Judging the war on terror
The Obama administration has deleted the term “global war on terror” from the government lexicon but is finding it more difficult to wipe the slate on some of the dark activities that rhetoric was used to justify. Since his election, President Obama has said he would prefer to look forward instead of backward at charges that the Bush administration used illegal detention and torture to prosecute its campaign against terrorism. That’s an understandable political impulse, but it may prove difficult to sustain.
A Spanish court has opened criminal proceedings against six senior Bush administration officials accused of providing the legal framework to allow the torture of prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention center, among them former Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, former chief of staff to the vice president David S. Addington and John C. Yoo, a former Justice Department lawyer who is now a UC Berkeley law professor. Several factors make this case likely to move forward, including that it is being handled by Judge Baltasar Garzon, a human rights crusader who issued the arrest warrant that led to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s detention in London in 1998. Furthermore, it centers on five citizens or legal residents of Spain, giving that country a specific claim to jurisdiction.
The Spanish case comes on the heels of a British investigation into whether an MI5 security official colluded with American agents to torture Binyam Mohamed, a British resident held at Guantanamo. The two cases reflect a growing international determination to find outwhether the Bush administration abandoned the rule of law in pursuit of terrorists. We too want to know.
As he meets with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in Madrid on Sunday, Obama might want to point out that this country’s legal processes are at work. The Justice Department has launched an inquiry into whether CIA officials committed criminal acts in destroying tapes of the interrogations of two Al Qaeda prisoners. Last month, the Senate Intelligence Committee opened an investigation of CIA detention and interrogation policies under the Bush administration. And Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has proposed a bipartisan truth and reconciliation commission, although we’re not convinced that’s the best way to proceed before the legal process has had a chance to function.
The Obama administration must restore the international community’s confidence in the U.S. rule of law, as well as our own. That means that investigations into possible criminal wrongdoing in the terror war should proceed with all due care and vigor. Once the probes are completed, the findings should be made public, whenever possible. And, as Obama has said, if there was criminal wrongdoing, there should be prosecutions.
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