Following up on a piece by Gil Cranberg, I wonder if it isn’t time for the mainstream press to treat the president as it would any suspect of a crime, in this case, war crimes, which are punishable under American law. After all, we’ve seen endless stories about all sorts of crimes and suspects. The Washington Post, for example, just ran a multi-part series on the unsolved murder of congressional intern Chandra Levy and the possible suspects. The press still excels at police reporting, my first job in journalism.
Although it may be a stretch, the idea that George W. Bush and his White House be treated as a police story came to me when I read an Associated Press report on the current war crimes trial at Guantanamo of Salim Hamdan, a former driver and alleged body guard for Osama bin Laden. The story informs us that “he is the first prisoner to face a U.S. war crimes trial sine World War II.”
Wow! I wondered, is this Hamdan in the same league as Herman Goering, Rudolph Hess & Co., who were found guilty of war crimes at the precedent-setting Nuremberg trials? Was Hamdan, like the Nazi leadership, guilty of launching an unprovoked war on another country and bombing and imprisoning innocent civilians? Were Hamdan’s crimes anywhere near as horrible as those of the Nazis? The U.S. also prosecuted top Japanese war leaders, whose crimes, among others, was launching an unprovoked attack against the U.S. The Nazis and the Japanese claimed their wars against Poland and the U.S., respectively, were pre-emptive, but nobody believed that.
More recently, the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal arrested a former Bosnian Serb leader to face war crimes charges, including, genocide, for the unprovoked artillery siege of Sarajevo and the killing of more than 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica during the Bosnian conflict of 1992-95. Surely, Hamdan’s crimes don’t measure up to that.
As Cranberg recounted from Jane Mayer’s “The Dark Side,” most of the president’s top men were involved in what can only be called war crimes. We’ve seen a barrage of well-received, well-documented books, some from administration insiders, on the war crimes committed in the name of the so-called war on terror. It is now well established that with the president in command, his administration launched an unprovoked war against a sovereign nation, Iraq, and in doing so deceived and misled the Congress. Thousands of Iraqi non-combatants, innocent civilians, were killed. Others, some having nothing to do with Iraq or terrorism, were imprisoned, kidnapped and tortured.
At Guantanamo, according to a still-secret report of the Red Cross that Mayer disclosed, their agents found evidence that prisoners were tortured. That meant, said the report, that the Bush administration is guilty of war crimes. After making an official investigation of the treatment of prisoners in Iraq, then Maj. General Anthony Taguba, now retired, declared that the president could be considered guilty of war crimes. None of the Nazi or Japanese leaders were subject to torture, but apparently Hamdan was, for the judge has excluded any evidence gotten through coercion.
All these acts, including the attack on Iraq, are listed among the “circumstances” constituting a war crime under the U.S. “War Crimes Act,” as well as international law. For example, the law says a “war crime” includes “any conduct defined as a grave breach in any of the international conventions signed at Geneva” in 1949. And in 1996, the U.S. signed a protocol banning any weapon that “willfully kills or causes serious injury to civilians.” Cluster bombs, mines and booby traps may be considered such weapons.
In 2006, as evidence mounted that Bush or his top advisers had launched a war without a credible reason and approved torture, extraordinary rendition, and worse, the president asked the Congress to amend the War Crimes Act ostensibly to protect military and intelligence people from prosecution or civil law suits. But perhaps he was protecting himself from prosecution; indeed human rights lawyer Philip Sands suggested that Bush not travel abroad when he leaves office. And constitutional law expert and professor Johnathan Turley suggested Bush would be in danger of prosecution when his presidency ends. But, of course, the U.S. does not recognize and is not a member of the International Court, maybe for that reason.
That shouldn’t stop reporters from reading books like Mayer’s and assembling their own evidence on whether the president and his administration have committed war crimes. Pretend it’s Watergate; that was a police story. And, as with any good police story, let the world be the judge.