Democrats Duck Bush Torture Probe

Despite now overwhelming evidence that ex-President George W. Bush and many top aides engaged in a systematic policy of illegal torture, national Democrats appear to be shying away from their recommendation last year for a special prosecutor to investigate these apparent war crimes.

Last June, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers and 55 other congressional Democrats signed a letter to then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey demanding a special prosecutor to investigate the growing body of evidence that Bush administration officials had sanctioned torture, which had been documented by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Not unexpectedly, Mukasey — a staunch defender of Bush’s theories about expansive presidential powers — ignored the letter. Now, however, despite even more evidence of torture and a Democratic administration in place, the calls for a special prosecutor have grown muted.

Aides to several Democratic lawmakers who signed the June 2008 letter told me that the focus has shifted to the economy and that pressure for a special prosecutor to bring criminal charges over the Bush administration’s past actions could become a distraction to that focus.

They added that the most that now can be expected is either a “blue ribbon” investigative panel such as Conyers proposed earlier this year or a similar “truth and reconciliation commission” as advocated by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy. Not a single signer of last year’s letter has stepped forward to renew the demand for a special prosecutor to the Obama administration and Attorney General Eric Holder.

The loss of Democratic interest in a special prosecutor suggests that the signers made the recommendation last year knowing that Mukasey would ignore it but thinking that the letter would appease the Democratic “base,” which was calling for accountability on Bush’s war crimes.

This readiness of Democrats to put the pursuit of bipartisanship over the pursuit of justice — after a victorious election – parallels their actions 16 years ago when President Bill Clinton and a Democratic-controlled Congress swept under the rug investigations of the Reagan-Bush-41 era, such as the Iran-Contra scandal and Iraqgate support for Saddam Hussein. [See Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

However, this time, Bush-43’s apparent violations of international laws prohibiting torture are forcing global demands for action, if the United States fails to live up to its obligations to enforce its own commitment to anti-torture laws and treaties.

Torture is a war crime that carries universal enforcement, which means that prosecutors of other nations can bring charges if the nation directly implicated doesn’t act. In that regard, Spanish investigative judge Baltasar Garzon took the initial steps last week to investigate whether six high-level Bush officials, including key lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee, violated laws against torture.

Torture Results

Also, over the weekend, the Washington Post reported that the waterboarding — or simulated drowning — of “war on terror” suspect Abu Zabaida induced him to provide a host of new leads about al-Qaeda plots, but that his torture-induced claims turned out to be time-consuming dead-ends.

“Not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida’s tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations,” the Post reported.

“Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida — chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates — was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.” [Washington Post, March 29, 2009]

Two weeks ago, other evidence about Bush’s torture policy surfaced when journalist Mark Danner published chilling details from a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross that concluded that the abuse of 14 “high-value” detainees at CIA secret prisons “constituted torture.”

“In addition, many other elements of the ill treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” according to the ICRC report cited by Danner. Since the ICRC’s responsibilities involve ensuring compliance with the Geneva Conventions and supervising the treatment of prisoners of war, the organization’s findings have legal consequence.

The June 2008 letter from Conyers apparently was prompted by the same or similar ICRC findings, citing “several instances of acts of torture against detainees, including soaking a prisoner’s hand in alcohol and lighting it on fire, subjecting a prisoner to sexual abuse and forcing a prisoner to eat a baseball.”

Conyers and the other Democrats told Mukasey then that the ICRC findings alone warranted action but were buttressed by other information that senior Bush administration officials met in the White House to approve the use of waterboarding and other “enhanced techniques” and that “President Bush was aware of, and approved of the meetings taking place.”

The letter added: “This information indicates that the Bush administration may have systematically implemented, from the top down, detainee interrogation policies that constitute torture or otherwise violate the law.

“We believe that these serious and significant revelations warrant an immediate investigation to determine whether actions taken by the President, his Cabinet, and other Administration officials are in violation of the War Crimes Act, the Anti-Torture Act, and other U.S. and international laws.

“Despite the seriousness of the evidence, the Justice Department has brought prosecution against only one civilian for an interrogation-related crime. Given that record, we believe it is necessary to appoint a special counsel in order to ensure that a thorough and impartial investigation occurs.”

Still Waiting

Nearly nine months have passed since Conyers and the other Democratic lawmakers sent the letter to Mukasey. Since then, more evidence has piled up implicating at least a dozen senior Bush administration officials in sanctioning a policy of torture.

For instance, in January, Susan Crawford, the retired judge who heads military commissions at Guantanamo, became the highest ranking U.S. official who said the interrogation of at least one detainee at Guantanamo met the legal definition of torture and as a result she would not allow a war crimes tribunal against him to proceed.

Last week, Vijay Padmanabhan, the State Department’s chief counsel on Guantanamo litigation, told the Associated Press that the Bush administration overreacted after 9/11 and set up a policy of torture at the facility.

“I think Guantanamo was one of the worst overreactions of the Bush administration,” Padmanabhan told the AP. He criticized other “overreactions” such as extraordinary renditions, waterboarding at secret CIA prisons and “other enhanced interrogation techniques that would constitute torture.”

Meanwhile, other Bush administration veterans, including Vice President Dick Cheney, have spoken openly about their support for and approval of waterboarding and other brutal interrogation methods, although they continued to insist that the tactics did not constitute torture.

During a speech at the University of Texas at Austin recently, former Attorney General John Ashcroft said, “there are things that you can call waterboarding that I am thoroughly convinced are not torture. There are things that you can call waterboarding that might be torture. …

“The point that ought to be understood is that throwing a term around recklessly for its emotional content doesn’t really get you anywhere.”

In waterboarding, a person is strapped to a board with his head tilted downward and a cloth covering his face. Water is then poured over the cloth forcing the panicked gag reflex associated with drowning. It has been condemned as torture since the days of the Spanish Inquisition and its use has resulted in past criminal prosecutions under U.S. law.

Before leaving office, Vice President Cheney said he approved waterboarding on at least three “high value” detainees and the “enhanced interrogation” of 33 other prisoners. President Bush made a somewhat vaguer acknowledgement of authorizing these techniques.

Admissions of Crimes

Civil rights groups said Bush and Cheney’s comments amounted to an admission of war crimes. The ACLU called on Attorney General Holder two weeks ago to appoint a special prosecutor to launch a probe into the Bush administration’s torture practices.

“The fact that such crimes have been committed can no longer be doubted or debated, nor can the need for an independent prosecutor be ignored by a new Justice Department committed to restoring the rule of law,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said.

“Given the increasing evidence of deliberate and widespread use of torture and abuse, and that such conduct was the predictable result of policy changes made at the highest levels of government, an independent prosecutor is clearly in the public interest,” Romero said.

Holder has not responded to the ACLU’s request. Over the next several weeks, however, the evidence of torture should continue to mount.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to release a voluminous report on the treatment of alleged terrorist detainees held in U.S. custody and the brutal interrogation techniques they were subjected to, according to Defense Department and intelligence sources.

The declassified version of the report is 200 pages, contains 2,000 footnotes, and will reveal a wealth of new information about the genesis of the Bush administration’s interrogation policies, according to these sources. The investigation relied upon the testimony of 70 people, generated 38,000 pages of documents, and took 18 months to complete.

The Justice Department also is expected to release a declassified version of a critical report prepared by its Office of Professional Responsibility, which investigated legal work by former attorneys at the Office of Legal Counsel, which advises the White House on the limits of presidential authority.

The report concluded that three key attorneys — John Yoo, Jay Bybee and Steven Bradbury — blurred the lines between an attorney charged with providing independent legal advice to the White House and a policy advocate who was working to advance the administration’s goals, which included a legal justification for torture, said the sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because the contents of the report are still classified.

On April 2, the Justice Department also is expected to release three still-classified legal opinions that Bradbury wrote in May 2005, reaffirming Bush’s claimed authority to subject “war on terror” prisoners to harsh interrogations.

Jason Leopold is an investigative reporter and a two-time winner of the Project Censored award. He is the author of the National Bestseller, News Junkie, a memoir, and he has launched a new online investigative news magazine, The Public Record. Read other articles by Jason, or visit Jason's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. rg the lg said on April 3rd, 2009 at 10:48am #

    OK, I am a cynic. I am a skeptic. If anyone related in any way to any form of government says anything I go into automatic disbelief.

    So, why are the democrats so ‘weak’ on dealing with BushCo on torture?

    Because the democrats are complicit … just like the American public (you and I) are complicit: they, as we, tolerated torture in the past … by BOTH our allies and our surrogates. Thus, torture is a Pandora’s box they dare not open Just like with their mentors in Nazi Europe, and the Nazi forebears in the extermination of the Native American, the mistreatment of the slaves … etc., they know who would be next.

    It is, indeed, a slippery slope they fear to think about, much less go down. That, and of course the financial disaster they helped to create, is not something they wanted to admit to nor acknowledge!

    In Skeptical Cynicism,

    RG the LG

  2. bozh said on April 3rd, 2009 at 4:18pm #

    rg the lg,
    what you have just said is not cynical. however, i want to say that in my experience, most canadians and probably most amers just don’t know what goes on or have accepted gov’t ‘facts’ as facts.

    i think anyone who has a wife wld say that she doesn’t read alternate media. most women read msm only. but avoid reading about warfare.
    they have paris hilton and co. on their mind or whether laura is leaving bush and they may ask, What’s gaza? Zionism, what’s that? or even, i love bush.
    or we are at war but hussein was going to bomb us, etcetc.
    i affirm once again, people are OK; they are just what nature had made them. don’t ask for more, that’s all we got and we have to do with what we have.
    and the ruling class knew this 10T yrs ago and took steps to give people the ‘education’ fit for or to benefit only the ruling class.
    let’s not forget that one of our greatests wealths is trust; it’s innate;deep in our bones; that’s why lies are so effective.
    once you trust no one, you are headed for a looney bin or think you are headed to clazy house or whatever.
    life wld be intolerable if we harbored no hope, no trust, etc. psychotic personalities such as politicians and clergy usurp these phenomena for own gain of power or illusion of grandeur. tnx

  3. John S. Hatch said on April 3rd, 2009 at 5:51pm #

    If America doesn’t hold its torturers to account, then it stands for nothing at all. Not only is it financially bankrupt, but morally as well.

  4. rg the lg said on April 4th, 2009 at 10:59am #

    John … I think, rather, both.

    In a DV post on Saturday an author pointed out the amnesia and the blatant lies in our schools and media.

    Those lies are not only tolerated … but they are expected by Americans.


  5. Kaelieh said on April 4th, 2009 at 11:51am #

    bozh, I guess my saving grace is that I’m not married then?

    I don’t tolerate the lies, I know they’re there and I’m angry about them. I constantly write my senators and congressmen urging for legislation that I want (like the Employee Free Choice Act, against TARP, etc) and have written both them and the attorney general about prosecuting the Bush Administration. I realize that most this never comes to fruition (the only thing off the top of my head is one of my senators opposing TARP from day one and still trying to stop the bailouts and freeze the funds).

    I think, or at least I hope, that most or at least some Americans do have a clue and they just don’t know what to do. I know what credit default swaps are, that Goldman Sachs pretty much owns our government, the scam that is the Federal Reserve, that our government is purposely destabilizing Pakistan to expand the war there, etc. But honestly, I feel quite powerless. I really don’t know what to do to change things. I know writing people and the papers isn’t enough, I know that constantly annoying my friends with the facts isn’t enough, but I don’t know what else is there.

    There are oodles of problems with the education system and especially history, but I feel that one thing that never gets really talked about is teaching people what the can do to effect change (writing letters isn’t enough).

    Besides that, at least here in Louisiana it is especially hard to mobilize the population, one because there is such a laid back attitude and two most of us are just bidding our time until we can move out of state.

    But, really what is just a regular citizen supposed to do? Sure, there are plenty that just don’t know and that’s a real problem. But, for those who do know, some of us are really lost and don’t know how to take action. At least that’s my problem.

  6. bozh said on April 4th, 2009 at 3:46pm #

    we can all do s’mthing. one can distribute leaflets that wld include a plea for just a few basic rights be honored by their gov’t.
    e.g., free education for all, healthcare, and no more warfare. and for their gov’t to be our gov’t one can vote for nader.
    and if you have the courage to talk to people on the street in order to enligten them, that’s a third thing to do.

    instead of writing to a politician, write on the alternet media. i agree that writing to a senator or congressperson is about zero effective. tnx