04/28/2008 01:03 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Four Years Later

Four years ago, the world learned that American soldiers had tortured Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison. In addition to the human cost in pain, suffering, and humiliation that was captured on film, an accounting of the harm done by the incidents at Abu Ghraib must include the price of having given America's enemies a recruiting poster and the consequently heightened danger confronted by the men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan as the world reacted with outrage.

Despite the damage to our moral authority and national security inflicted by the events at Abu Ghraib, questions of torture and detainee treatment were ignored during the 2004 presidential campaign. Instead of prompting an examination of our country's conduct in its struggle against terrorism, the Bush administration dismissed the torture at Abu Ghraib as merely the consequence of the misbehavior of a few bad apples. Subsequently, low ranking enlisted men and women were punished.

This official story -- that individual miscreants were solely responsible for Abu Ghraib -- has not withstood the test of time. In the past four years, we have learned that the origins of the tragedy of Abu Ghraib are directly linked to shortsighted policy decisions made at the highest levels of the government. Lawyers at the Justice Department provided legal cover for acts of official cruelty at the request of officials who had already decided that the gloves were coming off in the treatment of detainees. Over the objections of military lawyers, the Geneva Conventions were swept aside, having been determined not to apply to prisoners captured in the global war against terror. These policy decisions led to torture at Guantanamo and, later, to the torture and abuse of prisoners in Iraq. Despite the president's repeated claims that, "We do not torture," we now know that specific torture techniques were discussed inside the White House at meetings attended by the vice president and top administration officials -- all with the president's knowledge.

In the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the United States military has realigned its policies with the U.S. international legal obligations. The U.S. military now relies on a new Army Field Manual that clearly prohibits acts of torture and official cruelty. Members of the military understand that the Geneva Conventions ultimately are the best protection a captured American may have against abuse. A year ago, General David Petraeus clearly stated in a letter to the troops under his command: "Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy. They would be wrong. Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary."

Unfortunately, Gen. Petraeus's unequivocal rejection of torture has not found an echo in the words or actions of the current Commander-in-Chief. Instead, the president, in a July 20th Executive Order, authorized the CIA to engage in a secret detention and interrogation regime that, in the past, has included waterboarding and other torture. He recently vetoed a bill passed by Congress that would have enforced a single standard of humane treatment for all U.S. officials. The message sent to American troops -- and the rest of the world -- is clear: torture, once the tool of the enemy, is permissible as long as our fear is great.

A group of retired admirals and generals have been working with Human Rights First to make sure that the lack of any discussion of torture and detainee treatment policies that we saw in the 2004 campaign is not repeated in 2008. Some of them are Republicans, some are Democrats; all of them believe that torture undermines national security. Throughout the primary season, they met with eight of the presidential candidates in private meetings in New Hampshire and Iowa where they discussed the importance of having a Commander-in-Chief unequivocally oppose torture. Fortunately, the remaining candidates are on record opposing torture and official cruelty. But, in order to guarantee that we are never again faced with an Abu Ghraib, it is up to all of us to demand that the next president put his or her promises into action.