Demands for war crimes prosecutions are now growing in the mainstream

The emerging evidence of culpability among top leaders, combined with their increasingly brazen admissions, is rendering real investigations an unavoidable option

Published December 18, 2008 2:24PM (EST)

For obvious reasons, the most blindly loyal Bush followers of the last eight years are desperate to claim that nobody cares any longer about what happened during the Bush administration, that everyone other than the most fringe, vindictive Bush-haters is eager to put it all behind us, forget about it all and, instead, look to the harmonious, sunny future.  That's natural.  Those who cheer on shameful and despicable acts always want to encourage everyone to forget what they did, and those who commit crimes naturally seek to dismiss demands for investigations and punishment as nothing more than distractions and vendettas pushed by those who want to wallow in the past.

Surprisingly, though, demands that Bush officials be held accountable for their war crimes are becoming more common in mainstream political discourse, not less so.  The mountain of conclusive evidence that has recently emerged directly linking top Bush officials to the worst abuses -- combined with Dick Cheney's brazen, defiant acknowledgment of his role in these crimes (which perfectly tracked Bush's equally defiant 2005 acknowledgment of his illegal eavesdropping programs and his brazen vow to continue them) -- is forcing even the reluctant among us to embrace the necessity of such accountability. 

It's almost as though everyone's nose is now being rubbed in all of this:  now that the culpability of our highest government officials is no longer hidden, but is increasingly all out in the open, who can still defend the notion that they should remain immune from consequences for their patent lawbreaking?  As Law Professor Jonathan Turley said several weeks ago on The Rachel Maddow Show:  "It's the indictment of all of us if we walk away from a clear war crime."  And this week, Turley pointed out to Keith Olbermann that "ultimately it will depend on citizens, and whether they will remain silent in the face of a crime that has been committed in plain view. . . . It is equally immoral to stand silent in the face of a war crime and do nothing."

That recognition, finally, seems to be spreading -- beyond the handful of blogs, civil liberties organizations and activists who have long been trumpeting the need for this accountability.  The New York Times Editorial Page today has a lengthy, scathing decree demanding prosecutions:  "It would be irresponsible for the nation and a new administration to ignore what has happened . . . . A prosecutor should be appointed to consider criminal charges against top officials at the Pentagon and others involved in planning the abuse."  Today, Politico -- of all places -- is hosting a forum which asks:  "Should the DOJ consider prosecuting Bush administration officials for detainee abuse as the NYT and others have urged?"  Even Chris Matthews and Chris Hitchens yesterday entertained (albeit incoherently and apologetically) the proposition that top Bush officials committed war crimes.

Perhaps most notably of all -- and illustrating the importance of finally having someone like Rachel Maddow occupy such a prominent place in an establishment media venue -- Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, one of the Senate's most restrained, influential and Serious members, was prodded by Maddow last night into going about as far as someone like him could be expected to go, acknowledging the necessity of appointing a Prosecutor to investigate top Bush officials for the war crimes they committed and to determine if prosecutions are warranted:



To be sure, the political class still desperately wants to avoid meaningful investigations and prosecutions, in no small part because every key component of it -- including the leaders in both parties -- are implicated by so much of it.   But as more undeniable evidence emerges of just how warped and criminal and heinous the conduct of our top political leaders has been -- and the more Dick Cheney and comrades resort to openly admitting what they did and proudly defending it, rather than obfuscating it behind euphemisms and secrecy claims  -- the more difficult it will be to justify doing nothing meaningful.  That is why, even as the desire to forget about the Bush era intensifies with the Promise of Obama ever-more-closely on the horizon, the recognition continues to grow of the need for real accountability.

The weapons used to prevent such accountability are quite familiar and will still be potent.  Those who demand accountability will be derided as past-obsessed partisans who want to impede all the Glorious, Transcendent Gifts about to be bestowed on us by our new leaders.  The manipulative claim will be endlessly advanced that our problems are too grand and pressing to permit the luxury of living under the rule of law.  When all else fails in the stonewalling arsenal, impotent "fact-finding" commissions will be proposed to placate the demand for accountability but which will, in fact, be designed and empowered to achieve only one goal:  to render actual prosecutions impossible.

But with these new, unprecedentedly stark revelations, this facade will be increasingly difficult to maintain.  It is already the case, as the Times Editorial today notes, that "all but President Bush’s most unquestioning supporters [i.e., this] recognized the chain of unprincipled decisions that led to the abuse, torture and death in prisons run by the American military and intelligence services."  That leaves only two choices:  (1) treat these crimes as the serious war crimes they are by having a Prosecutor investigate and, if warranted, prosecute them, or (2) openly acknowledge -- to ourselves and the world -- that we believe that our leaders are literally entitled to commit war crimes at will, and that we -- but not the rest of the world -- should be exempt from the consequences.  The clearer it becomes that those are the only two choices, the more difficult it will be to choose option (2), and either way, there is great benefit just from having that level of clarity and candor about what we are really doing.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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