The only thing worse than a war criminal is an unrepentant one. Sadly, that's the self-portrait George W. Bush will present this week with the release of his new memoir, Decision Points. As his new book apparently makes quite clear, Bush has no regrets about his regime of detainee torture that broke U.S. law, violated international treaty agreements, shamed the United States worldwide and provided a powerful propaganda victory for Al Qaeda.
Even before his media blitz this week with Oprah Winfrey, Matt Lauer, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and others, Bush's unshakeable faith in the waterboard was revealed in the New York Times and the Washington Post. As the Post reported Wednesday:
Bush recounts being asked by the CIA whether it could proceed with waterboarding Mohammed, who Bush said was suspected of knowing about still-pending terrorist plots against the United States. Bush writes that his reply was "Damn right" and states that he would make the same decision again to save lives, according to a someone close to Bush who has read the book.
And as the Times explained:
In his book, Mr. Bush says he personally authorized the use of such techniques sometime after the capture of a suspected Al Qaeda operative, Abu Zubaydah, in March 2002. He says he rejected two techniques the C.I.A. wanted to use because he felt they went "too far, even if they were legal," but approved the rest - including waterboarding.
He wrote: "I knew that an interrogation program this sensitive and controversial would one day become public. When it did, we would open ourselves up to criticism that America had compromised its moral values. I would have preferred that we get the information another way. But the choice between security and values was real." Mr. Bush added that not authorizing the technique would have amounted to a decision to put the country at greater risk of attack.
If that all sounds familiar, it should. George Bush and Dick Cheney have been saying the same thing for months.
During an appearance six months ago before a business audience in Grand Rapids, Michigan, ex-President Bush revealed his endorsement of the use of waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques against 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other terrorism suspects. As CNN reported in June:
"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.
Of course, on this as on most issues, Bush was only echoing his Vice President. 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."
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 Hortonconcluded 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.
After Bush's tough talk in Grand Rapids in June, Professor Turley concluded that by turning a blind eye, the Obama administration had dumbed torture down. "Because it would have been politically unpopular to prosecute people for torture," Turley wrote, "the Obama Administration has allowed officials to downgrade torture from a war crime to a talking point."
Sadly, Jonathan 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.
As the former President kicks off his book tour, Georgetown University law professor David Cole concluded that Bush's prosecution for his acknowledged war crimes is unlikely. "The fact that he did admit it," Cole said, "suggests he believes he is politically immune from being held accountable." Regrettably, for most Americans and especially the current occupant of the Oval Office, there is nothing to see here. As Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, summed up the specter:
"Waterboarding is broadly seen by legal experts around the world as torture, and it is universally prosecutable as a crime. The fact that none of us expect any serious consequences from this admission is what is most interesting."
Interesting, that is, and tragic.