Glenn Greenwald on why we're bound by law to prosecute torture cases. (Incidentally, he also points out that a new report states that Bush officials were informed that the legal memos submitted to justify torture were slanted to fit administration policy):
The U.S. really has bound itself to a treaty called the Convention Against Torture, signed by Ronald Reagan in 1988 and ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1994. When there are credible allegations that government officials have participated or been complicit in torture, that Convention really does compel all signatories -- in language as clear as can be devised -- to "submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution" (Art. 7(1)). And the treaty explicitly bars the standard excuses that America's political class is currently offering for refusing to investigate and prosecute: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture" and "an order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture" (Art. 2 (2-3)). By definition, then, the far less compelling excuses cited by Conason (a criminal probe would undermine bipartisanship and distract us from more important matters) are plainly barred as grounds for evading the Convention's obligations.
There is reasonable dispute about the scope of prosecutorial discretion permitted by the Convention, and there is also some lack of clarity about how many of these provisions were incorporated into domestic law when the Senate ratified the Convention with reservations. But what is absolutely clear beyond any doubt is that -- just as is true for any advance promises by the Obama DOJ not to investigate or prosecute -- issuing preemptive pardons to government torturers would be an unambiguous and blatant violation of our obligations under the Convention. There can't be any doubt about that. It just goes without saying that if the U.S. issued pardons or other forms of immunity to accused torturers (as the Military Commissions Act purported to do), that would be a clear violation of our obligation to "submit the [torture] case to [our] competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution." Those two acts -- the granting of immunity and submission for prosecution -- are opposites.
And yet those who advocate that we refrain from criminal investigations rarely even mention our obligations under the Convention. There isn't even a pretense of an effort to reconcile what they're advocating with the treaty obligations to which Ronald Reagan bound the U.S. in 1988. Do we now just explicitly consider ourselves immune from the treaties we signed? Does our political class now officially (rather than through its actions) consider treaties to be mere suggestions that we can violate at will without even pretending to have any justifications for doing so? Most of the time, our binding treaty obligations under the Convention -- as valid and binding as every other treaty -- don't even make it into the discussion about criminal investigations of Bush officials, let alone impose any limits on what we believe we can do.