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Fitzgerald Needs to Dig Deeper

The prosecutor needs to examine the underlying reasons for the leak -- specifically, what crimes were committed in leading us into war on Iraq.
 
 
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Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation into the leak of a CIA operative's name has reaffirmed the basic American principle that even the highest government officials are subject to the rule of law. His charges represent the start of a revitalization of the institutions designed to maintain government under law. But that revitalization still has a long way to go.

As a prosecutor, Mr. Fitzgerald rightly brought charges where the law was clearest and the evidence most compelling. But the alleged crimes he is investigating are in essence the apparent cover-up operation for another possible set of crimes against national and international law. Why would I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby commit perjury and lie to FBI agents, as he is accused of doing?

The letters from Acting Attorney General James B. Comey appointing Mr. Fitzgerald delegated to him "all the authority of the attorney general" to investigate and prosecute "violations of any federal criminal laws related to the underlying alleged unauthorized disclosure."

We would argue that Mr. Comey's charge, based on the evidence Mr. Fitzgerald has uncovered, authorizes the special prosecutor to investigate the following:

Did top Bush administration officials deceive Congress? Several federal statutes make it a crime to lie to Congress. As Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York recently put it, "If, as mounting evidence is tending to show, administration officials deliberately deceived Congress and the American people, this would constitute a criminal conspiracy against the entire country."

Did top administration officials violate the U.S. Anti-Torture Act? The law makes torture and conspiracy to commit torture a crime. The former commander at Abu Ghraib prison, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, has stated that abusive techniques were "delivered with full authority and knowledge of the secretary of defense and probably [Vice President Dick] Cheney."

Did top administration officials violate the War Crimes Act? Passed by a Republican Congress in 1996, the law makes it a federal crime for any U.S. national to commit a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions.

In a 2002 memo, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, who was then White House counsel, urged that the United States "opt out" of the Geneva Conventions for the Afghan war on the grounds that opting out "substantially reduces the likelihood of prosecution under the War Crimes Act."

What was he worrying about? Did the special prosecutor find evidence that top Bush administration officials ordered or condoned the string of Geneva Conventions violations that run from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay and from the leveling of Fallujah to attacks on medical facilities?

Did top administration officials violate the War Powers Act? The law requires the president to present to Congress the basis for proposed U.S. military action. If the administration provided false information, is it guilty of violating the War Powers Act and, in effect, usurping the war powers given to Congress under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution?

Did top administration officials violate the U.N. Charter? U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said the U.S. attack on Iraq was "illegal." The conduct of the war has involved many breaches of internationally guaranteed protections of civilians. Did the special prosecutor find evidence of deliberate violation of U.S. treaty obligations, which under Article VI of the Constitution are the law of the land?

If the special prosecutor found evidence of violation of "any criminal laws," he is obliged to investigate and prosecute. Where the abuses he finds are not covered by existing federal law, they must be addressed by Congress, either by new laws or through the impeachment process.

The Bush administration's alleged abuses of national and international law are closely linked. The Valerie Plame affair was not just a random incident, but rather an effort to silence critics attempting to halt an aggressive war whose initiation and conduct appear to have violated both national and international law. Indeed, aggressive war, illegal conduct of war and torture are nothing less than war crimes.

Investigation and, if warranted, prosecution of such crimes is crucial for the revitalization of democratic government in our country. To let such flagrant flouting of the rule of law go unpunished would be to invite government officials to subvert our Constitution again.

Repudiating war crimes committed by high U.S. officials is also an essential starting point for repairing the damage done to our country's international relationships and reputation. There is no way to take the taint off our country for the abuses symbolized by Abu Ghraib without holding those responsible for them accountable.

This editorial originally appeared in the Baltimore Sun.

Brendan Smith , a legal scholar, and Jeremy Brecher , a historian, are editors of In the Name of Democracy: American War Crimes in Iraq and Beyond .