Marjorie Cohn: The Torturer-in-Chief
By Marjorie Cohn
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Friday 18 June 2004
The teflon that has enveloped George W. Bush is chipping off. Arriving in office with the promise of a "humble" foreign policy, Bush was sitting pretty at the beginning of his term. But George’s honeymoon has turned sour.
From the first day of his presidency, the neocons in Bush’s cabal determined to "stabilize" Iraq for U.S. corporate investment. Bush had his own motives to "git" Saddam for his would-be hit on George I. The tragedy of September 11 gave them just the opportunity they’d been waiting for.
Cloaking themselves in the "War on Terror," Bush and his minions methodically wove an intricate web of deception to convince the American people that Saddam was about to launch the "mushroom cloud," ending civilization as we know it.
It was our mission, Bush preached, to save the Iraqis from Saddam-the-torturer. But a telling phrase in Bush’s January 2003 State of the Union Address should have prepared us for the emergence of Bush-the-torturer.
"All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries, and many others have met a different fate," Bush said. "Let's put it this way," he clarified, "they are no longer a problem for the United States and our friends and allies."
This was an implicit admission by Bush that he had sanctioned the summary execution of the "many others."
Gradually, it became clear there were no weapons of mass destruction. This week, the 911 Commission reported there is no credible evidence Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda cooperated in the 911 attacks. Yet, this same week, Dick Cheney intoned that Saddam "had long-established ties with al Qaeda." More disinformation.
Americans soon began to tire of Operation "Iraqi Freedom." Most feel there was no good reason to suffer the deaths of nearly 1000 American soldiers and thousands of Iraqis, no need to spend billions of precious taxpayer dollars on the Iraqi quagmire.
In the face of waning support for the war and the impending U.S. election, the Bushies devised a strategy to hand-over "sovereignty" to the Iraqi people on June 30. notwithstanding the titular end of the occupation, 138,000 American troops will remain on the ground in Iraq. Although the violence in Iraq has intensified, with Iraqis fighting both the occupiers and other Iraqis, the June 30 date stands firm.
Meanwhile, the photographs began to emerge. The world was treated to images of pyramids of naked Iraqis, forced masturbation, unmuzzled dogs snarling at prisoners a few inches away, bleeding and dead Iraqis.
Major General Antonio Taguba’s report was released. It documented sodomy with a chemical light and simulated electric wires attached to the penis of a nude hooded prisoner.
As fingers began to point up the chain-of-command, prisoners were released and commanders reassigned. The cover-up got underway.
Donald Rumsfeld called it "abuse," not "technically" torture. A few bad apples. Nothing too serious.
Seven low-ranking soldiers were quickly charged with crimes under the Uniform Code of Military Justice - the fall guys and gals.
And then "the leaks" began. The photographs and testimonials of torture had empowered those on the inside to contact the media with the bombshells. We learned that Bush’s hired guns had secretly penned two tomes, one for the Defense Department and the other for the Justice Department. Both documents purport to justify the use of torture under the President’s war-making power, notwithstanding the Constitution’s clear mandate that only Congress can make the laws.
The Congressional powers enumerated in the Constitution: "Congress shall have the power - to define and punish - offenses against the law of nations; to declare war - and make rules concerning captures on land and water; - [and] to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces."
As commander-in-chief, however, the President has a "constitutionally superior position" to Congress, according to the memo written for the Defense Department. It seems the president’s men have now taken on the tripartite Separation of Powers doctrine enshrined in the Constitution.
Their constitutional apostasy flies in the face of the landmark ruling in the Korean War case, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, where the Supreme Court held, "In the framework of our Constitution, the President’s power to see that the laws are faithfully executed refutes the idea that he is to be a lawmaker." For, as the Court noted, "The Founders of this Nation entrusted the law making power to the Congress alone in both good and bad times."
Try as they might, the lawyers commissioned by Donald Rumsfeld and presidential counsel Alberto R. Gonzales were unable to find a loophole in the Torture Convention’s absolute proscription on torture. "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for torture," according to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
The Torture Convention, ratified by the United States, is part of the supreme law of the land under the Constitution. Congress implemented our obligations under this treaty by enacting the Torture Statute, which provides 20 years, life in prison, or even the death penalty if death results from torture committed by a U.S. citizen abroad. The USA PATRIOT Act added the crime of conspiracy to commit torture to the Torture Statute.
Bush’s lawyers used tortured reasoning to opine that the Torture Statute cannot be utilized to prosecute Americans in Guantanamo because it lies within the "territorial jurisdiction of the United States, and accordingly is within the United States."
The Bush administration has hypocritically taken the opposite position in denying the Guantanamo prisoners access to U.S. courts to challenge their indefinite detention.
The Torture Convention prohibits the intentional infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering on a person to (a) obtain a confession, (b) punish him, or (c) intimidate or coerce him based on discrimination of any kind. To violate this treaty, the pain or suffering must be inflicted "by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity."
Ashcroft’s legal eagles redefined torture, narrowing it to require the infliction of physical pain "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." For mental pain or suffering, they would require "significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years."
The Istanbul Protocol of 9 August 1999 is the Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. It sets forth international guidelines for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Included in the Protocol’s list of torture methods are rape, blunt trauma, forced positioning, asphyxiation, crush injuries, humiliations, death threats, forced engagement in practices violative of religion, and threat of attacks by dogs. The photographs and reports from prisoners in Abu Ghraib include all of these techniques.
Moreover, the Defense Department analysis maintained that a torturer could get off if he acted in "good faith," not thinking his actions would result in severe mental harm. If the torturer based his conduct on the advice in these memos, he would, according to this argument, have acted in good faith.
Who authored the "whorific" rationalizations for the Justice and Defense Departments? A Washington Post editorial called it "a shocking and immoral set of justifications for torture." William J. Haynes II, Bush’s nominee for a lifetime seat on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal, oversaw the preparation of the report for the Department of Defense. And another Bush nominee for a federal judgeship, former Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee, now a permanent judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, drafted the document for the Department of Justice. How cozy.
Not only has Bush received legal [sic] advice on how to get around our obligations under the Torture Convention and the Torture Statute. His lawyer Alberto Gonzales, opining on whether to apply the Geneva Conventions to Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners, told Bush the "new paradigm" of the war on terror "renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."
Evidently the Bush administration thinks prohibitions on torture, and Congress’ lawmaking authority in our own Constitution, are quaint.
Gonzales, who is often mentioned as a prospective Bush nominee for the Supreme Court, went on to assure his boss that "your determination [to bypass the Geneva Conventions] would create a reasonable basis in law that Section 2441 [the War Crimes Statute] does not apply, which would provide a solid defense to any future prosecution." So Bush’s own decision to bypass Geneva gives him a defense to violating Geneva.
One year ago, Bush repudiated torture in a statement on the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture: "Torture anywhere is an affront to human dignity everywhere," he assured us disingenuously.
Trying to calm the mushrooming public relations disaster occasioned by the leaking of the legal opinions, Bush said flippantly, "The instructions went out to our people to adhere to law. That ought to comfort you." But last week, when Bush was asked whether he had seen the Justice Department memo, he answered, "I don’t remember."
Rumsfeld, who, according to a Defense Department spokesman, approved 24 of 35 interrogation techniques in a classified directive, refuses to state publicly what he sanctioned. Ashcroft defied Congressional requests to release the legal policy memo prepared at his instigation.
"There are some extremely damaging documents around, which link senior figures to the abuses," according to former New York Bar Association chairman Scott Horton, who is advising dissenters at the Pentagon. He maintains, "The biggest bombs in this case have yet to be dropped."
If Bush knew or should have known about the torture, and failed to stop or prevent it, he could be liable for "command responsibility" if prosecuted under the War Crimes Act or the Torture Statute. A federal court in Miami in July 2002 held two retired Salvadoran generals liable for torture, even though neither had perpetrated or ordered it.
On January 21, 2004, a prisoner gave a sworn statement to the Washington Post about his experience in Abu Ghraib. He reported being beaten on his kidneys and ear until he lost consciousness, being tied to the window with his hands behind his back until he lost consciousness, and being sodomized with a stick about 2 centimeters into his anus.
Sgt. Greg Ford, a California National Guardsman, said he repeatedly revived prisoners who had passed out after being choked in an Iraqi police station. Ford saw a soldier stand on the back of a handcuffed detainee’s neck and pull his arms until they popped out of their sockets. "Twice I had to pull burning cigarettes out of detainee’s ears," according to Ford.
Another former National Guardsman was choked and beaten to the point of brain damage, while acting as a detainee being beaten by fellow military policeman during training at Guantanamo.
These accounts do not describe conduct befitting a civilized country.
George W. Bush came into the White House - albeit through the back door - pledging to restore honor to the White House. Instead, he has dishonored America by leading us into an illegal war under false pretenses.
In light of the Defense and Justice Department documents, there is probable cause to believe that the commander-in-chief condoned the methodology of torture to secure information from prisoners.
The Constitution mandates the impeachment of a President for high crimes and misdemeanors. There is no higher crime than a war crime. Willful killing, torture and inhuman treatment constitute grave breaches of the Geneva Convention, which are considered war crimes under The War Crimes Act of 1996. Even if Bush’s lawyers could successfully parse the meaning of torture, they cannot deny that the atrocities we’ve seen constitute inhuman treatment.
Bush impliedly admitted sanctioning willful killing, torture and inhuman treatment in his 2003 State of the Union Address. He would be liable under the doctrine of command responsibility for war crimes committed in Iraq as well. The captain goes down with his ship. It is time to call for the Impeachment of George W. Bush.
Marjorie Cohn, is a
contributing editor to t r u t h o u t, a professor at
Thomas Jefferson School of Law, executive vice president of
the National Lawyers Guild, and the U.S. representative to
the executive committee of the American Association of