We have never met, and so I hope you will forgive the personal nature of this letter. I guess I should start by saying I supported your presidential campaign in 2000, as I did your father’s in 1988, and lauded your first efforts to wage war against jihadist terrorism in the wake of 9/11. Some of my praise of your leadership at the time actually makes me blush in retrospect, but your September 20, 2001, address to Congress really was one of the finest in modern times; your immediate grasp of the import of 9/11—a declaration of war—was correct; and your core judgment—that religious fanaticism allied with weapons of mass destruction represents a unique and new threat to the West—was and is dead-on. I remain proud of my support for you in all this. No one should forget the pure evil of September 11; no one should doubt the continued determination of an enemy prepared to slaughter thousands in cold blood in pursuit of heaven on Earth.
Of course, like most advocates of the Iraq War, I grew dismayed at what I saw as the mistakes that followed: the failure to capture Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora; the intelligence fiasco of Saddam’s nonexistent stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction; the failure to prepare for an insurgency in Iraq; the reckless disbandment of the Iraqi army; the painful slowness in adapting to drastically worsening conditions there in 2004–06; the negligence toward Afghanistan.
These were all serious errors; but they were of a kind often made in the chaos of war. And even your toughest critics concede that, eventually, you adjusted tactics and strategy. You took your time, but you evaded catastrophe in temporarily stabilizing Iraq. I also agree with the guiding principle of the war you proclaimed from the start: that expanding democracy and human rights is indispensable in the long-term fight against jihadism. And I believe, as you do, that a foreign policy that does not understand the universal yearning for individual freedom and dignity is not a recognizably American foreign policy.
Yet it is precisely because of that belief that I lost faith in your war. In long wars of ideas, moral integrity is essential to winning, and framing the moral contrast between the West and its enemies as starkly as possible is indispensable to victory, as it was in the Second World War and the Cold War. But because of the way you chose to treat prisoners in American custody in wartime—a policy that degraded human beings with techniques typically deployed by brutal dictatorships—we lost this moral distinction early, and we have yet to regain it. That truth hangs over your legacy as a stain that has yet to be removed. As more facts emerge, the stain could darken further. You would like us to move on. So would the current president. But we cannot unless we find a way to address that stain, to confront and remove it.
I have come to accept that it would be too damaging and polarizing to the American polity to launch legal prosecutions against you, and deeply unfair to solely prosecute those acting on your orders or in your name. President Obama’s decision thus far to avoid such prosecutions is a pragmatic and bipartisan one in a time of war, as is your principled refusal to criticize him publicly in his first months. But moving on without actually confronting or addressing the very grave evidence of systematic abuse and torture under your administration poses profound future dangers. It gives the impression that nothing immoral or illegal took place. Indeed, since leaving office, your own vice president has even bragged of these interrogation techniques; and many in your own party threaten to reinstate such policies in the future. Their extreme rhetoric seems likely to shape—to contaminate—history’s view of your presidency, indeed of the Bush name, and the world’s view of America. But my biggest fear is this: in the event of a future attack on the United States, another president will feel tempted, or even politically compelled, to resort to the same brutalizing policy, with the same polarizing, demoralizing, war-crippling results. I am writing you now because it is within your power—and only within your power—to prevent that from happening.
Don’t misunderstand me. The war was compromised, not by occasional war crimes, or bad snap decisions by soldiers acting under extreme stress, or the usual, ghastly stuff that war is made of. All conflicts generate atrocities. Very few have been without sporadic abuse of prisoners or battlefield errors. As long as these lapses are investigated and punished, the integrity of a just war can be sustained.
But this war is different. It began with a memo from your office stating that—for the first time—American service members and CIA officers need not adhere to the laws of warfare that have governed Western and American war-making since before this country’s founding. The memo declared that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to captured terror suspects but that all prisoners would be treated humanely unless “military necessity” required otherwise. This gaping “military necessity” loophole—formally opposed in a memo by the member of your Cabinet with the most military experience, Secretary of State Colin Powell—was the beginning of America’s descent into the ranks of countries that systematically torture prisoners. You insisted that prisoners be treated humanely whenever possible, but wars with legal loopholes for abuse and torture always quickly degenerate. In its full consequences, that memo, even if issued in good faith, has done more damage to the reputation of the United States than anything since Vietnam. The tolerance of torture and abuse has recruited more terrorists than any al-Qaeda video, and has devastated morale and support at home. Your successor remains profoundly constrained even now by this legacy—compelled to prevent the release of more photographic evidence of war crimes under your command because of the damage it could still do to American soldiers in the field.
No, terror suspects did not deserve full prisoner-of-war status. That argument was always a red herring. Full POW rights—regular meals, exercise, and the rest—were not applicable to stateless terror suspects who themselves had no uniform or adherence to Geneva. You were right to see that as inappropriate, if not offensive. But what these suspects did deserve—simply because they are human beings—was protection from inhuman, degrading, abusive treatment or the infliction of “severe mental or physical pain or suffering” in order to procure information. This is what Geneva’s Article 3 says: whatever the nature of the combatant, in or out of uniform, and whatever his own moral rules (or lack of them), he deserves basic respect as a human being with human rights. This principle is nonnegotiable. It is the core principle of Western civilization. Resistance to the physical force of government, especially as that force is applied to people in custody, is the core reason America exists as an independent nation.
I believe that if you review the facts of your two terms of office, you will be forced to realize that, whatever your intentions, you undermined this fundamental American principle. You may not have intended that to occur. But you were the commander in chief and president, and these were presidential-level decisions. The responsibility for all of this is yours—before the American people and before the court of history. And you need finally to own these decisions, to take full responsibility for them, to account for them, to explain them, and, yes, to apologize for their scope and brutality.
This was never about “bad apples.” It is no longer even faintly plausible to argue that the mounds of identical documented abuses across every theater of combat in the war as it was conducted after January 2002 were a function of a handful of reservists improvising sadism on one night shift in one prison. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the Senate Armed Services Committee, dozens of reputable well-sourced news stories and well-documented books, and the many official reports on the subject have revealed a systematic pattern of prisoner mistreatment in every theater of combat, by almost all branches of the armed services, and in every major detention facility in Iraq where interrogation took place. (Revealingly, there were very few abuses in what the Red Cross calls “regular internment facilities” in Iraq—meaning those where interrogation was not taking place.)
The Senate’s own unanimous bipartisan report, signed by your party’s 2008 nominee, John McCain, proves exhaustively that the abuse and torture documented in U.S. prisons were the results of policies you chose. The International Red Cross found your administration guilty of treating prisoners in a manner that constituted torture, a war crime. Experts in the history of torture, such as the Reed College professor Darius Rejali, make very careful distinctions between the disparate acts of torture or abuse that take place in all wars and a bureaucratized top-down policy, whereby identical techniques are replicated across the globe in different services and under different commands, with some on-the-ground improvisation as well. The history of prisoner mistreatment under your command fits the second pattern, not the first.
The techniques these various sources describe are not comic-book sadism; they are not the gruesome medieval tortures of Saddam. In fact, they are coolly modern tortures, designed to leave no physical marks that could be proffered as evidence against the regimes that use them. They have been used by democracies that want to get what they believe are the fruits of torture while avoiding all physical evidence of it. As the slogan in Iraq’s Camp Nama put it, “No blood, no foul.” But torture is not defined in law or morality by the production of blood or by any specific technique—that would simply invite governments to devise techniques other than those prohibited. Torture is defined by the imposition of “severe mental or physical pain or suffering” to the point when a human being can bear it no longer and tells his interrogators something—true or untrue—to stop what cannot be endured. That’s torture, in plain English. It was the clear goal of the policy you set in motion—and implemented with great determination across the world in ships and secret sites, at Guantánamo Bay and Bagram in Afghanistan, throughout interrogation centers in Iraq.
At the same time, though, you expressed what seemed to me to be genuine public revulsion at the techniques you authorized. On June 26, 2003, the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, you stated:
I call on all governments to join with the United States and the community of law-abiding nations in prohibiting, investigating, and prosecuting all acts of torture and in undertaking to prevent other cruel and unusual punishment. I call on all nations to speak out against torture in all its forms and to make ending torture an essential part of their diplomacy.
You did not parse torture narrowly here. You were opposed to it in “all its forms.” You also called for barring “other cruel and unusual punishment.” When four U.S. soldiers were captured early in the Iraq conflict, you stated:
I expect them to be treated, the POWs, I expect to be treated humanely, just like we’re treating the prisoners that we have captured humanely. If not, the people who mistreat the prisoners will be treated as war criminals.
In 2004, after the revelations of Abu Ghraib, you told al-Hurra, the U.S.-sponsored Arabic television station, “This is not America. America is a country of justice and law and freedom and treating people with respect.” You went on to say: “The people of Iraq must understand that I view those practices as abhorrent.”
Then how could you have authorized them? Maybe it was unclear to you at the time that most of the gruesome photographs from Abu Ghraib depicted techniques that you and your defense secretary authorized. This is an explanation in some ways, even if it is not an excuse. Photos can jar us into recognition of reality when words fail. Most of us hearing of “stress positions” or “long-time standing” or “harsh techniques” do not visualize what these actually are. They sound mild enough in the absence of further inquiry. Those photographs did us all a terrible favor in that respect: they removed any claim of deniability as to what these techniques mean. And yet you responded to Abu Ghraib by extending the techniques revealed there and codifying them in law, in the Military Commissions Act, for use by the CIA. Your administration ordered up memos in your second term to perpetuate these abuses. It is hard to escape the conclusion that you were dissembling in your initial claim of abhorrence and shock; or were in denial; or were not in control of your own administration.
I don’t believe you were lying. I believe you were genuinely horrified. But that means you now need to confront the denial that allowed you somehow to ignore what you directly authorized and commanded: using dogs to terrorize prisoners; stripping detainees naked and hooding them; isolating people in windowless cells for weeks and even months on end; freezing prisoners to near-death and reviving them and repeating the hypothermia; contorting prisoners into stress positions that create unbearable pain in the muscles and joints; cramming prisoners into upright coffins in painful positions with minimal air; near-drowning, on a waterboard, of human beings—in one case 183 times—even after they have cooperated with interrogators. Those Abu Ghraib prisoners standing on boxes, bent over with their cuffed hands tied behind them to prison bars? You authorized that. The prisoner being led around by Lynndie England on a leash, like a dog? You authorized that, too, and enforced it in at least one case, that of Mohammed al-Qahtani, in Guantánamo Bay.
In defending these policies since you left office, you have insisted that all of these techniques were legal. But one of the key lawyers who provided your legal defense, John Yoo, is on record as saying that your inherent executive power allowed you to order the legal crushing of an innocent child’s testicles if you believed that it could get intelligence out of his father. Yoo also favored a definition of torture that allowed literally anything to be done to a helpless prisoner short of causing death or the permanent loss of a major organ. The Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture offer blanket legal bans on anything that even looks like torture. Yoo set up a mirror image: a blanket legal permission to do anything abusive to a prisoner, hedged only by the need not to kill him. If that is your defense of the legality of torture, it is a profoundly weak one.
But leave the question of legality aside. Skilled lawyers can argue anything. Examine the moral and ethical question. Could any moral person who saw the abuse of human beings at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Camp Cropper, Camp Nama, and uncounted black sites across the globe and at sea believe it was in compliance with America’s “respect” and “law and freedom”? As president, your job was not to delegate moral responsibility for these acts, but to take moral responsibility for them. You said a decade ago: “Once you put your hand on the Bible and swear in [to public office], you must set a high standard and be responsible for your own actions.”
The point of this letter, Mr. President, is to beg you to finally take responsibility for this stain on American honor and this burden on a war we must win. It is to plead with you to own what happened under your command, and to reject categorically the phony legalisms, criminal destruction of crucial evidence, and retrospective rationalizations used to pretend that none of this happened. It happened. You once said, “I’m worried about a culture that says … ‘If you’ve got a problem blame somebody else.’” I am asking you to stop blaming others for the consequences of decisions you made.