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If Obama Doesn't Prosecute Bush's Torture Team, We'll Pay a Big Price Down the Road

Obama isn't likely to pursue torture atrocities during the Bush era, but this is one problem you simply can't wish away.

"How did it come about that American military personnel stripped detainees naked, put them in stress positions, used dogs to scare them, put leashes around their necks to humiliate them, hooded them, deprived them of sleep and blasted music at them? Were these actions the result of 'a few bad apples' acting on their own? It would be a lot easier to accept if it were. But that's not the case."

-- Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, June 17, 2008


It was a short but significant report in Newsweek last week, and it began like this:

Despite the hopes of many human rights advocates, the new Obama Justice Department is not likely to launch major new criminal probes of harsh interrogations and other alleged abuses by the Bush administration. But one idea that has currency among some top Obama advisers is setting up a 9/11-style commission that would investigate counterterrorism policies and make public as many details as possible. "At a minimum, the American people have to be able to see and judge what happened," said one senior adviser, who asked not to be identified for talking about policy matters. The commission would be empowered to order the U.S. intelligence agencies to open their files for review and question senior officials who approved "waterboarding" and other controversial practices.

The article, written by Michael Isikoff, came at the heels of another report by the Associated Press, which quoted a pair of anonymous Obama advisors as saying that there was little-to-no chance that an Obama Justice Department would try to prosecute Bush-era officials for torture. The same report quoted Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., as saying that members of the Bush administration would not face war crimes charges in the United States. "These things are not going to happen."

Common consensus is that the Bush administration has been the most lawless in U.S. history. From its illegal invasion of Iraq to the corporate-assisted, warrantless wiretapping of its own constituents, the Bush White House seems never to have held a view of the law from below. And, since long before the election of Barack Obama, a number of groups and individuals have called for accountability, from a vocal network of people calling for impeachment for Bush's illegal and fraudulent invasion of Iraq, to, this summer, the bluntly labeled campaign, Send Karl Rove to Jail.

But if ever there was a stain on the fabric of American democracy that must be deserving of prosecution, it is the dark legacy of torture left by the Bush administration. From Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo to the CIA's "secret sites," proof abounds that the U.S. government engaged in systematic torture that was approved by top government officials. Ironically, a central laboratory for this corrosion of the country's moral and legal code was the very office charged with defending the rule of law: the Department of Justice.

"It is these attorneys -- Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, James Bybee, David Addington and William Haynes -- who provided the legal basis for much of the torture and abuse that occurred at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and other U.S. detention facilities around the globe," Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, writes in the recently published The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld: A Prosecution by Book. In Ratner's view, the prosecution of these attorneys, as well as Bush, Cheney and the rest, is a critical part of not just imposing accountability on those who approved and carried out torture in the name of the American people, but in dismantling a legal framework that could lead to more torture in the future.

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