Recent testimony by administration officials on the Abu Ghraib torture scandal have all but cemented the U.S. Executive’s reputation for stonewalling the truth regardless of fact or consequence.

First, Attorney General John Ashcroft refused to comment on whether the president directed an order on the interrogation of detainees. Then after a flurry of press leaks made it obvious the president had some involvement, the White House press secretary quickly acknowledged that President Bush set “broad guidelines” for interrogation techniques, but refused to give specific details. Meanwhile Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has repeatedly resisted calls to release memos that—if the Wall Street Journal is correct—sanction the use of torture by military personnel. All of these administration officials have acted in a way that holds the interests of the Bush administration above those of the American people. The Attorney General did so even when faced with the threat of being held in contempt of Congress. After promising the American people a full and proper investigation into the torture at Abu Ghraib, the administration is instead doing everything it can to obstruct congressional investigation and sidestep any culpability.

This shameful political maneuvering was embodied all too well by the Attorney General’s recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. When pressed to justify why he would not disclose a memo on the level of pain legally permitted during interrogation, Ashcroft replied that it was his “belief” that certain presidential communications should remain confidential. At the same time, he refused to cite which statute—including executive privilege—would protect his silence before Congress. At this, Senator Richard Durbin snapped: “Sir, Attorney General, with all due respect, your personal belief is not law . . . and you are not citing a law and you are not claiming executive privilege. And frankly, that is what contempt of Congress is all about.”

Not surprisingly, the Attorney General obstinately responded that during wartime such policies need to be shielded from any outside review—including, as it were, congressional oversight. Yet underlying the Attorney General’s comments is a long-standing administration doctrine that “trust” and “loyalty” carry a greater importance than “accountability.” For instance, although we know U.S. soldiers followed the standards of interrogation set out in FBI and Pentagon policy briefs, the administration maintains that none of its officials either sanctioned or condoned those policies of torture. The briefs were merely, we are told, “legal opinions” regarding abuse, yet the administration has refused to release the documents in question. Given the administration’s poor record on questions of accuracy and honesty, this hardly seems to be an appropriate time for our nation to engage in a game of trust.

While the administration plays hot potato with the ticking bomb of “Torture-gate,” the consequences of legalizing torture are wreaking havoc with America’s reputation. Official memos sanctioning the use of torture dangerously undermine U.S. foreign policy and place the lives of every American abroad at risk. As Senator Joseph Biden recently reminded the Attorney General, “There’s a reason why we sign these treaties: to protect my son in the military.”

According to recent news reports, Biden has plenty of reason to worry. In retaliation for U.S. torture of prisoners in Iraq, insurgents have already beheaded one American. It also follows that “Torture-gate” will unravel decades of hard-earned U.S. diplomatic work against prisoner abuse around the world. The chronicle of U.S.-sanctioned torture does nothing less than tarnish our very identity as a free and just people.

Now that the executive has abdicated any responsibility for the scandal, Congress needs to pick up the reins and fulfill its constitutional mandate as a check against unbridled executive power. Congress has repeatedly invoked the U.S. Constitution in its criticism of the administration. Now it has a chance to set the example by holding the administration accountable under constitutional and international law. At the very least, Congressional committees need to call the administration on unlawfully withholding information. The stakes are too high for Congress to surrender its check against the executive any longer. As the first constitutional republic the world has ever known, we cannot afford to let the United States carry the legacy a despot.