Most Americans have long known that the horrors of Abu Ghraib were not the work of a few low-ranking sociopaths. All but President Bush's most unquestioning supporters recognized the chain of unprincipled decisions that led to the abuse, torture and death in prisons run by the American military and intelligence services.
Now, a bipartisan report by the Senate Armed Services Committee has made what amounts to a strong case for bringing criminal charges against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; his legal counsel, William J. Haynes; and potentially other top officials, including the former White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff.
The report shows how actions by these men "led directly" to what happened at Abu Ghraib, in Afghanistan, in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and in secret C.I.A. prisons.
It said these top officials, charged with defending the Constitution and America's standing in the world, methodically introduced interrogation practices based on illegal tortures devised by Chinese agents during the Korean War. Until the Bush administration, their only use in the United States was to train soldiers to resist what might be done to them if they were captured by a lawless enemy.
The officials then issued legally and morally bankrupt documents to justify their actions, starting with a presidential order saying that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to prisoners of the "war on terror" - the first time any democratic nation had unilaterally reinterpreted the conventions.
That order set the stage for the infamous redefinition of torture at the Justice Department, and then Mr. Rumsfeld's authorization of "aggressive" interrogation methods. Some of those methods were torture by any rational definition and many of them violate laws and treaties against abusive and degrading treatment.
These top officials ignored warnings from lawyers in every branch of the armed forces that they were breaking the law, subjecting uniformed soldiers to possible criminal charges and authorizing abuses that were not only considered by experts to be ineffective, but were actually counterproductive.
One page of the report lists the repeated objections that President Bush and his aides so blithely and arrogantly ignored: The Air Force had "serious concerns regarding the legality of many of the proposed techniques"; the chief legal adviser to the military's criminal investigative task force said they were of dubious value and may subject soldiers to prosecution; one of the Army's top lawyers said some techniques that stopped well short of the horrifying practice of waterboarding "may violate the torture statute." The Marines said they "arguably violate federal law." The Navy pleaded for a real review.
The legal counsel to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time started that review but told the Senate committee that her boss, Gen. Richard Myers, ordered her to stop on the instructions of Mr. Rumsfeld's legal counsel, Mr. Haynes.
The report indicates that Mr. Haynes was an early proponent of the idea of using the agency that trains soldiers to withstand torture to devise plans for the interrogation of prisoners held by the American military. These trainers - who are not interrogators but experts only on how physical and mental pain is inflicted and may be endured - were sent to work with interrogators in Afghanistan, in Guantánamo and in Iraq.
On Dec. 2, 2002, Mr. Rumsfeld authorized the interrogators at Guantánamo to use a range of abusive techniques that were already widespread in Afghanistan, enshrining them as official policy. Instead of a painstaking legal review, Mr. Rumsfeld based that authorization on a one-page memo from Mr. Haynes. The Senate panel noted that senior military lawyers considered the memo " ‘legally insufficient' and ‘woefully inadequate.' "
Mr. Rumsfeld rescinded his order a month later, and narrowed the number of "aggressive techniques" that could be used at Guantánamo. But he did so only after the Navy's chief lawyer threatened to formally protest the illegal treatment of prisoners. By then, at least one prisoner, Mohammed al-Qahtani, had been threatened with military dogs, deprived of sleep for weeks, stripped naked and made to wear a leash and perform dog tricks. This year, a military tribunal at Guantánamo dismissed the charges against Mr. Qahtani.
The abuse and torture of prisoners continued at prisons run by the C.I.A. and specialists from the torture-resistance program remained involved in the military detention system until 2004. Some of the practices Mr. Rumsfeld left in place seem illegal, like prolonged sleep deprivation.
These policies have deeply harmed America's image as a nation of laws and may make it impossible to bring dangerous men to real justice. The report said the interrogation techniques were ineffective, despite the administration's repeated claims to the contrary.
Alberto Mora, the former Navy general counsel who protested the abuses, told the Senate committee that "there are serving U.S. flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq - as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat - are, respectively, the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo."
We can understand that Americans may be eager to put these dark chapters behind them, but it would be irresponsible for the nation and a new administration to ignore what has happened - and may still be happening in secret C.I.A. prisons that are not covered by the military's current ban on activities like waterboarding.
A prosecutor should be appointed to consider criminal charges against top officials at the Pentagon and others involved in planning the abuse.
Given his other problems - and how far he has moved from the powerful stands he took on these issues early in the campaign - we do not hold out real hope that Barack Obama, as president, will take such a politically fraught step.
At the least, Mr. Obama should, as the organization Human Rights First suggested, order his attorney general to review more than two dozen prisoner-abuse cases that reportedly were referred to the Justice Department by the Pentagon and the C.I.A. - and declined by Mr. Bush's lawyers.
Mr. Obama should consider proposals from groups like Human Rights Watch and the Brennan Center for Justice to appoint an independent panel to look into these and other egregious violations of the law. Like the 9/11 commission, it would examine in depth the decisions on prisoner treatment, as well as warrantless wiretapping, that eroded the rule of law and violated Americans' most basic rights. Unless the nation and its leaders know precisely what went wrong in the last seven years, it will be impossible to fix it and make sure those terrible mistakes are not repeated.
We expect Mr. Obama to keep the promise he made over and over in the campaign - to cheering crowds at campaign rallies and in other places, including our office in New York. He said one of his first acts as president would be to order a review of all of Mr. Bush's executive orders and reverse those that eroded civil liberties and the rule of law.
That job will fall to Eric Holder, a veteran prosecutor who has been chosen as attorney general, and Gregory Craig, a lawyer with extensive national security experience who has been selected as Mr. Obama's White House counsel.
A good place for them to start would be to reverse Mr. Bush's disastrous order of Feb. 7, 2002, declaring that the United States was no longer legally committed to comply with the Geneva Conventions.