Friday, April 24, 2009

Without torture trials, U.S. would endorse lawless presidency

President Obama will have ample occasions during his White House years to apply forgive-and-forget compassion for lapses of judgment. Cases in point: Appointees who failed to pay their income taxes and now are on the government payroll.

However, criminal behavior of senior Bush administration officials does not qualify for presidential amnesty under Obama's move-ahead, don't-look-back standard.

Shocking and virtually incontrovertible evidence of calculated torture as policy is trickling out of the dark recesses of the Bush-Cheney reign that demands investigation and, where justified, prosecution.

The real probability is that senior members of President Bush's inner circle committed war crimes. Torture is a violation of U.S. law and a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

That torture was ordered is irrefutable. Declassified documents reveal that two major terror suspects were subjected to near drowning with waterboarding 266 times, one of them 183 times.

Evidence also is emerging that barbaric repetition of torture failed to extract useful information. Rather, the tormentors seemed to have been under instructions to force false information that Bush policy makers could use to justify a string of decisions—invading Iraq and instituting largely unconstitutional homeland surveillance of Americans.

President Bush's accommodating Justice Department coughed out memos justifying torture. One author of these unconscionable documents, Jay Bybee, was rewarded with a lifetime appointment to the federal court for being a rogue lawyer. He should be impeached and removed. Another, John Yoo, is now a law professor in the California university system. He should be fired and stripped of his law license, if not sent to prison.

Others involved included Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and then-CIA Director George Tenet, all of whom also conspired to lie to Congress and the public about Iraq's fictional doomsday weaponry.

As politically divisive as criminal trials might be, the very soul of the U.S. democracy and constitutional law are being tested now. Torture condoned by the Bush White House is far graver than the Watergate break-in and cover-ups that ended Richard Nixon's presidency in disgrace.

If President Obama lacks political will and prefers to avoid clashes with Republican apologists for torture, then he should stand aside and allow Congress and the Justice Department to enforce U.S. law and make Bush White House officials, no matter how senior, accountable for their behavior.

A full airing of unsavory conduct in the Bush presidency, and criminal prosecutions if required, will become a standard that future presidents dare not breech lest they, too, face a reckoning established in the Obama years.

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