On of the most distinct differences between the policy of the Obama administration and that of the Bush administration is the policy on torture. President Obama has made it clear that the US government will not conduct torture under any circumstance. This is an issue I've struggled with for some time; there are compelling arguments on both sides of the debate and I'd like to take a brief look at them.
There have been many questions asked of the Bush Administration's torture and rendition policies. The CIA was given authority to abduct people considered threats to national security, transport them to secret facility, and torture them in order to extract information. Consequently, there are numerous legal issues which have arisen due to these practices:
1) It is a violation of US law to transport any person to any location for the purpose of torture;
2) It is a violation of the UN Convention against Torture, which began in June 1987;
3) A vast expanse of "gray area" with respect to US and international law.
The reality is that the "War on Terror" is a conflict between various states (US, UK, etc.) and a transnational network of individuals who have designs to inflict harm upon civilians. Essentially, Al Qaeda and related networks are not subject to any kind of constitution, domestic law, or even international law. This means that they do not have to play by any certain set of rules, whereas we do.
This is where you saw the emergence of vague legal terms like "illegal combatant" emerge from the Bush administration, as it tried to establish some semblance of legal framework to deal with members of various terror networks. This is also part of the challenge of closing Guantanamo Bay: the creation of a legal framework to deal with an unprecedented scenario.
Anyhow, back to the question at hand. Let us suppose that you're the President of the United States and one of your advisors comes to you and says "we have detained someone whom we strongly believe to be involved in the successful transport of a nuclear device to the United States and we believe he knows where this device is." Your job as President is to protect the people of the United States, but it is also to uphold the law of the land. WHAT DO YOU DO!?
Do you violate US law and torture the guy? You're not certain he knows what you want to know and you're also not certain that anything he tells you is going to be factually correct. Torture is supposedly quite unreliable, although I am no expert.
You could try cutting a deal with the guy, offering him a pardon and extradition to another country if the information he gives you leads to the capture of the nuclear device. This doesn't seem likely because odds are that the dude is willing to die for his cause.
Finally, you could choose not to torture the guy and hope that your intelligence agencies will be able to locate and prevent the detonation of the nuclear device.
This is perhaps a more extreme scenario, since tens of thousands of American lives are at stake in the immediate future. But what about less-pressing cases? What if you're torturing a guy because you think he knows something that might be useful in the future?
There was a time, not long ago, when I believed that torture was a necessary evil when fighting an enemy such as Al Qaeda. How can you justify placing American lives in danger in order to protect one guy whom is your enemy? Ultimately I came to the same conclusion that President Obama has: our moral high ground is more important in the long run. What it all comes down to is whether or not we will lower ourselves to the level of the enemy. The true test of moral standing comes when you adhere to your principles, even in the difficult times.
Personally, I would like to see the international community establish a legal framework for dealing with the combatants of non-state actors like Al Qaeda. The globalized world has brought with it new challenges and global terror networks are one of them. My hope for the Obama administration is that it leads the charge in coming up with an acceptable, just, and effective means of dealing with issues in this vast expanse of legal and moral gray area.