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In March of 2003 the George W. Bush administration launched aggressive war against Iraq under manufactured claims of an illegal weapons program and a link between the Iraqi state and al-Qaeda. The entire leadership class in the U.S lined up to support the war with the major media actively promoting the fabricated threats fed to it by the Bush administration. The war and occupation effectively destroyed the secular nation-state of Iraq and led to the deaths of a million or more Iraqis, to the displacement of millions more; it destabilized neighboring countries and put into motion social dislocations that will last for decades to come. The effort included building of an international torture network to create the illusion that the crimes committed were outside of U.S. control.
The reason why launching aggressive war is considered the gravest of war crimes is that it leads to all of the depravities— murder, torture, rape and wholesale destruction, which follow. With establishment Washington and the mainstream press now in controlled disclosure mode with release of the Senate ‘torture report,’ left unsaid is that CIA torture was but an aspect of one of the most egregious criminal acts in human history, the U.S. war against and occupation of Iraq. And in contrast to the ACLU head Anthony Romero’s suggestion that a ‘strategic’ pardon be given the (George W) Bush administration for CIA torture, following from the Nuremberg precedent senior administration officials and their co-conspirators in the Senate should be given fair trials on all applicable war crimes charges and punished accordingly if convicted.
By limiting the scope of the report to torture by the CIA the breadth of the disaster that the U.S. produced in Iraq is reduced to an improbably low number of people who were tortured and limits institutional culpability for torture to the CIA. Senator Diane Feinstein, who managed the release of the report, was front and center in congressional complicity that allowed the Bush administration to launch aggressive war, torture, use outlawed chemical weapons (white phosphorous), slaughter captive populations (Fallujah) and replace the management of existing torture prisons in Iraq (Abu Ghraib) with American torturers. The report’s claim that the CIA hid the extent of its actions from Bush administration officials and Congress ignores that the administration solicited the legal opinions used as cover for torture and issued coded instructions (Rumsfeld: ‘take the gloves off’) to torture.
Presented as disclosure, the initial release reads like a classic cover up— admit only what is already known by degree, limit responsibility to a rogue unit or agency, place those in power a safe distance from direct knowledge of crimes, place the entire epic in the past and frame resolution as technical fixes needed to be made in the rogue agency alone. Whichever counts of those killed, maimed, tortured and raped in Iraq suits the reader, 200,000 or 1.2 million; it was the U.S. launch of aggressive war that led to all of it. In the current configuration of global power there is little chance that U.S. military aggression will be restrained by international law. But ‘disclosure’ of only a few dozen cases of torture is willful misdirection if it effectively hides the totality of the crimes committed and shifts culpability to one ‘rogue’ agency, the CIA.
Among the bad ideas being put forward, the suggestion that the Obama administration pardon culpable Bush administration officials for torture is a standout. Mr. Romero’s (ACLU) argument is that pardons would imply that Bush administration actions regarding torture were illegal. This is in contrast to the tacit consent Mr. Obama’s failure to hold the administration accountable currently infers, offers Mr. Romero. However, pardons are broad releases from criminal liability when the breadth of Bush administration (and Congressional) crimes remains substantially un-investigated. Additionally, the premise that the Obama administration’s failure to pursue criminal charges against senior Bush administration officials creates a legal precedent ignores that the Obama administration has a legal obligation to prosecute torture and it has failed to do so. Committing additional crimes doesn’t diminish those already committed.
Additionally, launching aggressive war, torture and use of outlawed chemical weapons were crimes when the Bush administration committed them. Mr. Obama’s tacit approval neither negates the crimes nor does it un-write the laws against those crimes already on the books. The distance between law and accountability that Mr. Romero wants to close is one of accountability alone. The U.S. has steadfastly refused the official mechanisms of international law that would hold senior U.S. leadership accountable for international crimes. Official pardons would undermine international efforts at prosecution by establishing a legal endpoint in the U.S. With Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton the likely mainstream Party candidates in the next Presidential election, the premise that pardons would lead to fealty to international law going forward is wishful thinking.
Yet another shortcoming is that it was a conspicuous sense of impunity that led the Bush administration to launch aggressive war, to torture and to lie about it. This same sense of impunity led the Obama administration to institutionalize the worst excesses of the Bush administration, including claiming the right to unilaterally murder anyone, anywhere at any time without judicial oversight, to launch stealth wars without congressional oversight, to spy on citizens and non-citizens alike without probable cause, to misuse the espionage act to destroy the lives of whistleblowers and to give trillions in U.S. taxpayer largess to Wall Street banks without filing criminal charges for conspicuously criminal acts. It is this culture of impunity that is behind the social tensions that the West currently faces.
The Nazis about to be hung at Nuremberg claimed that the trials were theater of the victors over the vanquished. U.S. history since then has proved them too astute in this regard for anyone’s good. The Bush administration casually committed some of the greatest crimes in human history. Under the guise of disclosure the Senate torture report draws a circle around a fraction of these crimes and calls it a day. In typical form the U.S. media gives frequent opportunities for Bush administration officials and their apologists to explain themselves while the voices of their victims are rarely if ever heard. Fair trials are more than the Bush administration thought any of its victims worthy of. For the sake of history a full accounting of these crimes needs to be had. Full, fair trials on all applicable war crimes charges for all involved are the smallest step necessary in the interest of justice. And while this is currently unlikely, the future is as yet unwritten.
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. is book Zen Economics is forthcoming. His book Zen Economics is forthcoming.