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Bessent: An unsatisfying end to the nation's torture saga

In this file photo, Attorney General Eric Holder

In this file photo, Attorney General Eric Holder appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. (June 12, 2012) Credit: AP

The announcement that no one will be prosecuted for the deaths of two prisoners in U.S. custody abroad officially closed the book on the nation’s regrettable embrace of torture in the war with terrorists.

It’s an unsatisfying end to a dark chapter in the nation’s history. But President Barack Obama got the most important things right: On his first full day in office in 2009 he banned the enhanced interrogation techniques President George W. Bush authorized, and he ordered the CIA’s secret overseas prisons closed.

Obama also decided back then that he didn’t want to prosecute Bush administration policymakers who authorized the waterboarding and other techniques. That was a difficult decision politically, but it made sense for the country. With the financial system in chaos and the economy in free fall, it was no time to plunge the nation into a contentious and distracting rehash of the past. And once the policymakers were let off the hook, it would have been difficult and inappropriate to prosecute intelligence operatives who conducted the interrogations.

Attorney General Eric Holder ordered a preliminary review in 2009 of whether any federal laws were violated in connection with the treatment of specific detainees. But he properly made it clear that no one who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance from the White House would be prosecuted.

In June 2011 he ordered criminal investigations of the 2002 death of a prisoner in Afghanistan and the 2003 death of another in Iraq. It’s those investigations that were closed Thursday. There wasn’t enough admissible evidence to obtain a conviction, Holder said.

So no heads will roll, but that doesn’t mean the nation’s descent into torture has been vindicated. The world’s most powerful champion of individual rights must be better than that.

Pictured above: Attorney General Eric Holder