The Torture Chronicle December 24, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Human Rights, Torture.
Tags: alan dershowitz, CIA torture, enhance interrogation, eric holder, geneva conventions, Guantanamo, human rights, International law, jay bybee, john yoo, maher arar, philip giraldi, rendition, roger hollander, torture, torture memos
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Roger’s note: Here it is Christmas Eve, 2012, and I am posting yet another article on torture. Our shameless president may have chosen to “look forward, not backwards” when it comes to prosecuting those responsible for these high crimes. I for one cannot forget them, nor can I forget the fact that the United States government continues to sow death and destruction around the globe.
A classified Senate Intelligence Committee report shows the futility of “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
If there is one word missing from the United States government’s post-9/11 lexicon it is “accountability.” While perfectly legal though illicit sexual encounters apparently continue to rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors, leading to resignations, no one has been punished for malfeasance, torture, secret prisons, or extraordinary renditions.
Indeed, the Obama administration stated in 2009 that it would not punish CIA torturers because it prefers to “look forward and not back,” a decision not to prosecute that was recently confirmed by Attorney General Eric Holder in two cases involving the deaths of detainees after particularly brutal Agency interrogations. What the White House decision almost certainly means is that the president would prefer to avoid a tussle with the Republicans in congress over national security that would inevitably reveal a great deal of dirty laundry belonging to both parties.
The bipartisan willingness to avoid confrontation over possible war crimes makes the recently completed 6,000 page long Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture an extraordinary document. Though it is still classified and might well never see the light of day even in any sanitized or bowdlerized form, its principal conclusions have been leaking out in the media over the past two weeks. It directly addresses the principal argument that has been made by Bush administration devotees and continues to be advanced regarding the CIA torture agenda: that vital information obtained by “enhanced interrogation techniques” led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. According to the report, no information obtained by torture was critical to the eventual assassination of the al-Qaeda leader, nor has it been found to be an indispensable element in any of the other terrorism cases that were examined by the Senate committee.
What exactly does that mean? It means that torture, far from being an essential tool in the counter-terrorism effort, has not provided information that could not be obtained elsewhere and using less coercive methods. Senator Diane Feinstein, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee and has had access to the entire classified document, elaborated, explaining that the investigation carried out by the Senate included every detainee held by CIA, examining “the conditions under which they were detained, how they were interrogated, the intelligence they actually provided and the accuracy or inaccuracy of CIA descriptions about the program to the White House, Department of Justice, Congress and others.” It “uncovers startling details about the CIA detention and interrogation program…” The report has 35,000 footnotes and investigators perused 6 million pages of official records, which is why it has taken more than two years to produce.
The Senate inquiry’s conclusions inevitably lead to the assumption that there has been a whole lot of lying and obfuscation going on in connection with the so-called war on terror. To recap major developments, 9/11 unleashed a counter-offensive by the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center (CTC), which was at the time headed by Cofer “the gloves come off” Black. Secret prisons were established in Europe and Asia, torture was used extensively in the interrogation of suspects, and some detainees were shipped off to friendly intelligence services in places like Egypt for even more aggressive questioning. This was referred to as rendition. Some suspects were snatched off the streets in European and Asian cities before being rendered.
The Justice Department gave its approval for the harsh interrogation techniques in a notorious secret memo drafted by John Yoo and Jay Bybee in 2005 only months after a 2004 public statement in which the selfsame Justice Department declared that torture would not be acceptable. On October 5, 2007, President George W. Bush restated the official position, “This government does not torture people. We stick to U.S. law and our international obligations.” But he also contradicted himself, elaborating that his administration’s interrogation methods included questioning carried out by “highly-trained professionals.” He explained, “When we find somebody who may have information regarding an attack on America, and you bet we’re going to detain them, you bet we’re going to question them. The American people expect us to find out information, this actionable intelligence, so we can help protect them. That’s our job.”
Since that time the issue of torture itself has become an ideological abstraction, with the neoconservatives, many Republicans, and even some conservative Democrats reflexively supporting it. It has also frequently been debated in the intelligence community. There are undeniably some who believe that all terrorist suspects should be tortured even unto death to tell what they know, but an increasing number of former intelligence officers have expressed doubts over the efficacy of the procedure, a conclusion that is now supported by the Senate findings.
To cite one example of what torture can produce, prominent al-Qaeda figure Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, commonly referred to as KSM, was arrested in 2003 in Pakistan was reportedly water-boarded 183 times and “broken” by his CIA interrogators. He subsequently confessed to being involved in virtually every terrorist act carried out in the previous 20 years, including 9/11, the beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl, and the bombing of the destroyer USS Cole. He clearly was not actually involved in many of the incidents, but he was willing to admit to anything.
There are also other good reasons to oppose torture and torture by proxy through CIA rendition. Most people and governments worldwide believe that torture is immoral, a view that is generally shared by most Americans. Legally there is also a long tradition condemning torture. German and Japanese officers were executed after the Second World War for torturing prisoners and the principle was firmly established that torture, specifically including waterboarding, is a war crime. The US is signatory to the UN’s anti-torture convention, and both the United States Code and specific acts of congress require prosecution of any government employee engaging in such activity. In practical terms, torture also opens up a door that should never be opened by anyone who genuinely cares about US soldiers, diplomats, and intelligence officers stationed at their peril around the world. To put it succinctly, if we do it to them, they will do it to us.
Mistakes are inevitable when one accepts that it is okay to break the rules in favor of more coercive interrogation. To cite one example of how intelligence operations can go wrong, on December 13, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the United States kidnapped German citizen Khaled el-Masri and he was taken to an airport where he was “Severely beaten, sodomized, shackled and hooded” before being sent on to Afghanistan for more of the same. It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity while subsequent attempts to obtain recompense through the US courts were blocked by the Obama administration, which claimed state secrets privilege.
Another well-documented rendition case, of Canadian citizen Maher Arar, consigned an innocent man to torture in Syria. Yet another rendition, of Milan-based Muslim cleric Abu Omar turned into a prime example of an intelligence operation designed by Monty Python, employing a cast of hundreds at a cost of many millions of dollars. It continues to play out in the Italian courts. Abu Omar was tortured in Egypt and eventually released when it turned out that he had no information of value.
Torture advocates have assiduously cultivated a number of myths, most prominent of which is the “ticking time bomb.” This is a particular favorite of the redoubtable Alan Dershowitz and a number of prominent neocons. It goes like this — a terrorist is captured who has knowledge of an impending attack on a major civilian target, but he won’t cooperate. How to get the information? Simple. Get an accommodating judge to issue a legal finding that enables you to torture him until he talks, thereby saving lives of innocent civilians.
The only problem with the Dershowitz narrative is that there has never been an actual ticking time bomb. No terrorist has ever been captured, subjected to torture, and provided information that foiled an attack, not even in Israel where routine torture of suspected terrorists captured in flagrante used to be the case (but is now illegal). Advocating a policy of torture, with all that entails, based on a “what if” is fighting evil with more evil, not a solution.
Torture brutalizes and degrades the individual carrying it out, the organization he or she represents, and the government that approves of the practice. The Senate committee report should finally put paid to the arguments being made that it is a reliable interrogation tool, but there still remains the question of accountability. A recent book by Jose A. Rodriguez, who approved and oversaw the CIA torture regime while he served as head of the Counter Terrorism Center and later as Deputy Director of the Clandestine Services, demonstrates that there are still zealots who believe in “extreme measures” in spite of any evidence presented to the contrary. The book is entitled “Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions after 9/11 Saved American Lives.” Well, apparently that is just not true and perhaps Jose owes the surviving victims of “hard measures” an apology.
Philip Giraldi is the executive director of the Council for the National Interest and a recognized authority on international security and counterterrorism issues. He is a former CIA counter-terrorism specialist and military intelligence officer who served eighteen years overseas in Turkey, Italy, Germany, and Spain. Mr. Giraldi was awarded an MA and PhD from the University of London in European History and holds a Bachelor of Arts with Honors from the University of Chicago. He speaks Spanish, Italian, German, and Turkish. His columns on terrorism, intelligence, and security issues regularly appear in The American Conservative magazine, Huffington Post, and antiwar.com. He has written op-ed pieces for the Hearst Newspaper chain, has appeared on “Good Morning America,” MSNBC, National Public Radio, and local affiliates of ABC television. He has been a keynote speaker at the Petroleum Industry Security Council annual meeting, has spoken twice at the American Conservative Union’s annual CPAC convention in Washington, and has addressed several World Affairs Council affiliates. He has been interviewed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the British Broadcasting Corporation, Britain’s Independent Television Network, FOX News, Polish National Television, Croatian National Television, al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya, 60 Minutes, and other international and domestic broadcasters.
Tags: 9/11, aclu, Al Gore, Alberto Gonzales, amy goodman, assata shakur, Bill Clinton, binyan mohamed, boeing, bush administration, cia, eric holder, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo, human rights, international covenant on, International law, jane mayer, jeppesen dataplan, leon panetta, maher arar, marjorie cohn, michael ratner, rendition, richard clarke, roger hollander, state secrets, the new yorker, torture
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Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian residing in Britain, said he was tortured after being sent to Morocco and Afghanistan in 2002 by the U.S. government. Mohamed was transferred to Guantánamo in 2004 and all terrorism charges against him were dismissed last year. Mohamed was a victim of extraordinary rendition, in which a person is abducted without any legal proceedings and transferred to a foreign country for detention and interrogation, often tortured.
Mohamed and four other plaintiffs are accusing Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc. of flying them to other countries and secret CIA camps where they were tortured. In Mohamed’s case, two British justices accused the Bush administration of pressuring the British government to block the release of evidence that was “relevant to allegations of torture” of Mohamed.
Twenty-five lines edited out of the court documents included details about how Mohamed’s genitals were sliced with a scalpel as well as other torture methods so extreme that waterboarding “is very far down the list of things they did,” according to a British official quoted by the Telegraph (UK).
The plaintiffs’ complaint quotes a former Jeppesen employee as saying, “We do all of the extraordinary rendition flights – you know, the torture flights.” A senior company official also apparently admitted the company transported people to countries where they would be tortured.
Obama’s Justice Department appeared before a three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Monday in the Jeppesen lawsuit. But instead of making a clean break with the dark policies of the Bush years, the Obama administration claimed the same “state secrets” privilege that Bush used to block inquiry into his policies of torture and illegal surveillance. Claiming that the extraordinary rendition program is a state secret is disingenuous since it is has been extensively documented in the media.
“This was an opportunity for the new administration to act on its condemnation of torture and rendition, but instead it has chosen to stay the course,” said the ACLU’s Ben Wizner, counsel for the five men.
If the judges accept Obama’s state secrets claim, these men will be denied their day in court and precluded from any recovery for the damages they suffered as a result of extraordinary rendition.
Two and a half weeks before Obama’s representative appeared in the Jeppesen case, the new President had signed Executive Order 13491. It established a special task force “to study and evaluate the practices of transferring individuals to other nations in order to ensure that such practices comply with the domestic laws, international obligations, and policies of the United States and do not result in the transfer of individuals to other nations to face torture or otherwise for the purpose, or with the effect, of undermining or circumventing the commitments or obligations of the United States to ensure the humane treatment of individuals in its custody or control.”
This order prohibits extraordinary rendition. It also ensures humane treatment of persons in U.S. custody or control. But it doesn’t specifically guarantee that prisoners the United States renders to other countries will be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment that doesn’t amount to torture. It does, however, aim to ensure that our government’s practices of transferring people to other countries complies with U.S. laws and policies, including our obligations under international law.
One of those laws is the International Covenant on Civil Political Rights (ICCPR), a treaty the United States ratified in 1992. Article 7 of the ICCPR prohibits the States Parties from subjecting persons “to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.” The UN Human Rights Committee, which is the body that monitors the ICCPR, has interpreted that prohibition to forbid States Parties from exposing “individuals to the danger of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment upon return to another country by way of their extradition, expulsion or refoulement.”
Order 13491 also mandates, “The CIA shall close as expeditiously as possible any detention facilities that it currently operates and shall not operate any such detention facility in the future.” The order does not define “expeditiously” and the definitional section of the order says that the terms ‘detention facilities’ and ‘detention facility’ “do not refer to facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis.” Once again, “short term” and “transitory” are not defined.
In his confirmation hearing, Attorney General Eric Holder categorically stated that the United States should not turn over an individual to a country where we have reason to believe he will be tortured. Leon Panetta, nominee for CIA director, went further last week and interpreted Order 13491 as forbidding “that kind of extraordinary rendition, where we send someone for the purposes of torture or for actions by another country that violate our human values.”
But alarmingly, Panetta appeared to champion the same standard used by the Bush administration, which reportedly engaged in extraordinary rendition 100 to 150 times as of March 2005. After September 11, 2001, President Bush issued a classified directive that expanded the CIA’s authority to render terrorist suspects to other States. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the CIA and the State Department received assurances that prisoners will be treated humanely. “I will seek the same kinds of assurances that they will not be treated inhumanely,” Panetta told the senators.
Gonzales had admitted, however, “We can’t fully control what that country might do. We obviously expect a country to whom we have rendered a detainee to comply with their representations to us . . . If you’re asking me, ‘Does a country always comply?’ I don’t have an answer to that.”
The answer is no. Binyam Mohamed’s case is apparently the tip of the iceberg. Maher Arar, a Canadian born in Syria, was apprehended by U.S. authorities in New York on September 26, 2002, and transported to Syria, where he was brutally tortured for months. Arar used an Arabic expression to describe the pain he experienced: “you forget the milk that you have been fed from the breast of your mother.” The Canadian government later exonerated Arar of any terrorist ties. In another instance, thirteen CIA operatives were arrested in Italy for kidnapping an Egyptian, Abu Omar, in Milan and transporting him to Cairo where he was tortured.
Panetta made clear that the CIA will continue to engage in rendition to detain and interrogate terrorism suspects and transfer them to other countries. “If we capture a high-value prisoner,” he said, “I believe we have the right to hold that individual temporarily to be able to debrief that individual and make sure that individual is properly incarcerated.” No clarification of how long is “temporarily” or what “debrief” would mean.
When Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) asked about the Clinton administration’s use of the CIA to transfer prisoners to countries where they were later executed, Panetta replied, “I think that is an appropriate use of rendition.” Jane Mayer, columnist for the New Yorker, has documented numerous instances of extraordinary rendition during the Clinton administration, including cases in which suspects were executed in the country to which the United States had rendered them. Once when Richard Clarke, President Clinton’s chief counter-terrorism adviser on the National Security Council, “proposed a snatch,” Vice-President Al Gore said, “That’s a no-brainer. Of course it’s a violation of international law, that’s why it’s a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass.”
There is a slippery slope between ordinary rendition and extraordinary rendition. “Rendition has to end,” Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, recently told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!: “Rendition is a violation of sovereignty. It’s a kidnapping. It’s force and violence.” Ratner queried whether Cuba could enter the United States and take Luis Posada, the man responsible for blowing up a commercial Cuban airline in 1976 and killing 73 people. Or whether the United States could go down to Cuba and kidnap Assata Shakur, who escaped a murder charge in New Jersey.
Moreover, “renditions for the most part weren’t very productive,” a former CIA official told the Los Angeles Times. After a prisoner was turned over to authorities in Egypt, Jordan or another country, the CIA had very little influence over how prisoners were treated and whether they were ultimately released.
The U.S. government should disclose the identities, fate, and current whereabouts of all persons detained by the CIA or rendered to foreign custody by the CIA since 2001. Those who ordered renditions should be prosecuted. And the special task force should recommend, and Obama should agree to, an end to all renditions.
Will War Crimes Be Outed? December 19, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, George W. Bush, Human Rights, Iraq and Afghanistan, Torture, War.
Tags: Abu Ghraib, aclu, brendan smith, bucca, Bush, cheney, cia, congress, constitution, eric holder, gates, geneva convention, gonzales, Guantanamo, Iraq, Iraq war, jeremy brecher, justice department, maher arar, morocco, obma, rendition, roger hollander, rumsfeld, senate, surveillance, torture, War Crimes, war on terror
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(Photo: Jean-Marc Bouju / pdnonline.com)
17 December 2008
As the officials of the Bush administration pack up in Washington and move into their posh suburban homes around the country, will they be able to rest easy, or will they be haunted by the fear that they will be held accountable for war crimes?
There are many reasons to anticipate that the incoming Obama administration and the new Congress will let sleeping dogs lie. Attention to criminal acts by the former administration would probably anger Republicans, whose support Obama is hoping to win for his first priority, his economic program. Democratic Congressional leaders have known a great deal about Bush administration lawlessness, and in some cases have even given it their approval–making an unfettered review seem unlikely.
Some of Obama’s own top appointees would undoubtedly receive scrutiny in an unconstrained investigation–Obama’s reappointed defense secretary Robert Gates, for example, has had responsibility not only for Guantánamo but also for the incarceration of tens of thousands of Iraqis in prisons in Iraq like Camp Bucca, which the Washington Post described in a headline as “a Prison Full of Innocent Men,” without even a procedure for determining their guilt or innocence–unquestionably a violation of the Geneva Conventions in and of itself.
But the repose of the Cheneys, Bushes, Gonzaleses and Rumsfelds may not turn out to be so undisturbed. In his notorious torture memo, Alberto Gonzales warned about “prosecutors and independent counsels” who may in the future decide to pursue “unwarranted charges” based on the US War Crimes Act’s prohibition on violations of the Geneva Conventions. While no such charges are likely to be brought anytime soon, neither are they likely to vanish. In the short run, Obama and his team face inescapable questions about the legal culpability of the Bush administration. And in the long run, such charges are likely to grow only more unavoidable once the former officials of that administration have lost the authority to quash them.
In April Obama said that if elected, he would have his attorney general initiate a prompt review of Bush-era action to distinguish between possible “genuine crimes” and “really bad policies.”
“If crimes have been committed, they should be investigated,” Obama told the Philadelphia Daily News. He added, however, that “I would not want my first term consumed by what was perceived on the part of Republicans as a partisan witch hunt, because I think we’ve got too many problems we’ve got to solve.”
Obama’s nominee for attorney general, Eric Holder, speaking to the American Constitution Society in June, described Bush administration actions in terms that sound a whole lot more like “genuine crimes” than like “really bad policies”:
Our government authorized the use of torture, approved of secret electronic surveillance against American citizens, secretly detained American citizens without due process of law, denied the writ of habeas corpus to hundreds of accused enemy combatants and authorized the use of procedures that violate both international law and the United States Constitution…. We owe the American people a reckoning.”
While attention has focused on whether, once president, Obama will move quickly to close Guantánamo, shut down secret prisons, halt rendition and ban torture, there’s a less visible struggle over whether and how to provide a reckoning for war crimes past.
A growing body of legal opinion holds that Obama will have a duty to investigate war crimes allegations and, if they are found to have merit, to prosecute the perpetrators.
In a December 3 Chicago Sun-Times op-ed, law professors Anthony D’Amato (the Leighton Professor at Northwestern University School of Law) and Jordan J. Paust (the Mike & Thersa Baker Professor at the Law Center of the University of Houston) ask whether president-elect Barack Obama will have “the duty to prosecute or extradite persons who are reasonably accused of having committed and abetted war crimes or crimes against humanity during the Bush administration’s admitted ‘program’ of ‘coercive interrogation’ and secret detention that was part of a ‘common, unifying’ plan to deny protections under the Geneva Conventions.”
They answer, “Yes.”
“Under the US Constitution, the president is expressly and unavoidably bound to faithfully execute the laws.” The 1949 Geneva Conventions “expressly and unavoidably requires that all parties search for perpetrators of grave breaches of the treaty” and bring them before their own courts for “effective penal sanctions” or, if they prefer, “hand such persons over for trial to another High Contracting Party.”
The statement is particularly authoritative–and particularly striking–because Paust is also a former captain in the United States Army JAG Corps and member of the faculty at the Judge Advocate General’s School.
Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights says that one of Barack Obama’s first acts as president should be to “instruct his attorney general to appoint an independent prosecutor to initiate a criminal investigation of former Bush Administration officials who gave the green light to torture.”
Parallel to the legal community, members of Congress and president-elect Obama are trying to chart a strategy that avoids the appearance of seeking to punish Bush administration officials without appearing blatantly oblivious to their apparent war crimes. According to the AP’s Lara Jakes Jordan, “Two Obama advisors say there’s little–if any–chance that the incoming president’s Justice Department will go after anyone involved in authorizing or carrying out interrogations that provoked worldwide outrage.” Instead, “Obama is expected to create a panel modeled after the 9/11 Commission to study interrogations, including those using waterboarding and other tactics that critics call torture.”
Asked if Bush administration officials would face prosecution for war crimes, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy flatly said, “In the United States, no,” but he does intend to continue to investigate Bush administration officials and their interrogation policies. “Personally, I would like to know exactly what happened. Torture is going to be a major issue.”
Continue the Cover-Up?
President-elect Obama may well seek to delay taking a stand for or against such accountability actions. But he is likely to be confronted early in his administration by choices about whether to continue or terminate legal cover-up operations the Bush administration currently has under way.
For example, the Bush administration has blocked the civil suit against US officials by Canadian Maher Arar for his “rendition” to Syria and his torture there by invoking the “state secrets” privilege. According to Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the ACLU, they have appointed a prosecutor to investigate the destruction of videotapes of CIA interrogations, but the investigation is limited only to whether crimes were committed in relation to the destruction of the tapes–not whether what was being videotaped is a crime. The administration has refused to cooperate with the trial of twenty-six Americans, mostly CIA agents, who kidnapped a terrorism suspect in Milan and flew him to Egypt where, he says, he was tortured. And they have refused to provide secret documents to the British High Court in the case of Guantánamo detainee Binyam Mohamed that may demonstrate that US officials were complicit in his torture in Morocco.
If the Obama administration continues the Bush administration’s efforts to prevent investigators from investigating and courts from hearing such cases, it will rapidly become part of the cover-up. If it begins to, at a minimum, stop obstructing such proceedings, the result could be a rapid crumbling of the wall of silence the Bush administration has tried so assiduously to build around its “war on terror.”
A bipartisan report issued by the Senate Armed Services Committee on December 11 will make it far more difficult to evade the responsibility of holding Bush administration officials legally accountable for war crimes. Released by Senators Carl Levin and John McCain after two years of investigation, the report concluded:
The abuse of detainees in US custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of ‘a few bad apples’ acting on their own…. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees…. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques for use at Guantánamo Bay was a direct cause of detainee abuse there.
In an interview published in the Detroit News, Senator Levin said he was not responsible for deciding whether officials should be prosecuted for authorizing torture, but he admitted that there is enough evidence that victims of abuse could file civil lawsuits against their assailants. Levin also suggested that the Obama administration “needs to look for ways in which people can be held accountable for their actions.”
An Accountability Movement
Outside the Beltway, a movement to hold Bush administration officials accountable for torture and other war crimes after they leave office is gradually emerging. It received a boost when over a hundred lawyers and activists met in Andover, Massachusetts on September 20 at a conference entitled “Planning for the Prosecution of High Level American War Criminals.” The conference created an ongoing committee to coordinate accountability efforts. At the close, conference convener Dean Lawrence Velvel of the Massachusetts School of Law noted more than twenty strategies and specific actions that had been proposed, ranging from the state felony prosecutions proposed by former district attroney Vincent Bugliosi to the international prosecutions pioneered by the Center for Constitutional Rights’ Rumsfeld cases; and from impeaching Bush appointees like Federal Judge Jay Bybee to public shaming of torture-tainted former officials like ohn Yew, now a professor at the University of California Law School.
One of proposals discussed at the Andover conference was the creation of a citizens’ War Crimes Documentation Center, modeled on the special office set up by the Allied governments before the end of World War II to investigate and document Nazi war crimes. Such a center could be the nexus for research, education and coordination of a wide range of civil society forces in the US and abroad that are demanding accountability. It could bring together the extensive but scattered evidence already available, to compile a narrative of what actually happened in the Bush administration. It could help or pressure Congress to conduct investigations to fill in the blanks. It could pull together high-profile coalitions to campaign around the issue of accountability for specific crimes like torture. If Obama does initiate some kind of investigating commission, such a center could provide it with information and help hold it accountable.
A Moral Education
There are a myriad of reasons for urgently holding the Bush regime to account, ranging from preventing unchallenged executive action from setting new legal precedent to providing a compelling rationale for the immediate cessation of bombing civilians in the escalating Afghan war.
But the issue raised by Bush administration war crimes is even larger than any person’s individual crimes. As Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense, “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” The long history of aggressive war, illegal occupation, and torture, from the Philippines to Iraq, have given the American people a moral education that encourages us to countenance war crimes. If we allow those who initiated and justified the illegal conquest and occupation of Iraq and the use of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo to go unsanctioned, we teach the world–and ourselves–a lesson about what’s OK and legal.
As countries like Chile, Turkey and Argentina can attest, restoration of democracy, civic morality and the rule of law is often a slow but necessary process, requiring far more than simply voting a new party into office. It requires a wholesale rejection of impunity for the criminal acts of government officials. As Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL) put it, “We owe it to the American people and history to pursue the wrongdoing of this administration whether or not it helps us politically…. Our actions will properly define the Bush Administration in the eyes of history.”
Jeremy Brecher is a historian whose books include Strike!, Globalization from Below, and, co-edited with Brendan Smith and Jill Cutler, In the Name of Democracy: American War Crimes in Iraq and Beyond (Metropolitan/Holt). He has received five regional Emmy Awards for his documentary film work. He is a co-founder of WarCrimesWatch.org.
Brendan Smith is a legal analyst whose books include Globalization From Below and, with Brendan Smith and Jill Cutler, of In the Name of Democracy: American War Crimes in Iraq and Beyond (Metropolitan). He is current co-director of Global Labor Strategies and UCLA Law School’s Globalization and Labor Standards Project, and has worked previously for Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and a broad range of unions and grassroots groups. His commentary has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, CBS News.com, YahooNews and the Baltimore Sun. Contact him at email@example.com.