Perhaps the only thing worse than a war criminal is an unrepentant one. And so it with Barack Obama's predecessor. Just months after former Vice President Dick Cheney boasted, "I was a big supporter of waterboarding," George W. Bush joined him by announcing, "I'd do it again."
President Bush's endorsement of the use of waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques against 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other terrorism suspects came during an appearance before a business audience in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As CNN reported:
"Yeah, we waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed," the former president said during an appearance at the Economic Club of Grand Rapids, Michigan, according to the Grand Rapids Press.
"I'd do it again to save lives," he added.
If that sounds familiar, it should. Back in February, Dick Cheney bragged to ABC's Jonathan Karl is almost the exact same terms:
"I was a big supporter of waterboarding. I was a big supporter of the enhanced interrogation techniques..."
And in that same interview, Cheney confirmed that the both Bush legal team that invented the spurious rationale for detainee torture and those implementing it were merely following orders:
"The reason I've been outspoken is because there were some things being said, especially after we left office, about prosecuting CIA personnel that had carried out our counterterrorism policy or disbarring lawyers in the Justice Department who had -- had helped us put those policies together, and I was deeply offended by that, and I thought it was important that some senior person in the administration stand up and defend those people who'd done what we asked them to do."
There are only two problems with the Bush-Cheney tag team defense of waterboarding.
Waterboarding Mohammed 183 times didn't save any lives. In fact, Mohammed told U.S. military officials that he gave false information to the CIA after withstanding torture. Additionally, a former Special Operations interrogator who worked in Iraq has stated that waterboarding has actually cost American lives: "The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001."
Just as important, with their admissions Bush and Cheney are in essence confessing to war crimes which the Obama administration is both morally and legally obligated to prosecute. As Scott Horton concluded in Harper's regarding Cheney's game of chicken:
"What prosecutor can look away when a perpetrator mocks the law itself and revels in his role in violating it? Such cases cry out for prosecution. Dick Cheney wants to be prosecuted. And prosecutors should give him what he wants."
Writing on February 15th, Professor Jonathan Turley lamented that President Obama had turned his back on the law:
It is an astonishing public admission since waterboarding is not just illegal but a war crime. It is akin to the vice president saying that he supported bank robbery or murder-for-hire as a public policy.
The ability of Cheney to openly brag about his taste for torture is the direct result of President Barack Obama blocking any investigation or prosecution of war crimes. For political reasons, Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have refused to carry out our clear obligations under international law to prosecute for such waterboarding. Indeed, before taking office, various high-ranking officials stated that both Obama and Holder assured them that they would not allow such prosecutions. While they denied it at the time, those accounts are consistent with their actions following inauguration.
Sadly, Turley has it exactly right. During his confirmation hearings, Attorney General Eric Holder unequivocally declared, "waterboarding is torture." But Holder also reassured Republicans that "we don't want to criminalize policy differences that might exist" with the outgoing Bush White House. And even after releasing the Bush torture team legal memos, President Obama agreed with Holder's restatement of the classic GOP "criminalization of politics" defense:
"In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution...
This is a time for reflection, not retribution. I respect the strong views and emotions that these issues evoke. We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past."
Nothing, that is, but the preservation of the rule of law.
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)
UPDATE: On his web site, Jonathan Turley today reacted to Bush's pronouncement by lamenting that "Because it would have been politically unpopular to prosecute people for torture, the Obama Administration has allowed officials to downgrade torture from a war crime to a talking point."