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Bush and His Cronies Bear 'Ultimate Responsibility' for Torture -- So What's Stopping Us from Prosecuting Them?

"No person is above the law," right?
 
 
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Now that a bipartisan blue-ribbon panel has reached the conclusion that President George W. Bush and his top advisers bear “ultimate responsibility” for authorizing torture in violation of domestic and international law, the question becomes what should the American people and their government do.

The logical answer would seem to be: prosecute Bush and his cronies (or turn them over to an international tribunal if the U.S. legal system can’t do the job). After all, everyone, including President Barack Obama and possibly even Bush himself, would agree with the principle that “no man is above the law.”

At least that is what they profess in public, but they then apply this principle selectively, proving that they don’t really mean it at all. The real-world standard seems to be: you are above the law if you have the political or economic clout to make prosecution difficult or painful. Then, more flexible rules apply.

For instance, we’re told that Pvt. Bradley Manning may have had good intentions in exposing U.S. government wrongdoing to WikiLeaks, but he still must be punished for taking the law into his own hands. The only question seems to be whether he should be imprisoned for 20 years or life.

Even the U.S. soldiers at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison who imitated the abusive techniques that Bush and his advisers authorized in more limited situations had to face justice. Eleven were convicted at court martial, and two enlisted personnel – Charles Graner and Lynndie England – were sentenced to ten and three years in prison, respectively. A few higher-level officers had their military careers derailed.

But the buck pretty much stopped there. It surely didn’t extend up to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, Vice President Dick Cheney and President Bush. They simply engaged in a game of circular excuse-making, claiming that they had relied on Justice Department legal guidance and thus their own criminal actions really weren’t criminal at all.

Yet, along with its judgments about torture, the 577-page report from the  Constitution Project obliterated that line of defense by detailing how the Bush administration’s lawyers offered up “acrobatic” legal opinions to justify the brutal interrogations, which included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress position, forced nudity and other acts constituting torture.

Lawyers from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, particularly John Yoo and Jay Bybee, collaborated closely with senior administration officials in choreographing these legal gymnastics. Then, when other government lawyers later challenged the Yoo-Bybee rationalizations, those lawyers faced career reprisals from the White House. They were essentially forced out of government, the report found.

In other words, Bush’s team had arranged its own legal opinions that empowered the President do whatever he wanted. Indeed, the Yoo-Bybee legal opinions gave the President carte blanche by citing his supposed “plenary powers,” meaning that he could do literally anything he wished during “wartime,” even a war as nebulously defined as the “war on terror.”

Establishment Blessing

While the new torture report mostly covers old ground about how the Bush administration moved into the “dark side,” the report’s primary significance is that its 11-member panel represents a bipartisan mix of Establishment figures.

The task force was headed by two former members of Congress who have worked in the Executive Branch – James R. Jones, D-Oklahoma, an ex-ambassador to Mexico, and Asa Hutchinson, R-Arkansas, who served as an under-secretary of Homeland Security during the Bush administration. Other members were prominent Americans from the fields of military, academia, law, ethics and diplomacy – including former FBI Director William Sessions and longtime senior diplomat Thomas Pickering.

 
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