I am truly torn on this issue.
Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) has stated that he will block committee proceedings, effectively blocking Eric Holder's nomination as head of the Department of Justice, if Mr. Holder continues to refuse to state whether he would prosecute intelligence agents for torture. Holder has already stated unequivocally that "waterboarding is torture," and it is certain that the Army prosecuted a Japanese soldier for torturing — waterboarding — an American P.O.W., so there is plenty of precedent for prosecution.
As a retired military man, I can understand the Republican outrage at the prospect of prosecution of actions, however illegal, taken to defend America. After all, our firebombing and subsequent atomic bombing of Japanese civilian population centers could certainly be seen as a war crime. The Republicans also know that if the Department of Justice begins to prosecute intelligence agents, the blame will start percolating upwards, and is likely to end only with the prosecution of former president George W. Bush.
On the other hand, Henry Kolm, an MIT physicist who was assigned to interrogate Rudolf Hess during WWII, and who was part of an informal group of WWII interrogators, said, "We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture." Essentially, if you want to get the enemy to empathize with you, and treat them well enough that they want to do what is right by you, then you do not torture them. Torture, psychologists have long said, is useless for garnering reliable and useful information, but is far more useful to the recruitment efforts of the enemy!
Another factor to consider is the damage done to America's reputation as a whole. We are a primary signatory to the Geneva Conventions, which specifically prohibit torture. The torture that we, the American people, have committed through the decisions of our elected leaders, has tainted our national honor. When I was a proud sailor in the Navy, I could stand tall and say, "My country would never choose to do such a thing." Sure, soldiers in the field might, but as a matter of official policy? Never! How naive I was; how angry I am that my commander-in-chief brought shame on my country by publicly resorting to such a foul, dishonorable, illegal, and useless tactic.
The criminal prosecution of a former president is fraught with danger, for where does it end? The Hague? Or will this set a precedent for future prosecutions; retribution by the incoming party against the outgoing party? And would this sabotage the bipartisan administration Obama is trying to build?
But how about the other precedents we set if we do nothing? Not only is our national honor stained by knowingly and publicly harboring those who committed torture, but if we do not prosecute, then every time an American soldier, Marine, or sailor is taken prisoner, what can he or she expect? What compunction will the enemy feel to refrain from such acts? "You Americans do it too!"
I see no absolutely right answer, but the more I think about it, the more I believe that whatever dangers we face by prosecuting those who tortured (and those who authorized torture), even if those dangers are realized, will fade over time.
I say we should prosecute all who tortured, and especially all those who authorized torture. Let America regain her honor among the nations of the world.