Is Nancy Pelosi Really Against War Crimes?

Is it even remotely possible that senior officials in the Bush administration – maybe even at least one of the top two – will be the target of public war crime hearings and even criminal prosecutions, here in the United States? From dismissal only a few months ago by leading Democrats in Washington as unthinkable, the glorious possibility can at least be glimpsed in the middle distance, like the mountain lion I saw here a decade ago in the twilight, loping off into the brush.

For the perps, overseas is already dangerous terrain. George W Bush’s first defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, fled Paris a couple of years ago to avoid having to honor a subpoena from French investigators, replicating a similarly hasty exit from the French jurisdiction by former secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

For almost the entire four years of Bush’s second term, one of the main campaigns of the left was to pressure the Democratic leadership to support impeachment proceedings against the president and vice-president. The posture of your CounterPunch editors was always that impeachment was never on the cards and consumed far too much energy, not to mention expectation. We always said that the realistic line should be to ensure that Bush, Cheney, Rice, Gonzales, Yoo and the others should spend the rest of their lives on the Most Wanted lists, afeared to answer a knock on the hotel room door in any foreign capital, lest it presage a lawyer with a subpoena or a pair of handcuffs.

Following regime change in Washington in January,  the official tone in Washington remained anchored in  “bygones be bygones” mode.

Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont has talked about a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he claimed would instruct future transgressors that  torture is just plain wrong and contrary to international  laws and covenants. Maybe Leahy’s hogging of the torture-probe spotlight  irked House Majority leader, Nancy Pelosi.  Last Wednesday, February 25, Pelosi was interviewed for an hour  by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who asked the top House Democrat what her reaction would be to any charges levelled at the Republicans who’ve now retreated to private life and are writing their memoirs.

Maddow: “If the US Justice Department’s inspector general report that comes out this summer suggests that there has been criminal activity at the official level on issues like torture, or wireless wiretapping, or rendition, or any of these other issues…”

Pelosi: “No one is above the law. I think I have said that.”

In active English, Pelosi’s pious phraseology about no one being “above the law” translates into something like: “These guys are out of power and their popularity ratings are in the toilet so now  it’s safe at least to talk about turning the dogs on them.”

And since Pelosi controls the assignment of hearings to relevant committees in the House, this means that she could give the green light to House Justice Committee chairman John Conyers to organize hearings. Equipped with a capable director and subpoena power – that is, the ability to compel testimony and documents under the threat of criminal sanction – such hearings could form the first of what the left regards as necessary show trials, both of the criminals in Washington who trashed the Constitution and the criminals on Wall Street who looted the economy.

Officials of an avowedly outlaw regime would be in the dock for flouting the US constitution and international law regarding treatment of ‘enemy combatants’ and torture of captives either directly by US personnel or indirectly, by kidnapping those suspected of terrorism and handing them over to allies to be tormented in prisons in Egypt or Thailand or eastern Europe.

There is already a significant trail of evidence that links torture in the US prisons at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib directly to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as Andrew Cockburn described here on this website nearly two years ago. According to a sworn statement by Air Force Lt General Randall Schmidt, appointed in 2005 to investigate charges by FBI officials that there had been widespread abuse at Guantanamo, Rumsfeld gave verbal and subsequently written approval to torture suspects, using the notorious techniques of isolation, sleep deprivation and psychic degradation.

When the micro-managing defense secretary was apprised by Schmidt of his own documented instructions to the torturers in Guantanamo, Rumsfeld said in apparent surprise: “Did [I] say ‘put a bra and panties on this guy’s head and make him dance with another man?'”

In the case of Abu Ghraib, there is again a trail of evidence showing it was Rumsfeld who personally decreed and monitored stress positions, individual phobias, such as fear of dogs, sleep deprivation, and waterboarding. One US army officer, Janis Karpinski, has described finding in Abu Ghraib a piece of paper stuck on a pole outside a little office used by the interrogators.

It was a memorandum signed by Rumsfeld, authorising techniques such as use of dogs, stress positions, starvation. On the paper, in Rumsfeld’s handwriting, was the terse instruction, “Make sure this happens!!”

In contrast to Pelosi’s maybe temporarily toughening posture, over at the White House Obama has been sticking  to the line that partisan witch hunts are part of the old politics of divisiveness and that it’s time to move on

Obama’s Justice Department lawyers have told U.S. judges in explicit terms  that the new administration will not be moving on from Bush’s policies on the legal status of renditions and of supposed enemy combatants. Lawyers from Holder’s DoJ have emphasized to judges that they, like DoJ lawyers instructed by Gonzales and Mukasey, contend that captives seized by the US government and conveyed to secret prisons to be tortured have no standing in US courts and the Obama regime has no legal obligations to defend or even admit its actions in any US courtroom.   “Enemy combatants” will not be afforded international legal protections, whether on the field of battle in Afghanistan or, if kidnapped by US personnel, anywhere in the world.

This explicit continuity with the lawless Bush years has deeply disappointed many of Obama’s supporters, though the current levels of Obama-worship are reminiscent of similar levels of uncritical adulation back in the Camelot era of John F. Kennedy.

Perhaps the need to apply some salve to the disappointment impelled Pelosi to take the harder stand she adopted last Wednesday. It’s hard to believe that the San Francisco millionairess actually wants to see pitiless investigation in a House committee of torture policies she effectively condoned in the Bush years. But here is a rich opportunity for the left. Obama’s pledges in the campaign  to run a lawful government were very explicit.

Last Tuesday he declared to the joint session of Congress that “I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture. We can make that commitment here tonight.” Of course this is an outrageous lie.  In all likelihood a CIA officer or agent is torturing a captive in Afghanistan even as I write these lines. More generally, the US does torture, the same way it always has, furnishing its kidnapped victims to subcontractors in secret prisons. As the doors of Guantanamo close, there are many unknown facilities around the world supervised by the CIA, running ful blast, with zero accountability.

If Pelosi feels it politically meet to open the door a crack, we should welcome the opportunity. We’re looking here at a campaign for retribution that will last well beyond an Obama presidency and which may indeed include Obama himself among its targets, if he pursues his present policies.


Footnote: I took this photos of tortured people at the Museum of the City of Lima and of the Inquisition a couple of weeks ago. CounterPunchers should start building similar museums right here, right now.

Last Call!

There’s still just a couple of days in which  to subscribe and get our current crackerjack newsletter. Eamonn Fingleton has a terrific piece on Bernie Madoff, describing in compelling detail how the press dropped the ball on this apex Wall Street scamster who looted $50 billion. The Wall Street Journal  actually had the story in 2005, having been handed his 19-page report by Harry Markopolos, accurately outlining Madoff’s criminal enterprise. The SEC had turned its face to the wall, prompted to inaction by internal inertia and possible corruption, also by powerful forces in Congress.  A story in the Journal, using Markopolos’ research, would have blown Madoff sky-high and saved billions for the people he bilked, the not-so-rich as well as the plutocrats. But the Journal did nothing and Fingleton describes how and why it took that course. The New York Times displayed similarly apathy. Amid  the death throes of the old corporate press, Fingleton pitilessly excavates one of its greatest failures.  The smoking gun was placed in their newsroom  in-trays and they carefully looked the other way.

Also in this new edition of our newsletter Paul Craig Roberts concludes his three-part series on economics,  — the shortest, sharpest guide ever written. Let me quote a couple of paragraphs:

Modern economic theory is based on “empty-world” economics. But, in fact, today the world is full. In a “full world,” the fish catch is limited by the remaining population of fish, not by the number of fishing boats, which are man-made capital in excess supply. Oil energy is limited by geological deposits, not by the drilling and pumping capacity of man-made capital. In national income accounting, the use of man-made capital is depreciated, but the use of nature’s capital has no cost. Therefore, the using up of natural capital always results in economic growth.

For example, the dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico from fertilizer runoff from chemical fertilizer farming are not counted as a cost against the increase in agricultural output from chemical farming. The brown clouds that reduce light over large areas of Asia are not included as costs in the production of energy from coal. Economists continue to assume that the only limits to growth are labor, man-made capital, and consumer demand. In fact, the critical limit is ecological.

Get our newsletter to read Roberts’ outline of full-world economics.

Subscribe Now!

ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.