There are 185 days until Jan. 20, 2009.
Nine Reasons to Investigate War Crimes Now
By Jeremy Brecher & Brendan Smith
July 18, 2008
Retired General Antonio Taguba, the officer who led the
Army's investigation into Abu Ghraib, recently wrote in
the preface to the new report, Broken laws, Broken Lives:
"There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current
administration has committed war crimes. The only
question that remains to be answered is whether those
who ordered the use of torture will be held to account."
Should those who ordered war crimes be held to account?
With the conclusion of the Bush regime approaching,
many people are dubious, even those horrified by
Administration actions. They fear a long, divisive
ordeal that could tear the country apart. They note
that such division could make it far harder for the
country to address the many other crises it is facing.
They see the upcoming elections as a better way to set the country on a new path.
Many Democrats in particular are proposing to let
bygones be bygones and move on to confront the problems
of the future, rather than dwelling on the past. The
Democratic leadership sees rising gas prices,
foreclosures, and health care costs, as well as
widespread dissatisfaction with the direction of the
country, as playing in their favor. Why risk it all by
playing the war crimes blame game? Perhaps some
Democratic leaders are also concerned that their own
role in enabling or even encouraging war crimes might be exposed.
Meanwhile, the evidence confirming not only a
deliberate policy of torture, but of conspiring in an
illegal war of aggression and conducting a criminal
occupation, continues to pile ever higher. Bush's own
press secretary Scott McClelland has revealed in his
book, What Happened, how deliberately the public was
misled to foment the attack on Iraq . Philippe Sands'
new book, Torture Team, has shown how the top legal and
political leadership fought for a policy of
torture--circumventing and misleading top military
officials to do so. Jane Mayer's The Dark Side, reveals
that a secret report by the Red Cross--given to the CIA
and shared with President Bush and Condoleezza
Rice--found that US interrogation methods are
"categorically" torture and that the "abuse constituted
war crimes, placing the highest officials in the US
government in jeopardy of being prosecuted."
Despite the reluctance to open what many see as a can
of worms, there are fresh moves on many fronts to hold
top US officials accountable for war crimes.
Courts: US courts have issued a barrage of decisions
against the Administration's claim that they can do
anything and still be within the law. The Supreme Court
ruled June 12 that the Administration cannot deny
habeas corpus rights to Guantanamo detainees. The DC
Circuit Court of Appeals on June 30 overturned the
Pentagon's enemy combatant designation of a Chinese
Muslim held in Guantanamo for the last six years. A
Maine jury in April acquitted the Bangor Six of
criminal trespass charges stemming from protesters'
claim that the "Constitution was being violated by the
Bush Administration's involvement in Iraq ."
Congressional investigation: Rep. John Conyers has
recently brought top policy-makers, including former
Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, Vice
President Cheney's Chief of Staff David Addington, and
this week former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas
Feith and former Attorney General John Ashcroft before
a House Judiciary subcommittee and grilled them on
their role crafting the Administration's torture policy.
Senate hearings in June revealed that treatment of
Guantanamo captives was modeled on techniques allegedly
used by Communist China to force false confessions from US soldiers.
Impeachment: Despite Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi's
instruction to keep impeachment "off the table," Rep.
Dennis Kucinich for the first time brought an
impeachment resolution to the House floor that
incorporated a devastating, thirty-five article
indictment spelling out Bush Administration war crimes
and crimes against the Constitution. Now Rep. Conyers
has announced that the Judiciary Committee will hold
hearings on the charges July 25. Even after the Bush
Administration leaves office, the judges it appointed
who appear complicit in war crimes--notably torture
policy architect Judge Jay S. Bybee--could still be impeached.
Truth commission: In response to General Taguba's
accusations, New York Times Op-Ed columnist Nicholas D.
Kristof has just called for the establishment of a
truth commission--like that of post-Apartheid South
Africa--with subpoena power to investigate the abuses
in the aftermath of 9/11 and "lead a process of soul
searching and national cleansing."
International: In May, Vanity Fair magazine published
an article by British human rights attorney Philippe
Sands, in which he described the reasons Administration
lawyers face a real risk of criminal investigations if
they stray beyond US borders. The British parliament is
about to launch an investigation of Washington 's lying
to the British government about its use of its
facilities for "extraordinary rendition."
Constitutional lawyer Jonathan Turley recently said, "I
think it might in fact be time for the United States to
be held internationally to a tribunal. I never thought
in my lifetime I would say that." Colin Powell's former
chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson publicly advised
Feith, Addington, And Albert Gonzales "never to travel
outside the U.S. , except perhaps to Saudi Arabia and Israel ."
Prosecution: According to a recent Mellman Group survey
commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union ,
Americans of all political stripes overwhelmingly
support the appointment of an independent prosecutor to
investigate both the destruction of the CIA's
interrogation tapes and the possible use of torture by
the agency. Every segment of the electorate--including
majorities of Democrats (82 percent), independents (62
percent), and Republicans (51 percent) -- want to hold
this administration accountable for its role in the destruction of the torture tapes.
Vincent Bugliosi, the former Los Angeles County
Prosecutor who has won twenty-one convictions in murder
trials, including Charles Manson's, has just published
The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder, which
argues that there is overwhelming evidence President
Bush took the nation to war in Iraq under false
pretenses and must be prosecuted for the consequent deaths of over 4,000 US soldiers.
Dean Lawrence Velvel of the Massachusetts School of Law
at Andover is planning a September conference to map
out war crimes prosecutions against President Bush and
other administration officials. Velvel says that "plans
will be laid and necessary organizational structures
set up, to pursue the guilty as long as necessary and,
if need be, to the ends of the Earth." Reps. John
Conyers, Jerrold Nadler, and Bill Delahunt have called
on Attorney General Michael Mukasey to appoint a
special counsel to investigate the rendition of
Canadian citizen Maher Arar to Syria .
Citizen action: Voters in Brattleboro and Marlboro,
Vermont this spring approved a measure that instructs
police to arrest President George W. Bush and Vice
President Dick Cheney for "crimes against our
Constitution," should they venture into those precincts.
All these developments suggest approaches that might be
used to hold Bush Administration war criminals
accountable. Establishing accountability for US war
crimes in the Iraq war era is the sine qua non for
initiating a new era on different principles. Here are
nine reasons why we must not let bygones be bygones:
1. World peace cannot be achieved without human rights and accountability.
According to Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson,
chief American prosecutor at the Nuremberg Tribunals,
"The ultimate step in avoiding periodic wars, which are
inevitable in a system of international lawlessness, is
to make statesmen responsible to law." Moving in that
direction will be impossible unless such responsibility
applies to the statesmen of the world's most powerful
countries, and above all the world's sole superpower.
US support for the war crimes charges like those just
brought by the prosecutor of the International Criminal
Court against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir will
represent little more than hypocrisy if US Presidents
are not held to the same standard.
2. The rule of law is central to our democracy.
Most Americans believe that even the highest officials
are bound by law. If we send mentally-disabled
juveniles to prison as adults, but let government
officials who authorize torture and launch illegal wars
go scot-free, we destroy the very basis of the rule of law.
3. We must not allow precedents to be set that promote war crimes.
Executive action unchallenged by Congress changes the
way our law is interpreted. According to Robert
Borosage, writing for Huffington Post, "If Bush's
extreme assertions of power are not challenged by the
Congress, they end up not simply creating new law, they
could end up rewriting the Constitution itself."
4. We must restore the principles of democracy to our government.
The claim that the President, as commander-in-chief,
can exercise the unlimited powers of a king or dictator
strikes at the very heart of our democracy. As Supreme
Court Justice Robert Jackson put it, we, as citizens,
would "submit ourselves to rules only if under rules."
Countries like Chile can attest that the restoration of
democracy and the rule of law requires more than voting
a new party into office--it requires a rejection of
impunity for the criminal acts of government officials.
5. We must forestall an imperialist resurgence.
When they are out of office, the advocates of imperial
expansion and global domination have proven brilliant
at lying in wait to undermine and destroy their opponents.
They did it to destroy the presidencies of Jimmy Carter
and Bill Clinton. They'll do it again to an Obama
Administration unless their machinations are exposed and discredited first.
6. We must have national consensus on the real reasons for the Bush Administration's failures.
Republicans are preparing to dominate future decades of
American politics by blaming the failure of the Iraq
war on those who "sent a signal" that the US would not
"stay the course" whatever the cost. Establishing the
real reasons for the failure of the US in Iraq --the
criminal and anti-democratic character of the war--is
the necessary condition for defeating that effort.
7. We must restore America 's damaged reputation abroad.
The world has watched as the United States --the
self-proclaimed steward of democracy--has
systematically broken the letter and spirit of its
Constitution, violated international treaties, and
ignored basic moral tenets of humanity. As former Navy
General Counsel Alberto Mora recently pointed out to
the Senate Armed Services Committee, our nation's
"policy of cruelty" has violated our "overarching
foreign policy interests and our national security." To
establish international legitimacy, we must demonstrate
that we are capable of holding our leaders to account.
8. We must lay the basis for major change in US foreign policy.
Real security in the era of global warming and nuclear
proliferation must be based on international
cooperation. But genuine cooperation requires that the
US entirely repudiate the course of the past eight
years. The American people must understand why
international cooperation rather than pursuit of global
domination is necessary to their own security. And
other countries must be convinced that we really mean it.
9. We must deter future US war crimes.
The specter of more war crimes haunts our future.
Rumors continue to circulate about an American or
American-backed Israeli attack on Iran . A recently
introduced House resolution promoted by AIPAC "demands"
that the President initiate what is effectively a
blockade against Iran --an act seen by some as
tantamount to a declaration of war. Nothing could
provide a greater deterrent to such future war crimes
than establishing accountability for those of the past.
Holding war criminals accountable will require placing
the long-term well-being of our country and the world
ahead of short-term political advantage. As Rep. Wexler
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 or in the next election.
Our actions will properly define the Bush Administration
in the eyes of history and that is the true test."
About Jeremy Brecher 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. more... About Brendan Smith 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.