Top 11 Torturers of the Bush Years

Obviously guilty: two presidents and much of two administrations


According to recent polling, something like half of all Americans who were asked questions weighted to support torture answered that the torture was “justified.” The good news here is that something like half of all Americans, responding to push-poll type questions, still aren’t willing to say the government is justified in torturing in their name.

The more serious question is why “respected” polling organizations use biased questions and why “respected” news organizations report the results uncritically. ABC News/Washington Post asks about “treatment of suspected terrorists” (no hint that innocents were tortured). Pew frames the question with “the September 11th terrorist attacks” (no hint the torture went on for years after). CBS News uses a false choice, “sometimes justified” versus “never justified,” as well as calling the victims “suspected terrorists.” HuffPost also uses “suspected terrorists” and adds “details about future terrorist attacks” to load the question further (no hint that no such person with such details has yet been identified).

In other words, we have dishonest polling organizations asking dishonest questions that dishonest media report as if they were not dishonest. And still something like half of the manipulated poll-takers are unwilling to endorse torture. That is a source of hope. Especially if some pollster would ask people if they think torture is legal anywhere?

Or maybe some pollster could ask people if they know how many times Bush and members of his administration have been convicted as war criminals for committing torture and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of people. The answer is: once. In 2012, the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission tried Bush and seven others in absentia. Bush and the others refused to participate. Kuala Lumpur’s attempts to arrest Bush in Canada were blocked by the Canadian government.

George Bush and Dick Cheney knew perfectly well that what they wanted others to do in their name was both torture and illegal, that’s why they went to such lengths to get compliant lawyers to call it something else and say that other thing was legitimate. So the list has to begin with them. Where it ends is a long way beyond ten. Everyone on the list is almost surely a participant or accomplice in years of torture. Each, at a minimum, needs to be publicly examined under oath, subject to all relevant law, including perjury.

Top 10 Government Torturers, 2001-2014

1. George Bush. As president, he’s accountable for all the acts of his administration, especially the ones he ordered and/or approved. An anonymous CIA spokesman says Bush “fully authorized torture.” Karl Rove says Bush knew about and approved of torture, and participated in it, as did Rove. Dick Cheney says Bush knew and approved. In early 2008, Bush vetoed legislation designed to control the CIA, including a ban on waterboarding. Congress failed to override the veto. Bush was convicted in Kuala Lumpur in 2012.

2. Dick Cheney. The vice president says he knew, he approved, and he would “do it again in a minute.” He has famously promoted “the dark side.” He was convicted in Kuala Lumpur in 2012.

3. Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor, knew, approved, and participated. She has pleaded bad memory to Congress, but still publicly defends torture now. Her assistant and successor, Stephen J. Hadley, was either in the loop or unbelievably feckless, as were an unknown number of staffers and members of the National Security Council.

4. Andrew Card, White House chief of staff, knew, approved, and participated, even though he’s a Life Boy Scout. Why should Card, who accuses Barack Obama of misleading the American people, continue as president of Franklin Pierce University? Card’s successor, Joshua Bolten, and an unknown number of other White House staffers are almost surely accomplices. The son of a CIA father, Bolten is a lawyer who teaches at Princeton despite his ties to torture as well as a contempt of Congress citation for stonewalling in another matter. Bolten is also co-chair of the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, a non-profit organization that’s supposedly helping a country the U.S. has tortured for the better part of two centuries.

5. Alberto Gonzales. As White House Counsel, and later as Attorney General, he not only knew, approved, and participated, he was one of the main legal apologists for the torture regime. His successors, Harriet Miers, an especially close Bush aide, and Fred Fielding, a Watergate survivor thought by some to be Deep Throat, both likely knew and remained silent about official torture. Fielding stonewalled Senate requests for documents relating to torture. Gonzales was convicted in Kuala Lumpur in 2012. Why should they not be disbarred?

6. Jay Bybee. As an Assistant Attorney General under the late (but guilty) John Ashcroft, Bybee was in charge of the Office of Legal Counsel, the office that decides what’s legal, subject to reversal only by the attorney general or the president. Bybee was the midwife of Bush torture policy justifications, a number of legal memoranda that allowed the Bush administration to claim that torture and other crimes were legal. These are generally known as the “Torture Memos” and illustrate the workings of a fine legal mind operating without conscience. Before some of his torture memos became public, Bybee was confirmed to a lifetime appointment as a federal judge. In 2013, Judge Bybee ruled, in an apparently gross conflict of interest, that government personnel should be immune from any liability for torture. Why should he not be disbarred? Or impeached? Bybee was convicted in Kuala Lumpur in 2012.

7. John Yoo. Working in the Office of Legal Counsel under Bybee, Yoo was the prime author of several of the torture memos, built on the philosophical premise that there are no constraints on the president’s power as commander-in-chief (a legal coup d’etat effectively rendering the Constitution irrelevant and the president omnipotent, all done in secret). In 2005, Yoo publicly affirmed the authority of the president to order the crushing of an innocent child’s testicles. In 2009, Barack Obama revoked Yoo’s torture memos, but in 2010 a secret proceeding in the Justice Department “cleared” Yoo of wrongdoing. These days, Yoo continues to protect torturers in the White House, while shifting any blame to the CIA. He continues to teach lat at the University of California, Berkeley. Why should he not be disbarred? He was convicted in Kuala Lumpur in 2012.

8. David Addington. Legal counsel (and later chief of staff) to Dick Cheney, Addington was by many accounts among the hardest of the hardliners driving to the dark side, backed by Cheney’s full authority. He knew, he approved, and he participated in U.S. torture program and their legal fig leaves. His predecessor as chief of staff, lawyer Scooter Libby, also knew, approved, and participated in torture. He was convicted of perjury about other government crimes and disbarred (temporarily). Addington is now a vice president at the Heritage Foundation. He was convicted in Kuala Lumpur in 2012. Why should he not be disbarred?

9. Donald Rumsfeld. As Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld knew, approved and participated in torture programs wherever the military went. Abu Ghraib. Bagram. Guantanamo. And other places, some unknown. Rumsfeld expresses no remorse, least of all in the documentary “The Unknown Known.” Rumsfeld’s deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, knew, approved, and participated in torture programs, seeking information to justify the war on Iraq. He is now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. William Haynes, general counsel for the Defense Department, knew, approved, and participated in torture programs. For trying Guantanamo prisoners, Haynes designed the military commissions that were later ruled unconstitutional. In a 2002 memo, Haynes blocked further waterboarding of Guantanamo prisoners, citing the Armed Forces “tradition of restraint.” Rumsfeld and Haynes were convicted in Kuala Lumpur. Why should Haynes not be disbarred?

10. James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. Private contractors and PhD psychologists who call themselves Dr., Mitchell and Jessen were paid $81 million (on a $180 million contract) to torture people. Both are retired Air Force officers on government pension. Reportedly the CIA has indemnified them against liability for any crimes they’ve committed. They were hands-on torturers and know, literally, where at least some of the bodies are buried. CIA general counsel John Rizzo (who also knew, approved, and participated in torture) called Mitchell & Jessen’s techniques “sadistic and terrifying.” No one knows how many private contractors, like Blackwater and others, tortured, disappeared, or murdered people, but they should be brought to account.

11. George Tenet. The Clinton-appointed head of the CIA is awash in torture-guilt, but that pales compared to his role in lying the U.S. into an aggressive war in Iraq, one of the highest war crimes. In 2004, Bush gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he should give back. In 2007 he was still saying, “We don’t torture people.” His successors, especially Porter Goss and Michael Hayden, may have tidied up the CIA a bit, but they held no one accountable for the crimes they continued to deny. The new Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, forced Goss out at the CIA in favor of Negroponte’s deputy Hayden, then still a four-star Air Force general. As ambassador to Honduras, Negroponte was immersed in the dirty wars of Central America and all the unaddressed crimes the U.S. sponsored there. In 2004, when the CIA inspector general reported that the CIA was violating the Convention Against Torture, assistant attorney general Steven Bradbury in the Office of Legal Counsel wrote three more “torture memos” to quash the inspector general’s concern. The new CIA head, John Brennan, remains in denial and cover-up mode.

How does any nation recover from being a rogue state?

Even though this top 10 list includes way more than ten people guilty of participating in torture, it’s by no means an exhaustive list of all the government workers with greater or lesser culpability for crimes against humanity over the past three presidencies. Kidnapping, euphemistically called extraordinary rendition, grew popular in the Clinton administration and there’s no reason to believe our government has abandoned the practice, any more than the government has given up torture, illegal detention, or assassination. The U.S. may be less of a rogue state now than it was a decade ago, but it’s still far from an honorable member of the international community that accepts accountability under international law.

To be clear, torture has long been a chronic, low level vein of criminality by U.S. government operatives, with bipartisan collusion at least since the beginning of the Cold War. Torture (and murder) was endemic to the American Indian Wars of the 19th century and to U.S. military predation in the Philippines (1899-1913), where Mark Twain described the troops as “our uniformed assassins.”

The U.S. Defense Department, formerly the War Department, has considered torture one of its options during its entire existence, used sparingly perhaps by the U.S. government but encouraged among our proxies around the world. Starting in 1946, the School of the Americas (now known euphemistically as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) has periodically trained the military officers of Latin American dictatorships in the uses of torture in peacetime.

The CIA and its proxies have used torture on an as-needed basis since the CIA was created in 1947. The CIA’s Phoenix Program in Viet-Nam combined torture and assassination in a years-long terror campaign against the Viet Cong (also terrorists). What the CIA did in Laos, Cambodia, and elsewhere is less well known (if known at all) but not less ugly and criminal. Some sense of official atrocity can be inferred from the CIA torture manuals supplied to Central American dictatorships during the Reagan administration.

Even in the context of longstanding, institutionalized official torture – Torturers ’R’ US, in effect – the Bush administration took American government crime to a new level not seen in official circles since a similar panic produced the Salem witch killings. What George Bush, Dick Cheney, and their accomplices did out of blind fear was to embrace torture as right and just. Previously, even the structure of torture programs reflected guilty knowledge that the practice is abhorrent, hence better done by others on our behalf whether in Iran or Argentina, Iraq or Guatemala, wherever perceived witches threatened supposed American interests.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights is a British lawyer named Ben Emmerson. Regarding the CIA torture report, he issued a statement saying, in part:

The individuals responsible for the criminal conspiracy revealed in today’s report must be brought to justice, and must face criminal penalties commensurate with the gravity of their crimes.

The fact that the policies revealed in this report were authorised at a high level within the US Government provides no excuse whatsoever. Indeed, it reinforces the need for criminal accountability.

International law prohibits the granting of immunities to public officials who have engaged in acts of torture. This applies not only to the actual perpetrators but also to those senior officials within the US Government who devised, planned and authorised these crimes.

As a matter of international law, the US is legally obliged to bring those responsible to justice…. States are not free to maintain or permit impunity for these grave crimes.

It is no defence for a public official to claim that they were acting on superior orders….

However, the heaviest penalties should be reserved for those most seriously implicated in the planning and purported authorisation of these crimes…. There is therefore no excuse for shielding the perpetrators from justice any longer. The US Attorney General is under a legal duty to bring criminal charges against those responsible.

Torture is a crime of universal jurisdiction. The perpetrators may be prosecuted by any other country they may travel to. However, the primary responsibility for bringing them to justice rests with the US Department of Justice and the Attorney General. [emphasis added]

The Obama administration has a moral and legal duty to bring American war criminals of three administrations to justice. Not to do so is to continue to use American exceptionalism as a justification for the worst crimes against humanity. The national precedent is to honor those most responsible for government crimes, but what honor is there in that?

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