For the benefit of everyone who’s been living in a cave for the last decade or so the US Senate finally (after an 8 month delay) released the results of its investigation into the US government’s illegal detentions and interrogations in the wake of the Sept. 2001 attacks (Between 2001 and 2006, and it’s not clear if the torture actually stopped in 2006 or was simply outsourced for a few more years). Let’s be clear about this, the fact that illegal torture and secret and illegal methods of capture and detention were part of the regime, has been public for almost a decade. By 2006, in response to revelations about waterboarding, Congress was passing legislation “clarifying” that:
“… all individuals acting under the color of U.S. law categorically are prohibited from engaging in or authorizing cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. “ (1)
By 2005 major news outlets and human rights organizations had already revealed the Extraordinary Rendition program, and within the year European “allies” were publishing investigations and withdrawing from the program due to legal and human rights concerns. (2) In 2007 Hollywood actually started making movies about it, one starring Meryl Streep and Jake Gyllenhall (3)
I’m not going to detail an indictment here, you can “google” all of this for yourself. Suffice to say that illegality of all of this is not in dispute, and hasn’t been since at least 2006. The recent report doesn’t alert us to something we didn’t already know. What this report does provide is yet another confirmation that it is indeed possible to have a criminal regime in a democracy like ours; it confirms the fact that the Bush II Presidency was a criminal regime. It wasn’t the first criminal regime, but it was arguably the worst criminal regime in US History.
The thing that bothers me is the fact that this was the third criminal regime in my lifetime, and these regimes are getting worse. Nixon was the first (Watergate, Allende’s murder etc.). Reagan was the second (Iran Contra, drug smuggling, and various other crimes committed against people in El Salvador and Nicaragua). And then we get to Bush II and it was like a free-for-all for thugs and sociopaths. From illegal wire-tapping to the trumped-up war on Iraq Bush II was an illegal rampage that would have made Nixon and Reagan blush.*
While Nixon had Kissinger and a secret team of “plumbers” and Reagan had a semi-rogue team of terrorist (Ollie North and company), the crimes of Nixon and Reagan were compartmentalized. The number of Bush executives that could be prosecuted for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and even domestic crimes, is without precedent. The Attorney General, White House Council, Secretaries of Defense and State, National Security Advisor, FBI, NSA, and CIA directors, not to mention the President and Vice President themselves, all complicit; and that’s not even a complete list. If we use standards comparable to those of the Nuremberg or Tokyo trials, hundreds of people from private contractors to the newly created Department of Homeland Security personnel would qualify for prosecution.
The Nixon and Reagan regimes faced consequences such as impeachment and indictments (although limited in scope and severity). Bush II? Despite numerous instances of everything from gross incompetence to treason only one Bush official, “Scooter” Libby, has been prosecuted (resulting in a commuted sentence with no jail time). For all practical purposes the Bush regime has faced zero accountability; the only semblances of accountability thus far have been a few instances where Condi Rice and George Tenet appear to have been somewhat uncomfortable in interviews or public forums. Tenet squirmed a little while declaring that: “We do not torture” in his 2007 “60 Minutes” interview (At least he squirmed while lying.) Condoleezza Rice had to withdraw from a Rutgers’s commencement gig but manages to bully her way through other encounters.
Beyond the scale and lack of accountability, Bush’s criminal regime was unique in two other important ways. First, with the exception of Watergate, previous regimes committed crimes under the auspices of the “Cold War” one way or another. The Cold War was a policy problem that spanned multiple administrations involving both major political parties. As the Pentagon Papers revealed there was always plenty of dishonesty involved in all of this, but the scale and nature of the dishonesty was different in important respects. For instance, we know that several consecutive administrations lied about a lot of stuff in Viet Nam, but we were fighting communist who were trying to take over the country. The Soviet Union really did have nuclear weapons (although not as many missiles as the CIA was claiming in the early 60s). Compare that to Iraq where every single justification for the war turned out to be either wildly mistaken or just plain fabricated. While previous administrations exaggerated threats under a static umbrella of the Cold War (Remember Reagan’s warning that Nicaragua was going to be a Soviet Base?), Bush’s regime fabricated threats whole cloth and reacted to those threats with criminal responses.
Bush’s criminal regime was a departure from previous administrations in another important way. While torture has been a standard practice amongst US client states for decades, US agents have rarely if ever actually administered the torture, and never before has the practice of torture or the direct knowledge of torture reached all the way to the Oval Office.
Torture was a standard feature of the South Vietnamese intelligence regime and frequently carried out while US agents observed. Likewise throughout South and Central America torture techniques, many of them learned at the US Army’s School of the America’s ,* were ubiquitous features of US supported Military Junta’s from Guatemala to Chile. And of course we had the CIA torture manual that was issued to the Contra’s.
The Bush regime brought torture into the white house as far as we know for the first time. Not only did US agents personally engage in torture, but their actions were explicitly and personally authorized and monitored by cabinet members and other high ranking officials. This was a radical departure from the status quo of previous US regimes.
The reader may have noticed that I’m not trying to define torture. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that a bunch of sociopathic members of a criminal regime have trouble recognizing torture when they see it, but the rest of us don’t have that problem. Maybe there are worse kinds of torture, but this was torture. The reason previous administrations kept these techniques beyond arm’s length was they knew it was torture, legally and morally.
Who’s responsible for these crimes? We know that these crimes originated in the White House, these polices were created in the White House and pushed down through the ranks. We’ve actually known a lot of details about this for years. We know that ground level CIA, FBI, military personnel, and others pushed back. We know that by 2004 FBI agents were refusing to participate, and warning that torture was going to produce unreliable intelligence. We know that analysts at the CIA also warned that torture didn’t produce reliable intelligence, and was illegal in a variety of ways. We know that the push-back was significant enough that White House Council eventually had to manufacture legal findings in order to justify the policy. We know that as early as 2002 Colin Powel wrote an extraordinary warning detailing the problems with a torture regime.
The excuses and rationale that former Bush officials have given for their crimes are almost too ridiculous to discuss. Basically when they’re not claiming that the country was happy to live under the warm blanket of protection that torture was providing (A lie because the country was never happy with torture nor was torture protecting us), they’re claiming that they panicked and couldn’t think clearly enough to find other solutions. Such claims are simply not worth our consideration. These claims are sociopathic fantasy masquerading as history.
As for torture providing valuable intelligence, I remind everyone that Bush and Cheney never did find Osama Bin Laden. I think it’s far more likely that unreliable intelligence derived from torture enabled Bin Laden’s escape and evasion rather than led to his location 8 years later. Intelligence was never a strong suit in the Bush II White House.
What to do? Well the idea that a crime isn’t a crime when the president does it goes back at least as far as Nixon. Every time we create “safeguards” criminal regimes just set them aside or ignore them. When Bush II came into office we had a bulwark of laws in place ranging from the Military Code of Conduct to FISA, and they all failed. It’s unlikely anyone from the Bush II regime will face charges in a US court.
One thing is for sure. We have thousands of dedicated men and women of integrity working throughout our government who provide invaluable and outstanding service. Criminal regimes never emerge from the bottom up, so the prosecution of criminal regimes (in whatever form it takes) should never work from the bottom up. It is an eternal stain on our justice system for instance that no one above the rank of Staff Sargent was convicted of the abuses at Abu Ghraib.
It may be a long shot but one thing we could do is change the Constitution. This Pardon authority that US Presidents have has become corrosive to our justice system. Even when high ranking officials are charged and convicted presidents simply erase the convictions or modify the sentences. This creates a circularity of lawlessness whereby crimes are committed on behalf of the president who then either erases the crime or pardons the offender. We should limit a president’s ability to interfere with the prosecutions of government officials or those working for government officials. Maybe if people knew they could actually go to jail, they’d be a little less enthusiastic about ignoring the law.
Beyond the President it’s clear that we’ve become incapable or unwilling as a nation of policing our own presidential administrations. If we can’t do it, we need to let someone else do it. We need to make our high ranking officials accountable to the International Criminal Courts. It’s nice that our criminal regimes eventually pass out of power either by election or term limits, but that’s little comfort to thousands or tens of thousands of victims.
In the meantime, if I was Cheney, or Rice, or Tenet, or any other members of this former regime, I wouldn’t leave the country. There are thousands of victims of this regime world-wide, and other courts are unlikely to accept the feeble arguments these people offer as excuses for their crimes.
*I know there are those who add Bill Clinton’s regime to the list. You can add to the list if you want, but it doesn’t change the problem. I merely note that Clinton was impeached and acquitted. Furthermore his alleged crime, if it was a crime, was of a personal nature, it wasn’t an expression of a criminal regime.
**We know that Torture techniques were part of the curriculum when the School of the America’s was located in the US controlled Canal Zone in Panama. It’s unclear whether or not the techniques are still being taught now that the campus has moved to Fort Benning, GA. The Army denies its teaching torture techniques but other’s report that the curriculum is essentially unchanged.