This Veterans' Day, executive impunity for human rights abuses is once again in the news. Former President George W. Bush openly admitted authorizing techniques long recognized as torture in his recent memoir, and this week, Attorney General Eric Holder resigned the opportunity to file criminal charges relating to the CIA's destruction of videotapes documenting torture.
Either event alone disregards the requirements of international agreements to which the US is a party. Both Bush and Holder ignore the interest of US troops in our nation's international legitimacy (and inadvertent support for al-Qaeda by offering rhetorical grist supporting militants' recruiting activities). And neither the Bush nor the Obama administration has acknowledged the legitimacy crisis apparent when torturers receive lifetime judicial appointments while people of color face mass incarceration. The combination of these two stories, however -- especially on Veterans' Day -- exposes an even more galling juxtaposition.
First, reports emerged this week that in his new memoir, President Bush openly admits to authorizing waterboarding, which entails the controlled -- and repeated -- drowning of involuntary participants with the active participation of medical professionals. Until Justice Department lawyers acting at the behest of Vice President Cheney crafted politicized memos approving the practice (which have been repudiated as indefensible by their successors), waterboarding had been universally condemned as torture.
Also this week, Attorney General Holder announced that the Justice Department has concluded its two-year investigation of the CIA's destruction of nearly a hundred videotapes documenting torture, without filing any charges. In other words, not only can the former president boast openly about violating international law, but our nation's chief prosecutor won't pursue other government officials who actively destroyed evidence of crime to cover up those abuses.
On the one hand, a related Justice Department investigation continues into junior-level CIA officers who exceeded the approved techniques. But on the other hand, while those scapegoats should be held accountable for their criminal acts, they did not sign the orders setting torture as a policy.
The lawyers responsible for claiming that waterboarding is somehow legal are the particular scapegoats on whom Bush casts blame. As Bush said in a prior interview with Matt Lauer, "The lawyer said it was legal." And while the former president passes the buck, his lawyers have evaded justice by claiming disingenuously that their opinions were somehow related to academic freedom, or an executive process privilege. Another Bush-era torture lawyer, Jay Bybee, has never faced public scrutiny because he was confirmed to his lifetime judicial appointment while his acts in the Justice Department were still secret.
Worst of all is the claim that lawyers and other government officials complicit in torture (like the legions of CIA agents who conducted torture "approved" by the Justice Department) should be excused because they made honest mistakes in the context of their public service. First, as abundantly clear from the criminal acts for which Scooter Libby was convicted and removed from office, the Bush administration's national security decisions were hardly honest. In fact, the process surrounding torture was fundamentally corrupt: the lawyers broke the DOJ chain of command to satisfy the demands of Vice President Dick Cheney (whose office had no authority to dictate Justice Department conclusions) and failed to even cite the leading Supreme Court case addressing limits on executive power.
Not only was the initial authorization of torture fundamentally corrupt, but the subsequent failure to hold officials accountable entails ongoing violations of international law. International agreements to which the US is a party require mandatory investigation for even merely degrading treatment, regardless of whether or not waterboarding constitutes torture. Yet, as demanded by the CIA leadership, the White House has consistently pressured the Justice Department not to enforce the law (and even lobbied Congress to give the Defense Department the authority to hide its criminal trail).
This Veterans' Day, the further results of this corruption come into sharp relief as we celebrate the Americans who have sacrificed their lives or endured physical and emotional wounds in service to country. While dutifully carrying out their orders, US service members continue to confront violence by enemies enraged by unanswered allegations of human rights abuses. Executive accountability could reduce conflict and save American lives, but because human rights abuses would be politically inconvenient for powerful people in Washington, it has been sacrificed -- much like the veterans themselves.