Dear President Bush,

Americans want, and need, to move on from the debate over torture in Iraq and Afghanistan and close this tragic chapter in our nation’s history. Prosecuting those responsible could tear apart a country at war. Instead, the best way to confront the crimes of the past is for the man who authorized them to take full responsibility. An open letter to President George W. Bush. (Photo by Christopher Morris/VII)

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.

What are you responsible for, exactly? Books have been written on this. But let’s take just three of the more bland-sounding techniques you authorized and extended and defended: “sleep deprivation” and “stress positions” and “temperature extremes.” As words and phrases, they can seem quite banal, and I can understand how you could have authorized techniques that sound like things most college sophomores or law clerks regularly endure. But in practice, they are brutal treatments designed to break the will and wash the brain of anyone subjected to them for a lengthy period.

Sleep deprivation was pioneered by the Inquisition; not only does it produce hallucinations, which were useful for proving heresy, but it also increases physical sensitivity. As Darius Rejali, the historian of torture, has noted, it “reduces a body’s tolerance for musculoskeletal pain, causing deep aches first in the lower part of the body, followed by similar pains in the upper body.” The combination of sleep deprivation and stress positions leads to unbearable mental and physical suffering. It was used by the Gestapo, by Franco’s security services, and even in the early part of the 20th century by American police. Use of sleep deprivation to procure confessions in domestic law enforcement was actually barred by the Supreme Court in 1944 (Ashcraft v. Tennessee) after a suspect was kept awake for 36 hours. The Court compared his treatment to the “physical or mental torture” used by “certain foreign nations.” And yet you, Mr. President, more than a half-century later, authorized subjecting prisoners to this technique for up to 72 hours, or 40 hours if combined with standing in handcuff restraints. In 2002, troops in Afghanistan coined the term monstering to describe one interrogator’s war against a prisoner’s desperate need for sleep.

We know of one very detailed log of such treatment, which was one of the most common forms of “enhanced interrogation” in the first years of “the program.” Mohammed al-Qahtani was kept awake for 20 hours a day for 48 of 54 consecutive days in Guantánamo Bay. That’s not the 36 hours considered the equivalent of torture by the U.S. Supreme Court; that’s 960 hours when you add them all up. This deprivation is not easily achieved. To keep someone who is this tired from falling asleep requires constant physical intervention. It means blasting loud music continuously in a cell; it means forcing an individual to stand up, and beating or poking him if he falls or tries to rest; it means constant light and sound; and it can lead quite quickly to medical problems and mental deterioration. During Qahtani’s interrogations, his refusal to drink and many days of sleep deprivation brought his heartbeat down to dangerously low levels; but even after he was urgently hospitalized for a day for dehydration to prevent his death, sleep deprivation continued—and was continuously used even as he physically deteriorated. An early FBI review of the interrogation of Qahtani found that the cumulative treatment led him to exhibit “behavior consistent with extreme psychological trauma (talking to non-existent people, reportedly hearing voices, crouching in a corner of the cell covered with a sheet for hours on end).” If you believe “extreme psychological trauma” is the same as “severe mental suffering,” then you ordered the prolonged and brutal torture of Mohammed al-Qahtani.

That was indeed the conclusion of your appointee to determine the legal status of Guantánamo detainees, Susan Crawford, who simply stated in dismissing all charges against Qahtani: “His treatment met the legal definition of torture.” Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who was subjected to sleep deprivation in one of Stalin’s gulags, would have agreed with her assessment of the gravity of the primary torture technique. As Begin once wrote: “Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it.”

The British used sleep deprivation against IRA terror suspects in the 1970s. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that although this use of sleep deprivation did not rise to torture, it nonetheless constituted illegal “inhuman and degrading treatment,” in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. The reason it did not automatically qualify as torture depended on the longevity of the sleep deprivation. But 48 days and nights with no more than four hours’ sleep every 24, combined with stress positions, hypothermia, and forced nudity, push these nuances over a line any decent person would acknowledge. Sleep deprivation alone has been shown to cause psychosis, disorientation, depression, and near-madness. The idea that these techniques, which were once used to procure false confessions of witchcraft or heresy, can actually generate actionable and accurate and detailed intelligence is, to say the least, implausible.

But Qahtani was not the only prisoner subjected to sleep deprivation; hundreds and perhaps thousands of others were too. Qahtani was a high-value prisoner; most others weren’t. Qahtani was under constant medical monitoring; most others were not. Here’s a firsthand account of a sleep-deprivation regimen used at the notorious Camp Nama in Iraq, a war zone where the Geneva Conventions were always supposed to apply. An Esquire reporter and a Human Rights Watch investigator debriefed a trained interrogator, who had gone to Nama specifically to participate in the program, and gave him the pseudonym “Jeff”:

They could keep a prisoner on his feet for 20 hours, and although the rules required them to allow each prisoner four hours of sleep every twenty-four hours, nowhere did it say those four hours had to be consecutive—so sometimes they’d wake the prisoners up every half hour. Eventually they’d just collapse. “This was a very demanding method for the interrogators as well, because it required a lot of staff to monitor the prisoner, and we’d have to stay awake, too,” Jeff says. “And it’s just impossible to interrogate someone when he’s in that state, collapsed on the ground. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Qahtani was also stripped naked. This technique, which you authorized, was used by Americans in every theater of war. The nudity, again, does not sound that awful on the face of it. Western men are used to showering together in gyms and schools. But in the cultural context of extremely devout and modest Muslim men, being forced to stand naked in front of each other and especially in front of women is dehumanizing and humiliating. And it was designed to be. Crafting techniques to exploit Muslim cultural attitudes or phobias was widespread (the use of dogs fit this role as well), and involved unethical use of psychologists and doctors. Much of the sexual abuse at Abu Ghraib was not standard operating procedure. But using Muslim prisoners’ sexual phobias, taboos, and religious prohibitions against them was common. Whether smearing fake menstrual blood on a prisoner’s face, or having a woman like Lynndie England mock the exposed genitals of a terrified prisoner, sexual humiliations were not violations of the techniques you authorized. They were the techniques you authorized. And they depended for their effectiveness on the specific religious and cultural beliefs of Muslims. So to wage a war designed to expose the evil of the Taliban’s religious intolerance, we deliberately manipulated Islam into a means of abuse. In a war designed to prove that the West was not Islam’s enemy, we used Islam and Muslim culture as tools to break down the psyches of prisoners suspected of terrorism. To save religious freedom, we abused it.

The forced nudity also sharpened the edges of temperature extremes, another ancient form of torture that appeals to governments that want to torture but also to leave no physical scars, welts, or bruises. The Gestapo used what it called the “cold bath,” in which interrogators would take a prisoner’s body to a dangerously low temperature in an ice-filled tub, then remove and revive the suspect, and then subject him to freezing again. This was what happened to Qahtani at Guantánamo Bay—he was kept doused in water in a room air-conditioned to chill him until he was near-blue—but the technique crops up again and again across the theaters of war. In 2005, you authorized the CIA to use the “cold cell” technique, in which a prisoner was kept in a cell at 50 degrees and constantly covered with cold water. This was not an emergency measure for gathering information that could be used to prevent an imminent mass-casualty attack. It was a formal policy, to be integrated into the American way of warfare and human rights.

Once you established the legitimacy of freezing prisoners, captors inevitably improvised. An Army interrogator, Tony Lagouranis, described the technique as it evolved in Iraq and Afghanistan:

We used hypothermia a lot. It was very cold up in Mosul at that time, so we—it was also raining a lot—so we would keep the prisoner outside, and they would have a polyester jumpsuit on and they would be wet and cold, and freezing. But we weren’t inducing hypothermia with ice water like the [Navy] SEALs were. But, you know, maybe the SEALs were doing it better than we were, because they were actually even controlling it with the [rectal] thermometer, but we weren’t doing that.

Lagouranis did not witness the Navy SEALs’ technique himself. But the maintenance of cold cells at Gitmo, and elsewhere, shows how high up the authorization went.

Some of the torture was covered up. Among the death certificates issued for prisoners who died while being held for interrogation at Abu Ghraib, one cited by Dr. Steven Miles claimed a 63-year-old prisoner had died of “cardiovascular disease and a buildup of fluid around his heart.” But Miles noted that the certificate failed to mention that the old man had been stripped naked, continually soaked in cold water, and kept outside in 40-degree cold for three days before cardiac arrest.

Here is a report, again from Camp Nama, where the ultimate commander was Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, now the U.S. commander of forces in Afghanistan:

[One prisoner] was stripped naked, put in the mud and sprayed with the hose, with very cold hoses, in February. At night it was very cold. They sprayed the cold hose and he was completely naked in the mud, you know, and everything. [Then] he was taken out of the mud and put next to an air conditioner. It was extremely cold, freezing, and he was put back in the mud and sprayed. This happened all night. Everybody knew about it. People walked in, the sergeant major and so forth, everybody knew what was going on, and I was just one of them, kind of walking back and forth seeing [that] this is how they do things.

Extreme cold was complemented with extreme heat. Here is firsthand testimony from an FBI officer who visited Guantánamo Bay in its early days, before the FBI washed its hands of what was happening there:

On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food, or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18–24 hours or more … On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been since the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor.

“Stress positions” can also sound relatively banal. When your first defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, approved their use, including “long-time standing,” he wryly wrote on the memo: “However, I stand for 8–10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?” The answer is that the prisoner is usually shackled to a bolt in the floor with his hands cuffed behind him. Any attempt to rest or sit down is prevented by beating or prodding. Other stress positions include being forced to stand on a box, with your hands cuffed and attached to a bar behind you; or being forced to kneel with cuffed hands behind your back; or forced to lean on a wall by your fingertips, with feet shackled to the ground, so that supporting your weight eventually becomes an unbearable strain. The same applies to many of the positions we saw in the Abu Ghraib photos, where the body’s weight rests on one or two muscle groups that quickly become exhausted, creating great pain over long periods of time.

Darius Rejali notes that long-time standing, for example, causes “the ankles and feet to swell to twice their size within twenty-four hours. Moving becomes agonizing and large blisters develop. The heart rate increases, and some people faint. The kidneys eventually shut down.” The photographs at Abu Ghraib show a variety of the positions that you authorized, Mr. President—hooded humans forced to balance on boxes, with their arms outstretched or tied to bars behind their back.

The one recorded death at Abu Ghraib was caused by just such a stress position enhanced by beating. This kind of strain on the muscles and joints was what John McCain endured. He has never argued that it didn’t constitute a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Do you, Mr. President? In your endorsement speech for McCain broadcast at the 2008 Republican Convention, in St. Paul, you referred merely to the “beatings and isolation” he endured. You did not mean, did you, that if America treated prisoners the way the Vietnamese had treated McCain, you would regard it, as your vice president has stated he regards it, as “in accordance with our constitutional practices and principles”? And if you did not believe the false confession McCain was forced to sign after enduring this mistreatment, why did you believe similar tales told by human beings under similar duress under your command—and tout them as evidence of success in the war?

I want to mention one other human being, an American, Jose Padilla. I do not doubt that Padilla had been a troubled youth and had disturbing and dangerous contacts with radical Islamists. You were right to detain him. But what was then done to him—after a charge (subsequently dropped) that he was intent on detonating a nuclear or “dirty” bomb in an American city—remains a matter of grave concern. This was a U.S. citizen, seized on American soil at O’Hare Airport and imprisoned for years without a day in court. He was sequestered in a brig and, his lawyers argued,

was tortured for nearly the entire three years and eight months of his unlawful detention. The torture took myriad forms, each designed to cause pain, anguish, depression and, ultimately, the loss of will to live. The base ingredient in Mr. Padilla’s torture was stark isolation for a substantial portion of his captivity.

Among the techniques allegedly used on American soil against this American citizen were isolation (sometimes for weeks on end) for a total of 1,307 days in a nine-by-seven-foot cell, sleep deprivation effected by lights and loud music and noise, and sensory deprivation. He was goggled and earmuffed to maintain a total lack of spatial orientation, even when being treated for a tooth problem. He lost track of days and nights and lived for years in a twilight zone of pain and fear. His lawyer Andrew Patel explained:

Mr. Padilla was often put in stress positions for hours at a time. He would be shackled and manacled, with a belly chain, for hours in his cell. Noxious fumes would be introduced to his room causing his eyes and nose to run. The temperature of his cell would be manipulated, making his cell extremely cold for long stretches of time. Mr. Padilla was denied even the smallest, and most personal shreds of human dignity by being deprived of showering for weeks at a time, yet having to endure forced grooming at the whim of his captors …

After four years in U.S. custody, Padilla was reduced to a physical and mental shell of a human being. Here is Patel’s description of how Padilla appeared in his pretrial meetings:

During questioning, he often exhibits facial tics, unusual eye movements and contortions of his body. The contortions are particularly poignant since he is usually manacled and bound by a belly chain when he has meetings with counsel.

Mr. President, if you heard of a citizen of Iran being treated this way by the Iranian government, what would you call it?

You argue that you authorized these dehumanizing and cruel policies because you were determined to protect the nation from another terror attack. This is a claim impossible for those of us without security clearances to judge. Many have questioned it. No one has argued that such policies prevented any catastrophic attack with weapons of mass destruction, the original justification for the extraordinary use of torture by a country dedicated to human rights and the rule of law. And we have no way to determine whether any information gleaned by these sessions could have been procured through traditional and legal American interrogation methods. Nor do we know how many false trails from false confessions wasted time and resources. We do know that crucial evidence Colin Powell used at the UN to link Saddam and al-Qaeda came from a tortured suspect who later recanted. We also know that hundreds of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay were released by your administration because they had no intelligence value and had been detained by mistake. We know that a study of 132 prisoners at Gitmo conducted by National Journal found that more than half were not even accused of terrorism against the United States, and only eight were accused of terror attacks outside Afghanistan. The majority of the prisoners had been captured outside the field of battle, mostly by Pakistani authorities in Pakistan. If this snapshot of those detained is in any way similar to the broader picture, the abuse and torture of so many people only distantly related to the war against America undoubtedly generated many more recruits and increased the danger to the West.

You have also claimed that defending the security of the United States was the paramount requirement of your oath of office. It wasn’t. The oath you took makes a critical distinction: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” It is the Constitution you were sworn to defend, not the country. To abandon the Constitution to save the country from jihadist terrorists was not your job. Yes, of course your role as commander in chief required you to take national security extremely seriously, but not at the expense of your core duty to protect the Constitution and to sincerely respect—not opportunistically exploit—the rule of law.

And the core value of the Constitution, and of your own rhetorical record, is freedom. Some civil liberties may need to be curtailed somewhat in a new kind of war; almost no one, apart from doctrinaire libertarians, would disagree. Most people are prepared to compromise, as long as checks and balances are in place to keep government accountable. But the deployment of torture and abuse of prisoners is not within this framework. It is not so much an infringement of freedom, as the obliteration of freedom. Western freedom begins with the right to protect one’s own body from government power. That’s what habeas corpus means. What was done to Jose Padilla makes a mockery of that freedom and, in fact, establishes a precedent that, if left in place, could destroy it. Because the war you declared has no geographic boundaries and no time limit, the power of the executive to detain and torture without bringing charges—the power you introduced—is not just a war power. Because the war on terror is for all practical purposes permanent, the executive power to torture is a constitutional power that will become entrenched during peacetime.

When a human being is tortured, his body and mind are used as weapons to destroy his agency and will. The point of torture is to render a suspect helpless in the face of government power, to make him a vessel for whatever the government wants from him. It is the polar opposite of Western freedom—not a threat to freedom or an infringement of it, but its nemesis. If liberty is white, torture is black. No society has remained free that has allowed its government to torture human beings. And no previous American president has imported the tools of torture into the very heart of the American system of government as you did. Every dissident in every foul tyranny on Earth, imprisoned and tortured by men and women far less scrupulous than you, now knows something he or she never knew before your presidency: America tortures too. What this will do to the march of freedom you believe in is yet unknown. But my view is that by condoning torture, by allowing it to take place, and by your vice president’s continuing defense and championing of torture as compatible with American traditions, you have done enormous damage to America’s role as a beacon of freedom and to the rule of law.

Maybe you do not see the gravity of the precedent as I do. But I became a conservative a long time ago in part because of the torture record of the Soviet Union and what I saw as the failure of the left to confront it aggressively enough. I supported the Iraq War in part because I despise torture and felt that, whatever else happened, shutting down Saddam’s torture chambers could never be a bad thing. But to have believed all this—sincerely, genuinely, deep in my heart and soul—and then to see America, the America I love and have made my home, actually become a country that secretly tortured and dehumanized and abused people has been a wrenching and transformative experience. I hope you can at least understand my concern and anger. I believe that deep down, you do understand, or else I would not even attempt such an appeal to you. But that is also why a public accounting of what you did, what you understood you were doing, and what you now know and feel, is so important.

The other value you have eloquently expressed as essential to your public life is faith. We share that faith, although I am a wayward Catholic and you a born-again evangelical. Our faith tells us that what you authorized is an absolute evil. By absolute evil, I mean something that is never morally justified. I have no doubt that you believed you were doing your duty in protecting the country, and every political leader in a dangerous world has to make decisions that haunt the conscience. But even war, with all its murder and mayhem and abuse and trauma, can still, in our Christian tradition, be deemed just, under certain circumstances. I am not a pacifist by any means. Defending free countries from the architects of 9/11 is just; bringing some semblance of democracy to Iraq was just; unseating the Taliban was just. Even those decisions that cost lives—of young Americans and countless Iraqis and Afghans—can be morally defended by Christians, in good faith and clear conscience, as a last resort. In fact, fighting terrorism and jihadism is, in my view, an eminently just use of military power, if that use of power is constantly subjected to scrutiny and reflection and revision.

But torture has no defense whatsoever in Christian morality. There are no circumstances in which it can be justified, let alone integrated as a formal program within a democratic government. The Catholic catechism states, “Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions… is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.” Dignity is the critical word there. Even evil men are human and redeemable. Our faith demands that, even in legitimate punishment or interrogation, the dignity of prisoners must be respected. Our faith teaches that each of us—even Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—is made in the image of God. To violate that imago Dei by stripping and freezing him, by slamming him against a wall, or strapping him to a board to nearly drown him again and again and again, to bombard him with noise and light until he loses his mind, to reduce a human being to a mental and spiritual shell—nothing can justify this for a Christian. Nothing. To wield that power is to wield evil. And such evil is almost always committed by those who believe they are pursuing good.

America is exceptional not because it banished evil, not because Americans are somehow more moral than anyone else, not because its founding somehow changed human nature—but because it recognized the indelibility of human nature and our permanent capacity for evil. It set up a rule of law to guard against such evil. It pitted branches of government against each other and enshrined a free press so that evil could be flushed out and countered even when perpetrated by good men. The belief that when America tortures, the act is somehow not torture, or that when Americans torture, they are somehow immune from its moral and spiritual cancer, is not an American belief. It is as great a distortion of American exceptionalism as jihadism is of Islam. To believe that because the American government is better than Saddam and the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Americans are somehow immune to the same temptations of power that all flesh is heir to, is itself a deep and dangerous temptation. The power to torture is a case in point. Because torture can coerce truth, break a human being’s dignity, treat him as an expendable means rather than as a fragile end, it has a terrible power to corrupt. Torture is the ultimate expression of the absolute power of one individual over another; it destroys the souls of those who torture just as surely as it eviscerates the dignity of those who are its victims. And because torture is so awful, it also often requires a defensive embrace of it, a pride in it, an exaggeration of its successes. And those so-called successes invariably lead to more torture until we end up with the record of wanton and systematic abuse that occurred under your command.

I think you know this. You have rarely failed to describe absolute evil when you’ve seen it. You are not known for Clintonian parsings of moral truths. I think you understand also because you are a man of faith. And I think this faith should guide you to a reconciliation with the truth of the past, a reconciliation that this divided country needs, and that your successor and the men and women he commands deserve.

Over the past few years, I have gone from desperately trying to find out and expose this systematic abuse, to expressing enormous anger, to hoping for criminal prosecution of all the major figures. Now I feel profound discomfort with all the options in front of us. To ignore the flagrant evidence of war crimes, reported by the Red Cross, is itself a violation of America’s treaty obligations. And yet to prosecute only those lower down the chain of command is pure scapegoating. Your own former CIA officers and service members do not deserve to take the fall for the policies they were told were legal and authorized by their commander in chief. And yet to initiate prosecution of those ultimately responsible for this pattern of criminality and abuse—namely you, your vice president, your defense secretary, and all those involved in constructing the torture program—would also tear this already polarized society apart at a time when we are still at war. There is a reason the Obama administration has remained almost paralyzed in the face of this inheritance. Every option is awful; and yet, some action is necessary.

Only you can do what’s needed. Only you can move this country forward by taking full responsibility for the past and supporting the current president in his abolition of torture and abuse and in his conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The decisions you made were complex; it may well be that you only subsequently grasped the full import of the actions you took in good faith; that you were misled about, or misunderstood, what “harsh interrogation” meant. All presidents are human, and taking responsibility does not mean self-flagellation.

The model is Ronald Reagan, who denied he had ever traded arms for hostages in Iran but eventually realized that that was indeed the consequence of the actions he took, the men he appointed, and the policy he pursued. Reagan’s speech to the nation on this matter was, in my view, his greatest, because it revealed humility and integrity. “First, let me say,” he told us in 1987,

I take full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration. As angry as I may be about activities undertaken without my knowledge, I am still accountable for those activities. As disappointed as I may be in some who served me, I’m still the one who must answer to the American people for this behavior … A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.

If you read the Red Cross report and the Senate Armed Services Committee report, I believe you will reach a similar conclusion about your own record on prisoner treatment. You may not have intended to torture people, but you did; you may have wanted to protect the country within the law, but that admirable desire too easily slid into your approval of actions that are indefensible, illegal, and deeply damaging to America’s reputation and honor. You were let down, as Reagan was. He took responsibility. You need to as well.

Demanding that you alone be held accountable and no one else be scapegoated would itself be an act of honor. It would draw a line between the past and the future in the same way that Lincoln’s defense of his brief suspensions of habeas corpus conceded Congress’s sole right to remove this core constitutional provision, but defended his action as a necessary emergency measure because a mass rebellion “had subverted the whole of the laws.” You do not deserve to go down in history as the president who brought torture into the American system and refused to take responsibility for it. It is also vital that torture not become a partisan issue, that any future terror attack not become an opportunity for your party to reinstitute it or wield it as a political weapon against future presidents who are following the rule of law. After the next attack, America will need unity—not a poisonous division over the issue of torture. You had that unity after 9/11. Your successors deserve the same support.

Demand, as Reagan did, a full accounting and report from an independent body. Explain your evolving views. Defend your honor and your family’s long record of public service. Blame no one else. Explain why you felt you had no choice or why you did not fully understand the brutality of the methods you approved. The impact this would have on the world—the example of a democratic society confronting its own crimes, led by the man who authorized them—would itself help restore this country’s reputation. And yours. It would unite rather than divide.

In all this, think of the troops, the hundreds of thousands of honorable men and women, doing enormously difficult jobs in dangerous places, risking their lives to bring human rights to countries where they’ve never existed. They deserve to have this taint lifted from their uniform. And only you can lift it, by assuming responsibility for everything.I recall one such soldier, a young man in Iraq, Captain Ian Fishback, who witnessed routine abuse of prisoners and tried to get his commanders to stop it. They didn’t. He tried to get the attention of his superiors, up to the secretary of the Army. He failed. After 17 months of effort, he finally wrote a letter to John McCain. This is part of what he wrote:

Despite my efforts, I have been unable to get clear, consistent answers from my leadership about what constitutes lawful and humane treatment of detainees. I am certain that this confusion contributed to a wide range of abuses including death threats, beatings, broken bones, murder, exposure to elements, extreme forced physical exertion, hostage-taking, stripping, sleep deprivation and degrading treatment. I and troops under my command witnessed some of these abuses in both Afghanistan and Iraq. This is a tragedy. I can remember, as a cadet at West Point, resolving to ensure that my men would never commit a dishonorable act; that I would protect them from that type of burden. It absolutely breaks my heart that I have failed some of them in this regard. That is in the past and there is nothing we can do about it now. But, we can learn from our mistakes and ensure that this does not happen again.

Captain Fishback then focused on what he called “the larger question, the most important question that this generation will answer”:

Do we sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security? Terrorism inspires fear and suppresses ideals like freedom and individual rights. Overcoming the fear posed by terrorist threats is a tremendous test of our courage. Will we confront danger and adversity in order to preserve our ideals, or will our courage and commitment to individual rights wither at the prospect of sacrifice? My response is simple. If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession. I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is “America.”

Mr. President, what I am asking is that you exhibit the same candor, reflection, and honor as one of your own service members, a man still serving his country in a uniform he is still proud of, but a uniform that bears a stain of dishonor that only you can remove.

Mr. President, remove that stain, for your own sake as well as ours. You have one last charge to keep.