Six former Bush administration officials who were responsible for developing legal arguments justifying torture are likely to have criminal investigations opened against them by a Spanish court. The court is claiming jurisdiction because Spanish citizens were held at the prison at Guantanamo Bay and have said they were tortured. The case is going before a judge, Baltasar Garzon, who has a history of bringing charges against overseas defendants, including Augusto Pinochet. Should the cases move forward, arrest warrants will likely be issued.
The six men are Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, Douglas Feith, William J. Haynes II, Jay S. Bybee, and David Addington. All of these men held high positions in the Bush administration, from Gonzales, who followed his stint as White House Counsel to become Attorney General, to Addington, who was Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff.
When the United States began to torture detainees, it’s hard to imagine that any of these men, or President Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, or Cheney, ever thought that what they were doing were punishable offenses. They were probably right. The idea they will ever be held to account for authorizing torture is far-fetched. Even if they are indicted, extradition isn’t something the Obama administration would allow. At most, their international travel would be curtailed for as long as the arrest warrants stand.
If trials did occur, it’s probable that memos produced during the process of authorizing torture would be used by both the prosecution and defense to prove their cases. Take, for example, the memo co-authored by Bybee and Yoo for the Office of Legal Counsel. This was the famous memo that defined torture down to acts encompassing pain equivalent in intensity to that of organ failure or psychological stresses equivalent to that felt under threats of imminent death. After all, these memos, and the flurry of documentation they produced, were designed to justify torture from a legal standpoint, to turn the illegal legal. In any trial of the men who wrote them or authorized them, the documents’ legal standing would finally face their true test.
There are a ton of rational arguments for why those acting under the authority of the president should be immune from prosecution. After all, while they were clearly misguided, the efforts of these men were directed towards securing the nation, not towards torture for torture’s sake. There are plenty of irrational arguments, as well. The most prominent among them being that torture works. As the Washington Post reported this weekend, that is simply not true. The one case the Bush administration kept dangling in front of the public as justification for “harsh interrogation techniques,” that of Abu Zubayda, who was said to have given up much information that directly prevented terrorist attacks, was a total fabrication. Facts about Zubayda first came to light in Ron Suskind’s 2006 book, The One Percent Doctrine, but the Post article further damned the fairy tales of the Bush administration.
At the other end of the spectrum is the fact that torture is among the worst of human behaviors, and is never justified. It is reprehensible and morally bankrupt, and anyone caught perpetrating it, through action or legal justification, deserves to be punished for it. The bankruptcy of the act of torture, the very idea that our government, the protector of Enlightenment ideals of equality and freedom, would stoop to methods that attack our way of life the most in order to protect it is sickening. It has been sickening for years, which is why it was so uplifting to hear President Obama declare quickly after taking office that “without exception or equivocation...the United States does not torture.”
Part of reversing the damage to human lives and our national reputation caused by the Bush administration is reversal of policy. Another part is accountability. In order to deter future government officials from engaging in similar behavior, i.e., authorizing torture and/or manipulating the country into an unnecessary war, those that set the precedent of lawlessness have, at the very least, to have their professional reputations destroyed. At worst, they should spend lengthy amounts of time behind bars.
Whether or not this is the doing of a foreign court is relevant. We should be able to clean our own house. We have a strong republic of laws, and if we are not going to submit to international authority on the issue of torture, we have plenty of laws here at home that need to be enforced. We also should not fear protracted investigations and prosecutions. Such a process will be ugly and costly. But how can we emerge as anything but a stronger nation if we choose freely to enter into a rigorous and painful self-examination that raises our actions closer to the ideals of our rhetoric?