an Obama campaign advisor and because he is revisiting a decision by the previous administration not to pursue a criminal inquiry.
Important as the new inquiry is, it won't remedy all of the injustices perpetrated as part of the Bush administration's so-called war on terror. Nor is criminal prosecution the best way to document the chain of decision-making that resulted in outrages that continue to tarnish this nation's image. In fact, a criminal investigation could retard an encompassing inquest into what went wrong, and when, by making potential witnesses unavailable. But that's a price that must be paid if provable criminal wrongdoing is to be prosecuted.
Finally, despite a claim of vindication from former Vice President Dick Cheney, neither Holder's announcement nor Monday's release of other classified documents provided definitive proof about whether the indignities visited upon prisoners -- authorized or not -- were indispensable in obtaining information that prevented terrorist attacks. Holder is pursuing a different, but still important, question: whether methods that shock the conscience also violated the law.