Commentary

A Tortured History Pursues George W. Bush

George W. Bush is clearly enjoying his release from the glare of the presidency. In photos, he looks almost serene, and he doesn’t publicly criticize the cumulative incompetence of his successor. However, in early February — looking forward to attend a charity gala in Geneva, Switzerland — he was jolted when he had to cancel his trip lest he be arrested when he arrived.

The Center for Constitutional Rights was about to file, in Geneva, individual criminal complaints against Bush by two victims of torture.

Switzerland, like the United States, is a signatory to the international Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. And every nation signing this treaty is required to prosecute anyone, including government officials, who have been involved in “complicity or participation in torture.”

Moreover, the Convention makes it unmistakably clear that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war … or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

As I and both American and international reporters have written, President Bush did authorize such “enhanced interrogation techniques” as waterboarding — a procedure that makes the prisoner feel he is about to drown. And waterboarding thoroughly qualifies as torture in American and international law.

Indeed, in his recent memoir, Decision Points, George W. Bush openly, and without regret, writes that when in 2003, the CIA asked him if it was permissible to waterboard Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described master planner of the 9/11 atrocities on his nation, Bush replied: “Damn right.”

And he adds that in order to save lives, he would make the same decision again.

In Switzerland, as news broke about the forthcoming arrival of George W. Bush, reports Katherine Gallagher, senior staff attorney of the Center for Constitutional Rights: “Calls for Switzerland to investigate Bush for torture mounted, and news began to spread that complaints would be filed.” (“George Bush: no escaping torture charges,” The Guardian).

After all, Switzerland did sign the Convention Against Torture and thereby must prosecute — or extradite for prosecution — anyone on its territory against whom there is actual reason to believe that he or she did engage in torture.

And on Feb. 12, 2009, a USA Gallup poll and the Center for Constitutional Rights declared that “two-thirds of Americans say they want investigations into the role of Bush administration officials in torture and warrantless wiretapping, and 40 percent want to see prosecutions.”

These days, however, torture is hardly even a minor concern of most Americans amid such more vital issues as unemployment, Obamacare, the rising national deficit and the 2012 presidential campaign. Moreover, President Barack Obama has often insisted that “we must look ahead, not backward,” and has opposed any investigations of alleged violations — by Americans, in the field or all the way up the chain of command — of laws against torture.

In this refusal, isn’t Obama himself violating that part of the Convention Against Torture insisting that every nation that signed it must investigate any of its citizens on whom there is probable reason to believe they did engage in such torture as waterboarding?

Also, as the ACLU often emphasizes, no American against whom there is evidence of actively being involved in or authorizing torture has yet been prosecuted.

Meanwhile, there has been a series of carefully documented books on the CIA’s practice of torture in its secret prisons (“black sites”) as well as its direct implementation of “renditions” of torture suspects to other countries to be tortured. But no CIA operator, or headquarters officials ultimately responsible for “the renditions,” has been prosecuted.

On Feb. 9, Marian Wang of ProPublica charged: “CIA officials Involved in Abuse and Wrongful Detention Rarely Reprimanded, Sometimes Promoted!” Of all nations, aren’t we especially known for basing our justice system on the bedrock of our rule of law?

For an example involving a well-known victim of CIA imprisonment and torture by rendition, she cites “the case of German citizen Khalid El-Masri, who was kidnapped and transferred to a secret prison in Afghanistan for interrogation in 2003.”

Dig this: “U.S. officials have since admitted that the CIA wrongfully imprisoned El-Masri. Though the lawyer who signed off on the decision received a reprimand, the CIA never punished the analyst who pressed for El-Masri’s wrongful rendition, despite recommendations from the CIA’s inspector general.

“A former CIA official told the Washington Post in 2005 that the analysts ‘didn’t really know. She just had a hunch’ when she made the decision regarding El-Masri.”

Where is that agent now? “She now runs the CIA’s Global Jihad unit, which leads the U.S. government’s counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaida.” Surely we want to be certain, not based on a hunch, that we get real-life al-Qaida murderers before they get us.

Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have assured us and the world that we will never abandon our values.

Tell that to El-Masri.

Or, more challengingly, as an American, tell it to yourself.

Nat Hentoff writes on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.