Torture Is a Crime that Must Be Prosecuted

Friday, 24 April 2009

In 1972 burglars broke into a room in the Watergate hotel to get information about the Democratic party in the run-up to the presidential election. The burglars were caught and prosecuted, and an intensive investigation eventually resulted in the conviction of other conspirators and the resignation of Richard Nixon from the presidency. Once the investigation gathered steam, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress backed it, because they all realized that the U.S. is a nation of laws only if the laws apply to all, even the highest ranking politicians in the country.

In the 1980s Reagan administration operatives orchestrated the sale of weapons to Iran, and a portion of the sale price was funneled to the Nicaraguan Contras, in violation of U.S. law. Again, congressional and Justice Department investigations were held, and the leaders of the scheme, including Oliver North and John Poindexter, were indicted, tried, and convicted. Although some of the convictions were later overturned on legal technicalities, and President George H. W. Bush pardoned others, the point is that an investigation took place and people were held responsible for breaking the law.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration decided that it was legitimate to torture some of the prisoners in U.S. custody. It also outsourced torture to other countries by means of a maneuver known as extraordinary rendition. Despite President Bush's repeated claims that the U.S. did not torture people, people around the world knew it was a lie. The recent release of formerly classified documents shows just how extensive the torture regime was and how many times torture was used. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has gone on TV to defend the use of torture, claiming that it resulted in the acquisition of valuable intelligence. Others who were aware of the torture dispute Cheney's claims. Whether or not torture produced reliable, actionable information is the beside the point, however. Torture is a violation of both U.S. and international law, and those who perpetrated it must be brought to justice.

When photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison were released, the world was outraged, but although the Bush Justice Department prosecuted some of the low-ranking soldiers involved in the abuse, those higher up who knew about the abuse--a form of torture--were shielded from prosecution. Similarly, those who authorized the harsh interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, that were used on prisoners, as well as those who provided the legal veneer of legitimacy for techniques that they certainly knew were illegal, have yet to be prosecuted.

President Obama has been quoted as saying that he wants to look forward, not backward, and he seems to have little interest in prosecuting former Bush administration officials, and perhaps current intelligence or military personnel, for past crimes. If the president is in fact unwilling to prosecute those who were involved in planning and implementing torture during the Bush years, he is wrong. For the U.S. to be a nation of laws, it must investigate the use and condoning of torture by Bush administration officials and others. For the U.S. to begin to restore its severely tarnished image around the world, it must uphold both its own and international laws against torture, including the obligation to investigate allegations and prosecute those involved.

It has been suggested that those agents who actually performed the torture of prisoners should not be prosecuted, since they were "just following orders." Such a defense did not protect those accused of war crimes after World War II, and it should not protect those who performed acts that they knew, or should have known, were illegal. However, it makes sense to strike bargains with the actual torturers in exchange for information about those higher up in the Bush administration who were calling the shots. Was it Dick Cheney? Was it Donald Rumsfeld? Was it Bush himself? The public does not know which administration officials were involved, and that's why we need an investigation into the matter by both Congress and the Justice Department. Richard Nixon was not immune to prosecution for his crimes, at least until he was pardoned by President Ford, and officials in the Reagan administration were not immune either, at least until they were pardoned by President George H. W. Bush. Similarly, those who committed the crimes of planning, authorizing, or practicing torture under the auspices of the Bush administration should not be immune from prosecution, either. Torture is a crime that must be prosecuted.

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