Ever since the world learned of the illegal detentions and brutal behavior at American military prisons, the Bush administration has bet it could outlast public outrage with phony investigations and stonewalling. Just before Congress went on summer holiday, Republican leaders actually yanked the military budget from the Senate floor rather than face two amendments intended to impose the rule of law on the camps.

One measure would define the nature of detainees taken in antiterrorism operations according to constitutional principles and international treaties — and prohibit abuse and torture. The other would create a panel like the 9/11 commission to finally give Americans the truth about how the administration’s prison policies led to out-of-control camps like Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

The new laws were sponsored by two Republicans, Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who have shown remarkable courage on this issue. But they and other Republicans have withheld support for the investigation, which was proposed by Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan.

Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham have said they think it is more important to look forward than to hold an investigation. We respect their views, but they are missing the point. The American public needs answers about the prisons, and it is simply not acceptable that a few low-level reservists go to jail while the civilian lawyers who wrote the torture policies get promoted and the general who devised the interrogations escapes even the mildest rebuke.

Beyond that, the problems have not gone away. Many of the interrogation policies that the military’s own lawyers considered repugnant are still in place; American troops have only a vague notion of what is allowed; and the administration still claims that Mr. Bush can ignore the Constitution as long as he does so in regard to foreigners.

Just this week, the White House argued that the Supreme Court should not review the case of a Yemeni prisoner charged with war crimes. He admits he drove Osama bin Laden’s car, but says he never attacked American troops. The administration wants to try him without judicial oversight, under ever-changing rules and without letting him see all the evidence. Even if he is acquitted, the administration says it will keep him in jail. In another case, the White House wants to deny hearings to 20 Kuwaitis arrested after 9/11 who want a chance to prove their innocence.

In both cases, the administration says it needs to be able to hold on to dangerous terrorists. Of course it does, and nothing prevents it from doing that. But no amount of concern about terrorism gives it the power to detain innocent people or brutalize even those who are guilty. That is why this nation has laws, courts and judges. We can never be sure any new laws will be enforced until we know the truth about how the old ones were swept aside. That is why Mr. McCain, Mr. Graham and other Republicans who understand the importance of these issues should support an independent inquiry.

Given the need to investigate the Katrina debacle, this may seem one examination too many. But healing the wounds of the prison camps is vital to American values, the country’s image and the safety of its soldiers.

Copyright 2005 New York Times. All rights reserved.

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