Six months ago, Slate compiled a Venn-diagram of presidential offenses that laid out and color-coded the crimes for which members of the Bush administration could potentially be prosecuted. As an exercise in wishful thinking, the diagram had John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales hitting the criminal jackpot, racking up charges of clandestine wiretapping, illegal Justice Department hiring and firings, involvement in the C.I.A. tapes scandal, and condoning coercive interrogation. On the lesser end of things, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleeza Rice all kept their hands relatively clean, sanctioning only coercive interrogation, or as those of us unversed in Newspeak like to call it, torture. Looking at the diagram, the administration’s ability to normalize the scope of their crimes comes off as nothing short of incredible. While the call to prosecute Bush often seems like a pipe dream promoted in liberal college towns and on blue-state car bumpers, as Scott Horton observed in his December 2008 Harper’s cover story, “this administration did more than commit crimes. It waged war against the law itself.”
Last Friday, I was woken by an early morning call from my mother in D.C. vaguely instructing me to read the lead story of the day’s newspaper. I pulled up the Times’s website only to find articles about the newly uncovered Ponzi scandal splashed across the front page—not, I assumed, what she had called about. A visit to the Washington Post’s site clarified matters. On the front page of the December 12th Post I found the article that had been quietly relegated to page A14 of the Times’s print edition: “Report on Detainee Abuse Blames Top Bush Officials.” According to a report released by the Senate Armed Service Committee, a bipartisan panel of senators headed by none other than John McCain, top Bush officials had been found directly responsible for the illegal treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay: a flat rejection of the administration’s contention that “a few bad apples” had spoiled the bunch. “The report,” its authors wrote, “is the most direct refutation to date of the administration’s rationale for using aggressive interrogation tactics—that inflicting humiliation and pain on detainees was legal and effective, and helped protect the country. The 25-member panel, without one dissent among the 12 Republican members, declared the opposite to be true.”
So why was a report of this magnitude, a publicly damning statement issued by a congressional panel and a potential cornerstone for legal action against the administration, generally overlooked in the media? In light of the recent outcry imploring Barack Obama to close Guantanamo before he even sets foot in the Oval Office, why dismiss one of the first real steps in this direction? Perhaps it’s political neurasthenia or an unwillingness to entertain the possibility of change with Bush still in office, but as we approach the end of one of the most disastrous political tenures in American history, it seems like the best way to prepare for a brighter political future is to realign ourselves with the values that have been lost.
On December 15th, three days after the report was released, ABC’s Jonathan Karl was granted an exclusive interview with Vice-President Dick Cheney, who is fully aware that a month from now he will have to take Henry Kissinger-like precautions whenever he goes on foreign vacations. After a brief discussion about the threat of terrorism, the interview turned to Cheney’s opinions about the extent and use of torture:
Karl: Did you authorize the tactics that were used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed? [Mohammed, considered one of the Agency’s “toughest” prisoners, was subjected to the C.I.A.’s enhanced interrogation techniques, which included sleep deprivation, extreme temperatures, forced standing, and most famously, waterboarding.]
Cheney: I was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared, as the agency in effect came in and wanted to know what they could and couldn’t do. And they talked to me, as well as others, to explain what they wanted to do. And I supported it.
Karl: In hindsight, do you think any of those tactics that were used on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others went too far?
Cheney: I don’t.
To raise the same question that MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann posed the following night to George Washington University constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley, “As overly dramatic as this question will sound, did Dick Cheney just confess to a war crime?”
As Slate, the Washington Post, and Turley make explicitly clear, the actions of this administration have surpassed the realm of defense and entered into that of criminality, raising the kinds of human rights issues associated with the so-called “rogue regimes” that have been so fiercely targeted over the past eight years. But what now? How to begin the process of dealing with the normalized crime of the Bush era? The first thing to do is to call the media to task—Cheney’s comment was largely overshadowed in the press by more trivial matters. When the second-in-command of the most powerful country in the world speaks flippantly about committing war crimes, everybody should be paying attention. Beyond this, Horton has proposed the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission—a hydra-headed executive/legislative committee designed to hold the administration accountable to the law that they’ve worked so effectively to dismantle. While Horton dismisses the possibility of holding trials in an international criminal court, a commission would at least be a symbolic gesture—an on-the-record repudiation of this government’s criminal actions.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.