The differing views of the “rule of law” in Spain and the U.S.

Spanish prosecutors decide to fulfill their legal obligations by commencing war crimes investigations of six key Bush officials.

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

(updated below – Update II – Update III)

Scott Horton reports this morning that, in Spain, “prosecutors have decided to press forward with a criminal investigation targeting former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and five top associates [John Yoo, Jay Bybee, David Addington, Doug Feith and William Haynes] over their role in the torture of five Spanish citizens held at Guantánamo.”  Spain not only has the right under the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture to prosecute foreign officials for torturing its citizens, but it — like the U.S. — has the affirmative obligation to do so. (Indeed, the Bush administration itself insisted just last year that the U.S. the right to criminally prosecute foreign officials for ordering acts of torture even in the absence of an accusation that any of the victims were American). 

As Hilzoy argues, however, the primary obligation for these prosecutions lies with the country whose officials authorized the war crimes — the United States:

It is a requirement of law, the law that the Constitution requires Obama, as President, to faithfully execute.  He should not outsource his Constitutional obligations to Spain.

That the U.S. has the legal obligation under the U.S. Constitution, our own laws and international treaties to commence criminal investigations is simply undeniable.  That is just a fact. Yet it’s hard to overstate how far away we are from fulfilling our legal obligations to impose accountability on our own torturers and war criminals. 

The barriers to these prosecutions are numerous, but one of the principal obstacles is that CIA Director Leon Panetta has been emphatically demanding that there be no investigations of any government officials whose conduct was declared legal by DOJ lawyers (i.e., the very individuals the Spanish are now investigating for war crimes).  And it’s not surprising that Panetta has taken this position given that at least two of his top deputies at the CIA are among those implicated, to one degree or another, in the torture regime, as John Sifton detailed earlier this month at The Daily Beast

The New York Times reported that Leon Panetta, the current CIA director, has taken the position that “no one who took actions based on legal guidance from the Department of Justice at the time should be investigated, let alone punished.” Yet a number of CIA officials implicated in the torture program not only remain at the highest levels of the agency, but are also advising Panetta. Panetta’s attempt to suppress the issue is making Bush’s policy into the Obama administration’s dirty laundry.

Take Stephen Kappes. At the time of the worst torture sessions outlined in the ICRC report, Kappes served as a senior official in the Directorate of Operations—the operational part of the CIA that oversees paramilitary operations as well as the high-value detention program. (The directorate of operations is now known as the National Clandestine Service.) Panetta has kept Kappes as deputy director of the CIA—the number two official in the agency.

And why is it that Stephen Kappes was made the number 2 officials at the CIA despite his being in a key CIA position during the implementation of America’s torture regime?  Because the two most important Senate Democrats on intelligence matters – Jay Rockefeller and Dianne Feinstein — insisted that he be so empowered as a condition for their supporting Panetta’s nomination, after both of them first demanded that Kappes actually be made CIA Director.  Here’s what Andrea Mitchell reported back in January:

NBC News has learned that Senate Democrats — including Dianne Feinstein and Jay Rockefeller, who are the incoming and outgoing Intelligence chairmen — have privately recommended a career CIA officer to head the agency.

Democratic sources indicate that both have recommended deputy CIA Director Steve Kappes, a veteran CIA intelligence officer who is widely credited with getting the Libyans to give up their nuclear program.

Just to give a sense for how our political class thinks about torture, here is what Mitchell appended to the end of her report:  “One potential downside for Kappes: Like former counter-terror chief John Brennan, some critics says [sic] he had line authority over controversial decisions involving interrogation and detention.”  So Kappes’ connection to the CIA’s torture program was a “potential downside” to his becoming CIA Director.  A potential downside.  Once Obama chose Panetta rather than Kappes, Rockefeller and Feinstein agreed to support Panetta’s nomination only once they were given assurances that Kappes would become Panetta’s deputy.

This Thursday will be a very significant test for how much influence the anti-accountability camp exerts within the Obama administration and for how serious Obama’s pledges of transparency were, as that day is the latest deadline for the Obama DOJ either to release the three key OLC torture-authorizing memos, release them in heavily redacted form, or refuse to release them at all.  It has been widely reported that a “war” has broken out within the Obama administration over their release, with key Bush-era intelligence officials — such as Obama’s top counter-terrorism aide John Brennan and ex-CIA Director Michael Hayden — demanding the ongoing concealment of the memos.  Those torture memos are reputed to be among the most vivid torture documents of the Bush era, and thus will almost certainly fuel the flames of investigations and prosecution — both here and internationally.  That is what has prompted the “war” over their disclosure.  It’s hardly a surprise that if you empower the very people most connected to the Bush CIA, there will be substantial forces blocking any attempt to bring accountability under the rule of law for the crimes that were committed.

Just think about what all this means:  not only are we failing to investigate or indict those who authorized torture, but we haven’t even reached the point yet where we’ve decided that these crimes are bad enough that those implicated ought to be barred from serving in the highest positions in our Government.  While Spain proceeds to fulfill the Obama administration’s duties to investigate and prosecute our war criminals, some of those most implicated remain in positions of high authority within our own intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies — thanks to Senate Democrats such as Feinstein and Rockefeller.  

Our political class has simply never come to terms with how severe are these war crimes and how acquiescent to and outright supportive so many officials from both parties — and so many of our media stars — were.   That’s why huge numbers, arguably majorities, of Americans want criminal investigations to commence, but our political class remains virtually unified against them — notwithstanding that they are legally required — because, as has been conclusively proven over and over, the last thing our political and media elites care about is the “rule of law.”  That will become more apparent as other countries, such as Spain, demonstrate that they actually take things like that seriously.

* * * * *

On a related note, Rachel Maddow last night potently eviscerated Barack Obama for his attempts to deny Bagram detainees any rights of any kind, and she and Newsweek‘s Michael Isikoff then discussed the significance of Thursday’s deadline for the release of the OLC torture memos:




 UPDATE: In comments, Jim White highlights a fact from Horton’s story that I intended but neglected to mention:  the Spanish “advised the Americans that they would suspend their investigation if at any point the United States were to undertake an investigation of its own into these matters.”  As White points out, that is how war crimes investigations are intended to proceed under numerous treaty provisions by which the U.S. has bound itself:   namely, the country whose officials commit the crimes have the primary obligation to investigate and hold the criminals accountable.  But other treaty signatories are not only entitled, but required, to commence such proceedings if the violating country refuses or otherwise fails to do so.

Thus, the only way to object to what Spain is doing here is if one:  (a) suffers from total ignorance of the basic provisions of Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture; (b) believes that the U.S. has no obligation to abide by its treaties even though the U.S. Constitution provides that such treaties are “the supreme law of the land”; and/or (c) believes that the U.S. need not abide by rules we impose on other countries, such as when we prosecuted other countries’ leaders for war crimes in the past.  None of those is a particularly noble excuse.


UPDATE II:  Andrew Sullivan says that Obama, by not prosecuting Bush officials, is playing “a long game” which will eventually result in accountability for the war criminals, whereby Obama “hangs back a little, allows the evidence to slowly filter out, releases memos that help prove to Americans that what was done was unequivocally torture and indisputably illegal.”  

It’s going to be quite some time before one can definitively prove or disprove that theory, but if, on Thursday, Obama does anything other than release the three OLC torture memos more or less in fully unredacted form, that will be rather compelling evidence negating Sullivan’s speculation.  Conversely, as I said earlier this week, if those memos are released essentially in full over the vehement objections of key intelligence officials, Obama will deserve some substantial credit for doing that.


UPDATE III:  As sysprog suggests in comments, Sullivan’s theory about Obama’s secret plan — that Obama intends simply to remain neutral when it comes to legal proceedings aimed at Bush’s torture regime; that “he will not defend it, but he will not be the prosecutor either”; and that his strategy is to “allow the evidence to slowly filter out” — is extremely difficult to reconcile with the fact that Obama has been ordering his Justice Department to take extraordinary steps to block all judicial accountability for Bush officials and to insist that Bush’s interrogation and surveillance programs are such vital state secrets that any disclosure would “gravely harm national security.”

Put another way, Obama has been far from neutral.  At least thus far, he has been the prime agent working overtime to keep these illegal Bush policies as secret as possible and to shield them from any and all accountability.  

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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