Civil Liberties

The People v. Bush: How to Prosecute a President

Our struggle for accountability is a struggle that takes us right to the top, to the “decider” and his gang of criminals. We can no longer afford political timidity.

In the main foyer of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Court of Appeals in New York, a giant female statute cloaked in white robes literally leaps out at the visitor, bearing aloft the scales of justice, equally balanced. She is blindfolded, signifying that justice must be blind, regardless of rank or class. She’s one of the oldest icons in history, dating back to the ancient Greeks. Her name is Lady Justice, and her plea for equal justice under the law has never been more relevant than today in the United States of America.

Many Americans feel her call, yet find themselves repeatedly let down by an atmosphere of impunity that still reigns in this country despite the departure of George W. Bush from the White House. The latest, most public example comes from two eminent physicians who wrote “Doctors Without Morals” in Monday’s New York Times. They have written an op-ed that decries the fact that “government doctors and psychologists who participated in and authorized the torture of detainees have escaped discipline, accountability or even internal investigations.” They ruefully point out that government lawyers who tried to legalize illegal torture under the Bush administration were at least subjected to a “transparent investigation of professional behavior,” whereas government doctors received no  scrutiny at all from members of their profession.

Those of us who care about justice and accountability can take some solace in the fact that Representative Jerry Nadler of New York has just forwarded on to the respective bar counsels of former Justice Department lawyers Jay Byee and John Yoo  the results of a five-year internal investigation of them by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR). The OPR recommends disciplinary action against the two lawyers for their role in providing legal gloss to torture, a decidedly criminal act. 

Still, even this relatively positive news is a mixed bag. A top lawyer at the Justice Department over-ruled the OPR’s recommendation, instead letting both lawyers off with a mild reprimand for their “poor judgment.” Meanwhile, Georgetown Law Professor David Luban, writing in Slate this week, noted that state bar associations "tend to be cautious and politically timid, and experts have told me that the probability of action from either the D.C. bar counsel [against Yoo] or his Pennsylvania counterpart [regarding Bybee] was close to zero. “

This leaves us with two choices: accepting this grim prognostication, or getting off our duffs and fighting for the soul of America. Because let’s face it: We can no longer afford political timidity. At the heart of our struggle for accountability is a struggle for democracy, a struggle that takes us right to the top, to the “decider” and his gang of criminals who now live in comfort after authorizing the despicable behavior of doctors and lawyers and CIA interrogators and brought shame upon our country.

As I’ve noted previously, Yoo and Bybee are the lynchpins holding together the chain of criminal evidence leading directly to Bush’s White House. Their culpability is not just over justifying acts of torture, which is a crime under U.S. and international law. They memo’d up in order to help their boss, President Bush, find a way to U.S. soldiers into a pre-emptive, murderous war in Iraq. One of those ways was by issuing secret “legal” memos that created out of whole cloth  a “war time president” with nearly dictatorial powers. Another way was giving legal cover to the CIA for its torturing of at least three high-level detainees in 2002 and early 2003 to obtain false confessions concerning their (non-existent) connections to Saddam Hussein. Yoo and Bybee, along with a slew of compliant doctors in America’s torture chambers, became handmaidens to a policy designed to get us involved in a war based on false pretenses. Evidence abounds that these doctors and lawyers are complicit, along with the top people in Bush’s circle, in murder and war crimes. For this, they should all be prosecuted.

What can you do? For starters, you can seek out websites that call for disbarment at the very least (hoosagainstyoo.org, and disbartorturelawyers.org are two) and for prosecution (lawsnotmen.org, afterdowningstreet.org, warcriminalswatch.org) .You can also find ten pages of organizational resources on the accountability movement in my book, The People v. Bush, including bloggers and websites, political and religious organizations, sympathetic media outlets, lawyers and physicians. Get involved with the group(s) of your choice. Go to PeoplevBush.com and find a set of Frequently Asked Questions about How to Prosecute a President. 

Remind your representatives in Congress that when Obama took office, the number one wish from supporters on his website was for the criminal investigation and prosecution of George W. Bush and his top advisers. A Gallup poll taken a month later found that the majority of Americans wanted an investigation, with one third wanting prosecutions. You need to let Congress – and Obama – know your feelings have not changed, and that you do not accept Obama’s mantra that moving forward is preferable to moving backward. Remind them of a January, 2010 New York Times editorial: “The rule of law rests on scrutinizing evidence of past behavior to establish accountability, confer justice and deter bad behavior in the future.” Remind them that the seventh anniversary of the Iraq war is upon us, and that those responsible for sending over 4,000 American troops and a million Iraqi civilians to their graves should be held to account.

And if you are up for an adventure, bring your reps, your lawyer and doctor friends, and anyone else who cares about accountability on a field trip to the Daniel P. Moynihan Federal Courthouse, located in the civic center of lower Manhattan not far from Wall Street. Pay a visit to Lady Justice, and as you do, contemplate the meaning of what you see: a giant white-cloaked apparition crying out to be heard in the midst of security guards and surveillance cameras. You are not allowed to photograph her, but you can walk around her, pay homage if you like, and vow that her message – equal justice for all –one day will be heard.

Charlotte Dennett is the author of the newly released The People v. Bush: One Lawyer’s Campaign to Bring the President to Justice and the National Grassroots Movement She Encounters Along the Way. Formerly a journalist reporting from the Middle East, she now practices law.