NEW YORK—"Why are we talking about this in the White House?" John Ashcroft nervously asked his fellow members of the National Security Council's Principals Committee. (The Principals were Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, CIA Director George Tenet and Attorney General Ashcroft.) "History will not judge this kindly," Ashcroft predicted.
"This" is torture. Against innocent people. Conducted by CIA agents and American soldiers and marines. Sanctioned by legal opinions issued by Ashcroft's Justice Department. Directly ordered by George W. Bush.
An April 11 report by ABC News describes how CIA agents, asked by previous presidents to carry out illegal "black ops" actions (torture and killings), had become tired of getting hung out to dry whenever their dirty deeds were revealed by the press. When the Bush administration asked the CIA to work over prisoners captured in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, Director George Tenet demanded legal cover. The Justice Department complied by issuing a classified 2002 memo, the so-called "Golden Shield," authored by Office of Legal Counsel Jay Bybee. "Enhanced interrogation techniques"—i.e., torture—were legal, Bybee assured the CIA.
Tenet was a good boss, a CIA type. He wanted to protect his agents. So he got the principals to personally sign off on each act of torture.
"According to a former CIA official involved in the process," ABC reported, "CIA headquarters would receive cables from operatives in the field asking for authorization for specific techniques." Can we beat up this guy? Can we waterboard him?
The Bushies weren't otherwise known for dwelling on details. Osama was in Pakistan; they invaded Afghanistan instead. Two years later, he was still in Pakistan. They invaded Iraq. Bush and his top officials still found time to walk through every step of torment a detainee would suffer in some CIA dungeon halfway around the world.
"The high-level discussions about these 'enhanced interrogation techniques' were so detailed, [Bush administration] sources said, some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed—down to the number of times CIA agents could use a specific tactic. These top advisers signed off on how the CIA would interrogate top al-Qaida suspects—whether they would be slapped, pushed, deprived of sleep or subjected to simulated drowning, called waterboarding, sources told ABC News."
Not only did he know, he personally approved it. He likes torture.
"Yes, I'm aware our national security team met on this issue," he confirmed. "And I approved." When the United States signs a treaty, its provisions carry the full force of U.S. law. One such treaty is the United Nations Convention Against Torture, of which the United States is a core signatory. As Philippe Sands writes in his new book Torture Team: "Parties to the ... Convention are required to investigate any person who is alleged to have committed torture. If appropriate, they must then prosecute—or extradite the person to a place where he will be prosecuted. The Torture Convention ... criminalizes any act that constitutes complicity or participation in torture. Complicity or participation could certainly be extended not only to the politicians but also the lawyers involved ..."
George W. Bush has publicly confessed that he ordered torture, thus violating the Convention Against Torture. He, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and the other principals must therefore be arrested and, unlike the thousands of detainees kidnapped by the United States since 9/11, arraigned and placed on trial.
Because the torture ordered by Bush and his cabinet directly resulted in death, they must additionally be charged with several counts of murder. Fifteen U.S. soldiers have been charged with the murders of two detainees at the U.S. airbase at Bagram, Afghanistan, in 2002. They were following orders issued by their commander-in-chief and his principals.
One of the Bagram victims was Dilawar, a 22-year-old Afghan taxi driver. "On the day of his death," reported The New York Times on May 22, 2005, "Dilawar had been chained by the wrists to the top of his cell for much of the previous four days. A guard tried to force the young man to his knees. But his legs, which had been pummeled by guards for several days, could no longer bend ... Several hours passed before an emergency room doctor finally saw Mr. Dilawar. By then he was dead, his body beginning to stiffen. It would be many months before Army investigators learned a final horrific detail: Most of the interrogators had believed Mr. Dilawar was an innocent man who simply drove his taxi past the American base at the wrong time."
At least four detainees have committed suicide at the torture camp created by Bush after 9/11 at Guantanamo Bay. Twenty-five more made 41 unsuccessful attempts to kill themselves. The conditions of their confinement—ordered by Bush and his principals—constitutes torture. It no doubt prompted their deaths.
If Bush were an ordinary citizen, there can be little doubt that he would face a long prison sentence for the scores of acts of torture he authorized both specifically and generally. Four of the seven white hillbillies charged with the kidnap-torture of a black woman in Logan County, W. Va., are now in jail for at least the next 10 years.
If Bush weren't president, he would face murder charges. The maximum sentence in a federal murder case is death.
If Bush and his co-conspirators are not above the law, if the United States remains a nation where all citizens are equal, they must be arrested and indicted. But by whom?
The Supreme Court has never resolved the question of whether a sitting president can be arrested by civilian authorities. Even if he were charged and convicted, many legal experts say he could issue himself a pardon.
However, leaving the presidency in the hands of an self-admitted torture killer is unacceptable. Congress could ask a U.S. Marshal to arrest Bush as part of impeachment charges. But the ultimate outcome—removing him from office a few months before the end of his term—seems woefully inadequate given the nature of the charges. In any case, Democrats have already said that impeachment is "off the table."
Bush could be extradited to one of the countries where the torture and murders were committed—such as Afghanistan or Cuba. But he could claim immunity as a head of state.
There is, however, a person who could begin holding Bush and the others accountable for their crimes.
She is Cathy L. Lanier, the 39-year-old chief of D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department. Chief Lanier, take note: you have probable cause to arrest a self-confessed serial torturer and mass murderer within the borders of the District of Columbia. He resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Go get him.
History is calling, Chief Lanier. Your city, and your country, needs you.
Ted Rall's most recent book is Wake Up, You're Liberal! How We Can Take America Back from the Right (Soft Skull Press).