A bipartisan coalition of elder statesmen, military and national security honchos, and religious leaders is calling on the president to return to pre-9/11 standards for the treatment of prisoners.
An executive order to ban torture is essential, they say, to improve national security, shore up alliances in the war on terror, and recommit to American values.
"I've been worried for some time that the way we're conducting our struggle against terrorism was undercutting America's 'soft power' – our ability to attract others," says Joseph Nye Jr., former assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs and chair of the National Intelligence Council, in an interview. "We're not only committing something unethical, but counterproductive at the same time."
But will President Bush pay attention? For the politically savvy folks involved, it's not a strong expectation. Yet they say the stakes are too high not to move forward now and build public support and momentum. "I'm not sure the outgoing administration is going to issue an executive order," Dr. Nye adds. "But I think a new president, whether McCain or Obama, would be willing to consider it."
The coalition released its statement June 25 with more than 200 prominent signatures, including former secretaries of State George Shultz and Madeleine Albright, former secretaries of Defense Harold Brown and William Cohen, national security advisers, retired military leaders, counterterrorism experts, and religious leaders.
The plan now is to seek broad public endorsement of the declaration in coming weeks, and then take it to the president.
Those involved see the current policy, in which CIA interrogators are not restricted by military interrogation rules, as having devastating consequences.
"Other countries have cut back their cooperation with us ... on the battlefield and in intelligence," said Alberto Mora, former general counsel of the US Navy, in a conference call with reporters. "There are serving US military officers today who are of the view that the first [two] identifiable causes of combat deaths in Iraq are Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo" because of their power as recruiting tools.
The Bush administration counters that interrogations have prevented further terrorist attacks. Responding to a question specifically on the declaration at a White House press briefing, spokeswoman Dana Perino said, "We face a very different enemy today than America has ever faced before," and "we think we have the mechanisms in place to address the issue."
Retired Gen. Paul Kern, who led the Army's internal investigation of Abu Ghraib prison, takes issue with that view. "In the investigations during the last year of my active duty, I could find no evidence that torture produces any answers that are credible and useful for commanders...."
He spoke of his 40 years in uniform following the Geneva Conventions, and said recent deviations have hurt the uniformed soldier. "This declaration of principles returns our country to the values embodied in our Constitution, which we in uniform have taken an oath to follow."
The declaration endorses the "Golden Rule" – no interrogation methods we would not want used against Americans – and one national standard for the treatment of prisoners across all agencies. It emphasizes the rule of law – no secret prisons or disappearances, and an opportunity to prisoners to prove their innocence – and calls for clarity in policy and accountability regardless of rank.
Supporters of the campaign face obstacles. Many citizens think torture is necessary to protect the country, and the administration fears failing to do what's necessary to protect Americans, says Douglas Johnson of the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis, Minn.
Coalition members hope the American people will come to realize that the bifurcation between national security and moral values is a false dichotomy.