SECRETARY OF DEFENSE Donald H. Rumsfeld expressed dismay on Thursday about editorials in which "the implication is that the United States government has, in one way or another, ordered, authorized, permitted, tolerated torture." Such reports, he said, raised questions among U.S. troops in Iraq, reduced the willingness of people in Iraq and Afghanistan to cooperate with the United States, and could be used by others as an excuse to torture U.S. soldiers or civilians. This was wrong, he said, because "I have not seen anything that suggests that a senior civilian or military official of the United States of America . . . could be characterized as ordering or authorizing or permitting torture or acts that are inconsistent with our international treaty obligations or our laws or our values as a country."

Since Mr. Rumsfeld referred directly to The Post, we believe we owe him a response. We agree that the country is at war and that we all must weigh our words accordingly. We also agree that the consequences of the revelations of prisoner abuse are grave. As supporters of the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have been particularly concerned about the ways that the scandal -- and the administration's continuing failure to come to terms with it -- could undermine the chances for success. We also have warned about the uses that might be made of it by captors of Americans. What strikes us as extraordinary is that Mr. Rumsfeld would suggest that this damage would be caused by newspaper editorials rather than by his own actions and decisions and those of other senior administration officials.

What might lead us to describe Mr. Rumsfeld or some other "senior civilian or military official" as "ordering or authorizing or permitting" torture or violation of international treaties and U.S. law? We could start with Mr. Rumsfeld's own admission during the same news conference that he had personally approved the detention of several prisoners in Iraq without registering them with the International Committee of the Red Cross. This creation of "ghost prisoners" was described by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, who investigated abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, as "deceptive, contrary to Army doctrine and in violation of international law." Failure to promptly register detainees with the Red Cross is an unambiguous breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention; Mr. Rumsfeld said that he approved such action on several occasions, at the request of another senior official, CIA Director George J. Tenet.

Did senior officials order torture? We know of two relevant cases so far. One was Mr. Rumsfeld's December 2002 authorization of the use of techniques including hooding, nudity, stress positions, "fear of dogs" and physical contact with prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay base. A second was the distribution in September 2003 by the office of the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, of an interrogation policy that included these techniques as well as others, among them sleep and dietary manipulation. In both cases lawyers inside the military objected that the policies would lead to violations of international law, including the convention banning torture. Both were eventually modified, but not before they were used for the handling of prisoners. In the case of the Abu Ghraib prison, the policy apparently remained in effect for months.

Did senior officials "permit" torture? A Pentagon-led task force concluded in March 2003, with the support of the Justice Department, that the president was authorized to order torture as part of his war-making powers and that those who followed his orders could be immunized from punishment. Dictators who wish to justify torture, and those who would mistreat Americans, have no need to read our editorials: They can download from the Internet the 50-page legal brief issued by Mr. Rumsfeld's chief counsel.

The damage caused by the prisoner abuse cases is already enormous, and it is not over. We believe there is a way to mitigate and eventually overcome the debacle, but it is not by asking newspapers to go mute. What is needed is a full and independent investigation of the matter, including the decisions made by Mr. Rumsfeld and other senior officials, and a forthright and unambiguous commitment by President Bush to strictly observe U.S. and international law in the future. That pledge should be accompanied by a return to the public disclosure of U.S. interrogation policies. If U.S. soldiers, Iraqi citizens and foreign leaders can see for themselves that American doctrine excludes illegal abuse, then the dangers Mr. Rumsfeld cited will be greatly lessened.