Bush’s crimes, Obama’s blind eye, and the death of accountability

| January-February 2012

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    Zina Saunders /
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    Zina Saunders /

  • tortured1-sm.jpg
  • tortured2-sm.jpg

I first began to learn about the human rights violations of the George W. Bush administration after 9/11: I still recall an email from an Argentine colleague asking me whether they were starting to “disappear” people in the United States. At the time, I thought she was referring to Middle Easterners residing in the United States who were being detained for long periods without charges in the period after 9/11. I wrote back to say that although this was indeed arbitrary detention without trial, these people were not disappeared. We now know that I was wrong.

By 2002 the CIA was indeed taking detainees to “black sites,” secret detention centers where they were tortured and interrogated. American officials were denying that they knew the whereabouts of these detainees, and they did not allow the International Red Cross to visit them. This fits the technical definition of disappearance. U.N. experts have clarified that international law completely prohibits such secret detention.

By the spring of 2004, after the photos of torture and degrading treatment of inmates in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq appeared, and the report of U.S. General Antonio Taguba, who investigated the abuses, was leaked to the press, I walked into the last human rights class of the semester at the University of Minnesota and said to my students: “I have been teaching this class for over 10 years, and I have to stand up and say something today that I have not said before. We have clear proof that the United States government has engaged in torture and cruel and unusual punishment of detainees.”

Starting in 2005 I began to present research in a series of conference papers, lectures, and eventually a chapter in a book titled Bringing Human Rights Home. But in all these earlier versions, I assumed that U.S. officials would not have knowingly adopted policies that were criminal under both U.S. and international law. Since that time, additional interviews and a wealth of new publications have helped me realize that Bush administration officials understood the law. They didn’t use this understanding to ensure good-faith compliance, but they did use it to craft strategies to protect themselves from the possibility of future prosecution.

In recent years, new books by Bush administration insiders and journalists have revealed more completely the inner workings of the administration’s policy of torture and detention. These works confirm that the post-9/11 approach to torture was the product of a relatively small group of allied policy makers in the executive branch of the government, led by Vice President Dick Cheney; his legal adviser, David Addington; and a team of lawyers in key positions, in particular, John Yoo, deputy director of Legal Counsel of the Justice Department.

Addington and Yoo wrote relevant legal memos that justified the policies, often using extreme legal positions. Almost from the start, and throughout the process, they were warned by allies, by military lawyers, and by individuals both within and outside the administration that their policy was illegal and likely to cause grave consequences for the rule of law, for the image of the United States, and for themselves. They disregarded these warnings and marginalized the messengers.

anonyb lu
2/21/2012 7:35:33 PM

It seems to me that despite the fact the Bush Administration was the most obvious and blatant human rights offender, that the history of the US would demonstrate previous and continuous offenses for which there has been zero justice. That is, when were the "happier times" of human rights in this country? The invention of "human rights" terminology seems to coincide with more cowardly and secretive abuses of it. The lesson at Nuremberg apparently was - "do abusive program with more impunity -hide them better, obstruct justice better, use better forms of deception and decry human rights abuses with the maximum arrogance and hypocrisy that this country can muster" rather than NO ONE has the right or authority (moral, intellectual, legal, etc) to violate and abuse human beings in programs this country has generated. It is my hope that the ongoing things that are worse than anything mentioned in the article finally come to light.

Isa Kocher
12/29/2011 3:01:47 AM

it's not anti-gun hysteria. the usa has a gun hysteria: a myth of the gun created by gun manufacturers which results in the USA having the highest rates of murder and violent crime in the world outside of a drug cartel war zone.

Jason Kramer
12/24/2011 11:11:58 AM

I appreciate the work it took to write this article and feel that it is very well-written: thank you. It seems obvious that the actions taken by the Bush Administration did much to undermine the integrity, ideals and principles that the USA once seemed to embody, both to the eyes of the international community and here at home. It's a bittersweet feeling that this was done in the face of dissent, but that this dissent was ultimately ineffectual in preventing or restraining obscene and injurious acts of official policy. Looking forward, equally ruinous is the failure of the Obama Administration to allow for an examination or inquiry into these past acts. This failure seems a deliberate failure by the Obama Administration to hold government officials accountable to law. Extending this failure to the economic arena, "lack of accountability" appears to be granted policy as well for the wealthy and well-connected: in America, it seems, laws are for the rich, jails are for the poor, and justice is for fools.

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