THE BLOG
10/23/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ambassador for All War Crimes Except Our Own

Imagine, just for a moment, that President Bush decided to appoint Carly Fiorina as U.S. Ambassador for Global Financial Issues, and then sent her overseas to meet with allies to discuss how they should adopt the American financial services model. After the events of the past few days, she'd be laughed out of every ministry she visited.

Now pretend that we're not talking about financial services, but rather war crimes. What if the United States had an Ambassador for War Crimes Issues? Given the Bush Administration's atrocious record on torture, you'd probably conclude that not even Bush would have the testicular fortitude to try to pull off such an audacious act.

You'd be wrong.

Meet Clint Williamson, who might just have the worst job in Washington: U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues. For the past two years, he has "advise[d] the Secretary of State directly and formulate[d] U.S. policy responses to atrocities committed in areas of conflict and elsewhere throughout the world." His scope of work includes former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Iraq (crimes committed by the former regime, not the current occupation), Sri Lanka, and, as of last week, Georgia.

There's one important country missing from that list, one responsible for some of the worst war crimes of the past eight years: our own.

According to the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court, "war crimes" are defined to include fifty separate acts that violate the Geneva Conventions, international law, or the laws and customs of war. They include murder, torture, "causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or health," "depriving a prisoner of war or other protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial," illegal deportation, unlawful confinement, the taking of hostages, and "committing outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment."

If we accept that definition, then, as Jane Mayer documents in The Dark Side, military and CIA personnel have committed acts that constitute war crimes under international law. These were not, as Donald Rumsfeld contended at the time of Abu Ghraib, isolated acts, committed by rogue personnel. The men and women on the ground committing these abuses did so with the full authorization and support of the Bush Administration.

Senior officials, including the President, Vice President, a Secretary of Defense, two Secretaries of State, three CIA Directors, and two Attorneys General supported or tolerated these acts. A team of lawyers, including David Addington and John Yoo, have crafted legal arguments to validate them (often after the fact), including findings that the President's power as Commander in Chief overrides the Geneva Conventions, the Convention against Torture, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and domestic law. These same lawyers also sought to redefine torture downwards to such a degree that even the humiliations suffered by Senator John McCain in Vietnam no longer would qualify.

Of course, when Ambassador Williamson travels overseas, he can't really discuss any of that. Instead, he must talk about what other countries have done. It must be a miserable job, having to pretend that the country you represent hasn't tarnished its own reputation to such a degree that you look like an apologist for the very thing you were appointed to oppose.

But that's not the worst of it. The Office of War Crimes Issues doesn't just tell other countries to do as we say and not as we do. The Administration has actually made OWCI complicit of its own war crimes apparatus. Since September 11, OWCI has been responsible "for negotiating the repatriation, to their home countries, of individuals detained by the United States for their involvement in terrorist activities." In other words, whenever the Administration discovers that someone it has tortured or mistreated is, in fact, innocent, it turns to OWCI to make the arrangements to send them home.

I wonder if that tiny little detail ever comes up when Ambassador Williamson travels overseas?

It wasn't always this way. OWCI was created by then-Secretary Albright to support the International Criminal Tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Its first Ambassador, David Scheffer, played an important role in helping to make those courts effective. He also headed the U.S. delegation to the Rome Conference that created the International Criminal Court. It was, in fact, his leadership that led to the Rome Treaty's definition of war crimes -- the one that the current Administration so blithely ignores.

I was a member of the U.S. delegation to the Rome Conference. Despite the best efforts of the Pentagon to derail the negotiations, U.S. diplomats and lawyers helped make the ICC Statute an effective mechanism for prosecuting the worst of the worst -- individuals who commit genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Although Scheffer ultimately was instructed to vote against the treaty, President Clinton subsequently signed it, demonstrating American willingness to work with the Court and support its goals.

Little did we know then that ten years later, some of the bad guys that the Court was created to prosecute would work for the U.S. government. When Bush decided to "unsign" the ICC treaty in May 2002 -- an event that John Bolton called the "happiest day" of his professional career -- U.S. officials already were torturing suspected terrorists. The very principles that the U.S. delegation in Rome pushed so hard to have included in the treaty were now being violated by a U.S. government.

Those responsible for this terrible reversal include President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales, George Tenet, Condoleezza Rice, Michael Chertoff, and the group of lawyers known inside the Administration as the "War Council" -- David Addington, John Yoo, William J. Haynes, and Timothy Flanigan. All twelve should be tried as war criminals, either under the U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996, or, if no American court is willing to pursue the matter, courts in other countries. (Unfortunately, the International Criminal Court cannot prosecute them because the United States is not a party to the Rome Treaty.)

Clint Williamson worked honorably for seven years as a trial attorney at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. He clearly knows what constitutes war crimes. He must realize that those he works for -- including the woman he advises on war crimes issues -- are responsible for acts not dissimilar to the ones committed by those he used to prosecute at the Hague. And he must realize that, by having his office repatriate the system's victims, he is helping to conceal the truth.

Mr. Williamson should resign, and the position he now holds should remain vacant until the United States can practice what it so hypocritically preaches. If he instead chooses to remain in a compromised and largely ceremonial job, the very least he could do is agree to accept a new title: Ambassador-at-Large for All War Crimes except Our Own.