Tag Archives: War Crimes

Judgement at Nuremberg

Kathleen Parker cluelessly asks:

When did we start punishing lawyers for producing opinions with which we disagree? And where does that road lead?

The answer: Nuremberg

And that's not the dumbest part of her argument.  This inexplicably moronic assertion (seen by now all over the place, e.g., here) shows up as well:

Moreover, the same technique is used to train our own military personnel, who do not suffer severe physical pain or prolonged mental harm. 

The logic of this claim is completely baffling.  If we use the technique known as waterboarding in order to prepare our military personnel for the kinds of torture that the enemy might use against them, then on that account it's not torture if we use it against the enemy.  But if it's not torture, then we are either tormenting our soldiers for no good reason or we are giving the enemy a pass in virtue of our using it as training.  


The op-ed page at the New York Times is pretty bad, what with Dowd, Kristol and Friedman, but the op-ed page at the Washington Post is worse.  To end the year on a negative note, here's Ruth Marcus on why an Obama administration should not pursue criminal charges against Bush administration officials who broke the law.  The whole thing amounts to a classic ignoratio elenchi–none of Marcus's arguments prove or really even support the conclusion that criminal prosecution against Bush administration officials should not be pursued.  My comements in brackets.

First, criminal prosecution isn't the only or necessarily the most effective mechanism for deterrence. To the extent that they weigh the potential penalties for their actions, government officials worry as much about dealing with career-ruining internal investigations or being hauled before congressional committees. Criminal prosecution and conviction requires such a high level of proof of conscious wrongdoing that the likelihood of those other punishments is much greater. [deterrence isn't the only point of criminal prosecution].

Second, the looming threat of criminal sanctions did not do much to deter the actions of Bush administration officials. "The Terror Presidency," former Justice Department official Jack Goldsmith's account of the legal battles within the administration over torture and wiretapping, is replete with accounts of how officials proceeded despite their omnipresent concerns about legal jeopardy.

"In my two years in the government, I witnessed top officials and bureaucrats in the White House and throughout the administration openly worrying that investigators acting with the benefit of hindsight in a different political environment would impose criminal penalties on heat-of-battle judgment calls," Goldsmith writes. [Goldsmith's characterization only underscores the dubious legality of the actions of administration officials]

Third, punishment is not the only way to prevent wrongdoing. If someone is caught breaking into your house, by all means, press charges. But you might also want to consider installing an alarm system or buying stronger locks. Responsible congressional oversight, an essential tool for checking executive branch excesses, was lacking for much of the Bush administration. [This is the same as one.  It's also just irrelevant.]

Fourth, there is a cost to pursuing criminal charges. As appalling as waterboarding is, for example, it was pursued with the analysis and approval of lawyers who concluded, however wrongly, that it did not rise to the level of torture. If government officials cannot safely rely on legal advice, they will err on the side of excessive timidity. [All criminal defendants can find lawyers who can argue however erroneously that they're client did nothing illegal–this does not make it legal]

Fifth, focusing governmental energy on uncovering and punishing the actions of the past will inevitably drain energy and political capital from the new administration. It would be a better use of the administration's time to figure out how to close Guantanamo and deal with the remaining prisoners. [these are not mutually exclusive]

In a State of the Union address in 2003, Bush uttered the following words about Saddam:

The dictator who is assembling the world's most dangerous weapons has already used them on whole villages — leaving thousands of his own citizens dead, blind, or disfigured. Iraqi refugees tell us how forced confessions are obtained — by torturing children while their parents are made to watch. International human rights groups have catalogued other methods used in the torture chambers of Iraq: electric shock, burning with hot irons, dripping acid on the skin, mutilation with electric drills, cutting out tongues, and rape. If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning. (Applause.) 

Saddam's leaving thousands of Iraqis dead and obtaining false confessions through torture were lawlessness on a scale worthy of military invasion at the cost of thousands of lives of killed and wounded soldiers and civilians.  One would think that such things might be worthy of criminal investigation, and, perhaps, prosecution.

The truth will set you free

What conclusion would you think would follow from the following (courtesy of Sadly, No!)?

Dark deeds have been conducted in the name of the United States government in recent years: the gruesome, late-night circus at Abu Ghraib, the beating to death of captives in Afghanistan, and the officially sanctioned waterboarding and brutalization of high-value Qaeda prisoners. Now demands are growing for senior administration officials to be held accountable and punished. Congressional liberals, human-rights groups and other activists are urging a criminal investigation into high-level "war crimes," including the Bush administration's approval of interrogation methods considered by many to be torture.

I would think: we are a nation of laws.  The accused will no doubt have better legal representation than their alleged victims (someone said something like that once–who was it?), but they'll still have to answer for their deeds.  That's what I would say.  Here's what the author said:

It's a bad idea. In fact, President George W. Bush ought to pardon any official from cabinet secretary on down who might plausibly face prosecution for interrogation methods approved by administration lawyers. (It would be unseemly for Bush to pardon Vice President Dick Cheney or himself, but the next president wouldn't allow them to be prosecuted anyway—galling as that may be to critics.) The reason for pardons is simple: what this country needs most is a full and true accounting of what took place. The incoming president should convene a truth commission, with subpoena power, to explore every possible misdeed and derive lessons from it. But this should not be a criminal investigation, which would only force officials to hire lawyers and batten down the hatches.

Couldn't this be said about any criminal act?  What the family needs is a full accounting of what happened–outside of the Rashomon-like perspectivism of a criminal trial–so let's grant the accused immunity and  just hear about how he went about his crimes.

Of course that's nonsense not worthy of the most motivated high school debate student.  People will continue to lie to protect their reputations–even when nothing is at stake.  Criminal trials don't really produce truth anyway, they produce, maybe sometimes, justice.


With or Without Yoo

Two interesting quotations from Ruth Marcus’s Washington Post column–One pro John Yoo, tortured torture memo writer, one contra.  The first one, from Columbia University law Professor Scott Horton, addresses someone (Elder) who does not find Yoo’s legal work grounds for discipline or revocation of his tenure at Berkeley.  He says that Elder

"is appropriately concerned about freedom of expression for his
faculty. But he should be much more concerned about the message that
all of this sends to his students. Lawyers who act on the public stage
can have an enormous impact on their society and the world around them.
. . . Does Dean Edley really imagine that their work is subject to no
principle of accountability because they are mere drones dispensing
legal analysis

There’s a wide gulf between "not punishable in this instance by the University" and "subject to no principle of accountability."  Horton sets up a false dichotomy–accountable or not.

On the pro-Yoo side:

The most useful analogy I’ve read on this subject comes from Princeton
professor Deborah Pearlstein, who asked what Berkeley would do if a
molecular biology professor "had written a medical opinion while in
government employ disclaiming the truth of evolution," and continued to
dispute the theory of evolution once he resumed teaching.

a human rights lawyer, found Yoo’s memo "blatantly, embarrassingly
wrong under the law," but she conceded that legal conclusions lack the
hard certainty of scientific truth. Yoo should no more be removed from
a teaching job than a Supreme Court justice who writes a despicable
opinion — upholding slavery, allowing separate but equal facilities,
permitting the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II —
should be impeached.

I’m confused by the analogy in the first paragraph.  If that’s the case, then indeed Yoo ought to be fired for not having competence in his subject matter.  Academic freedom ought not be a cover for incompetence.  But I doubt he would have gotten that far anyway. 

The second paragraph rings odd.  And it hardly makes the point that Yoo ought to be protected from firing.  Any Supreme Court judge who argues for slavery ought to be impeached–now (and probably back then as well).  Even though legal opinions lack the "hard certainty" of scientific truth (whatever that means), it doesn’t mean that some legal opinions are simply beyond the pale.  

By most accounts–even friendly ones–Yoo’s opinions were beyond the pale.  The fact is, however, that was a different job.  This seems to me to be the key difference that’s being overlooked here.  Berkeley was dumb enough to hire him and give him tenure.  They ought to be ashamed.  But it’s too late now. 

Of course, if he broke the law and is found to have committed war crimes, then indeed, he ought to be fired.  But that’s a matter for, er, the law.