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End the Bush-Cheney Junta

Saying it like it is, at least in Canada

The illustration for this piece is, clearly enough, from the latest cover story of Canada’s version of Time—a terrific piece of extended reporting by Patrick Graham about the catastrophic degradation of Iraq thanks to Bush’s Ali Baba cave of blunders and crimes. The illustration applies equally well to the latest revelations of Bush as petty dictator cut of the same cloth as Saddam: The Times’ report that while he was publicly renouncing torture, Bush was secretly ordering the CIA interrogators to brutalize prisoners all they wished. Torture, so long as it doesn’t “shock the conscience,” is fine by him. Congress wants to see those secret memos justifying the policy. The question is: Why isn’t Congress asking for Bush’s head?

The Times story is both astounding and unsurprising. It’s astounding for the degree to which Bush and Dick Cheney have created a hermetic legal system, using the nation’s most important institutions, to justify criminal conduct. All they do is install puppets with law degrees in the right places at the Justice Department and in the White House’s office of legal counsel and tell them to write memos that give legal justification to the unconscionable. So they have: Alberto Gonzales, Harrier Miers, John Yoo, who authored the first “torture memo” (no torture is illegal unless it produced pain equivalent to organ failure or “even death”), David Addington, who is Dick Cheney’s legal mobster, Steven G. Bradbury, the current legal mobster at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.

It’s unsurprising because malfeasance and scandal as routine have overtaken the narrative of the Bush administration, with this significant caveat: in more civilized countries, in an America more law-abiding than ideologically enamored, more reverent of accountability than power, the scandals would have long ago done away with the Bush junta. The utter and purposeful negligence of the terrorist threat on the run-up to 9/11, symbolized by Bush’s pet-goat moment in that Sarasota grade school, would have been enough.

I’m not saying this for hyperbolic effect: As Richard Clarke wrote in “Against All Enemies,” the featherweighted Condoleezza Rice, then Bush’s National Security Adviser, decided that the position of National Coordinator for Counterterrorism would be downgraded from cabinet-level to some bureaucratic wilderness. “No longer,” wrote Clarke—who was the administration’s terrorism czar, as he had been Clinton’s—“would the Coordinator be a member of the Principals Committee. No longer would the CSG report to the principals, but instead to a committee of Deputy Secretaries.” But we tend to forget these things, overwhelmed as we are by the monsoon of incompetence the junta has imposed on the country since its first days, but also by the public’s acceptance of it all, over time, as some sort of new normalcy: let criminals run the show unimpeded long enough, as the media, Congress (and yes, Bush’s once-fearful, adoring public) did, and criminal governance begins to take on an air of legitimacy.

In a climate like that, a Soviet-style concentration camp at Guantanamo is interpreted by lawmakers and the public as too much of a luxurious thing for its prisoners. The illegal invasion of Iraq and Iraq’s subsequent destruction, and sectarian cleansing, thanks to Bush’s invasion, is considered perfectly legitimate because it keeps America safe (however that bit of reasoning circles in on its own perversities: when has it ever been just for one nation to keep itself safe at the systematically murderous expense of another? And hasn’t it been proven over and over that the invasion of Iraq destabilized the Middle East more than ever, turned a previously secular and contained nation into a hotbed of terror, and gave al-Qaeda its second, third, fourth and fifth winds?) Then there are the black sites, the torture scandals at Abu Ghraib and the rest of that sorry gulag of prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan, the never-discovered WMDs, the domestic spying scandal, the demolition of the Justice Department as an independent branch of the executive and its reconstitution into a just another nest of machinations, legal and political.

That brings us back to the Times story. All 4,200 words are worth a read. You won’t regret it. It’s perversely absorbing, and shaming. Let these few paragraphs suffice for our purposes here:

When the Justice Department publicly declared torture “abhorrent” in a legal opinion in December 2004, the Bush administration appeared to have abandoned its assertion of nearly unlimited presidential authority to order brutal interrogations. But soon after Alberto R. Gonzales’s arrival as attorney general in February 2005, the Justice Department issued another opinion, this one in secret. It was a very different document, according to officials briefed on it, an expansive endorsement of the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the Central Intelligence Agency. The new opinion, the officials said, for the first time provided explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures.

Mr. Gonzales approved the legal memorandum on “combined effects” over the objections of James B. Comey, the deputy attorney general, who was leaving his job after bruising clashes with the White House. Disagreeing with what he viewed as the opinion’s overreaching legal reasoning, Mr. Comey told colleagues at the department that they would all be “ashamed” when the world eventually learned of it. Later that year, as Congress moved toward outlawing “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment, the Justice Department issued another secret opinion, one most lawmakers did not know existed, current and former officials said. The Justice Department document declared that none of the C.I.A. interrogation methods violated that standard. The classified opinions, never previously disclosed, are a hidden legacy of President Bush’s second term and Mr. Gonzales’s tenure at the Justice Department, where he moved quickly to align it with the White House after a 2004 rebellion by staff lawyers that had thrown policies on surveillance and detention into turmoil.

The rest of the story details the crime.

It puts one in mind of how al-Qaeda went about justifying the mass killing of innocent civilians, women and children included, through suicide operations—both of which are outright banned by the Quran. Odd as this may sound, it’s very important for Osama bin Laden and his hierarchy to be on solid legal ground in the eyes of Allah. In “The Looming Tower,” Lawrence Wright describes at length how al-Qaeda goes about justifying the unconscionable. Osama or Ayman al-Zawahiri, his Number 2 man, had a “fatwa committee.” Its members may have been theological amateurs. But their task was to find ways to justify by any sophistry necessary what the Quran bans. So the committee did. It has nothing to do with objectively crafting a legal argument based on theological evidence, of course. But it had the stamp of theology. (Read this brief passage from “The Looming Tower,” where Wright describes exactly how Zawahiri went about justifying suicide killing as god-approved.)

The difference between al-Qaeda’s “fatwa committee” and Bush’s Office of Legal Counsel at Justice? None at all.

And the Democratic Congress’ lame answer? Show us the memos. That’s not to say that the administration shouldn’t be compelled to turn over the memos. But we’re not at the discovery stage anymore. It’s time to move to the next step. It’s time to prosecute. The administration isn’t about to turn over these memos anymore than it’s turned over reams of documents wall-papering its lawbreaking. So what will we get? Another “stand-off” between the White House and Congress, the kind of stand-off that got nowhere on the NSA spying, on the Justice Department firing of prosecutors, on the black sites? Enough already.

The hell with triangulating between looking tough and playing it cool before the 2008 election. Prosecute. Impeach. Punish. And give the Bush-Cheney junta a taste of its own black sites.

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