One of Barack Obama's first acts as president should be to instruct his attorney general to appoint an independent prosecutor to initiate a criminal investigation of former Bush Administration officials who gave the green light to torture.
At Obama's press conference on Dec. 1, he spoke of upholding America's highest values as he introduced Eric Holder as his choice for attorney general. Holder insisted there was no tension between protecting the people of the United States and adhering to our Constitution.
A few months ago, Holder was even more explicit. "Our government authorized the use of torture, approved of secret electronic surveillance against American citizens, secretly detained American citizens without due process of law, denied the writ of habeas corpus to hundreds of accused enemy combatants and authorized the use of procedures that violate both international law and the United States Constitution," he said. "We owe the American people a reckoning."
The day of reckoning is fast upon us.
If Obama and Holder want to adhere to our Constitution and uphold our highest values, they must pursue those in the Bush Administration who violated that Constitution, broke our laws, and tarnished our values.
Read the words of Lt. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, who investigated the Abu Ghraib scandal for the Pentagon. "There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes," he concluded. "The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account."
Despite Taguba's words and reams of documentation supporting his statement, there has been little discussion about holding officials accountable for their design and implementation of the torture program.
We need to make it clear, just as we do in cases with the most minor offenses, that actions have consequences. To simply let those officials walk off the stage sends a message of impunity that will only encourage future law breaking. The message that we need to send is that they will be held accountable.
A popular refrain in Washington these days is that criminal prosecutions would be an unnecessary look backward. Some argue that in order for the new administration to move forward, presidential pardons should be granted and a Truth Commission assembled to investigate the circumstances that gave rise to the brutal interrogations and deaths of prisoners in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and CIA black sites around the world.
But pardons would be the final refuge for an administration whose egregious violations of human rights have, for all too long, gone unpunished. And a Truth Commission is not applicable.
This is not Latin America; this is not South Africa. We are not trying to end a civil war, heal a wounded country and reconcile warring factions. We are a democracy trying to hold accountable officials that led our country down the road to torture. And in a democracy, it is the job of a prosecutor and not the pundits to determine whether crimes were committed.
Criminal prosecutions are not about looking to the past; they are about creating a future world without torture. They will be the mark of the new dawn of America's leadership and our new era of accountability.
Prosecuting these officials would help the United States regain its moral standing in the world and to prove our commitment to upholding international human rights standards.
In his first nationally televised interview, President-elect Barack Obama made this promise: "I have said repeatedly that America doesn't torture. And I'm going to make sure that we don't torture."
The best way to do that is to prosecute those who designed the torture policies.
Michael Ratner is president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and author of "The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld: A Prosecution by Book." He can be reached at email@example.com.