In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration enacted controversial and brutal detention and interrogation programs. Under direction from the executive branch, a combined effort by the United States military and intelligence apparatuses created a system where “suspected terrorist” were captured, held without trial, and tortured. These programs flew in the face of both international and United States laws, and have resulted in massive anti-American outrage abroad.
During the post-9/11 Bush years, people captured by the United States under suspicion of terrorist activities or who were thought to have information about terrorist groups were indefinitely detained. In addition to those captured by US military forces, this program was also used upon people abducted by the CIA and those who were given to the USA under the bounty program for “terrorists”. Unlike in detentions based upon civil laws (imprisonment under criminal charges) or rules of international conflicts (detention of prisoners of war), those detained by the Bush administration were held as “enemy combatants” and were not afforded any rights; these individuals could be held for unlimited amounts of time, be denied any legal process or civil rights, and be subjected to torture. The legal fiction of the “enemy combatant” status was utilized by the Bush administration to create a group of people who they could treat in an unaccountable manner—as they were neither prisoners of war nor civil prisoners, they had few guaranteed rights and the Bush administration could justify their harsh treatment.
The creation of the “enemy combatant” language and the accompanying detention program represent a terrible departure from the standards of the American legal system. The detention of individuals, without trial, for extended periods of time, and in terrible conditions, violates the constitutional protections of the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 8th Amendments—unfortunately, as these individuals were in the legal no-man’s-land of the “enemy combatant” status and were held outside of the country, the Bush administration had a legal fig-leaf to cover the fact that they were eviscerating the constitution.
Legally speaking, there is little that can be done to punish the Bush administration for its use of indefinite detention on suspected terrorists. The actions of the executive branch during the Bush years—and, to a lesser degree, the Obama administration—are morally reprehensible and deeply embarrassing to all fair-minded Americans, but they don’t constitute prosecutable crimes; the immunity enjoyed by the executive branch in matters foreign policy shields them from criminal prosecutions stemming from policy choices made in good faith (Those in the execute branch are extremely difficult to prosecute for crimes that they commit while doing their jobs). In the future, Americans will likely look back upon the indefinite detention program of the United States and see it in much the way we look at the Japanese internment program of the mid-twentieth century: a national disgrace and illustration of how our country can make terrible moral choices while in the thrall of fear.
While the indefinite detention program may be difficult to prosecute, the torture program which was attached to it is far more clear-cut. During most of the Bush years, the United States implemented a torture program which operated in a series of lawless and secret prisons. Many of the individuals who were indefinitely detained by the United States were subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment during their detention.
It is now common knowledge that the United States military and intelligence organizations practiced many recognized torture techniques during the Bush administration. By reverse-engineering interrogation techniques from the US military SERE program (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape), the Bush administration created a torture program which would rival that of any repressive regime. A variety of techniques, most of which are expressly forbidden by international and US domestic laws, were implemented against “suspected enemy combatants”. As if the use of torture weren’t bad enough, most of those subjected to these techniques were innocent, yet had never been afforded any legal process to prove their innocence. Here are examples of several techniques that the USA utilized which are considered torture:
· “Water-Boarding” – A torture technique that simulates drowning and causes extreme stress on the body; the United States has long-considered this interrogation technique a form of torture and previously executed several Japanese officers for water-boarding Americans during WWII.
· Sleep Deprivation – Prolonged and forced wakefulness causes extreme psychological and physical stress.
· “Stress Positions” – Forcing prisoners to maintain uncomfortable positions for extended periods of time is a form of torture; it causes extreme pain and eventually can result in nerve/joint damage.
· Beatings – Beating prisoners is among the most common tortures utilized by repressive regimes; unfortunately, the USA has utilized a widespread program of interrogation where “head-slapping” and “throwing prisoners against walls” are accepted interrogation techniques.
It is absolutely inarguable that the tortures authorized by the Bush Administration were illegal and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Torture is an extremely serious crime under American domestic law, and is considered a war crime under the Geneva Convention—under both legal standards torture is punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison. There is no legal excuse that would protect a politician who orders torture, either in US or international law, and it is shameful that the Bush administration has gotten away without consequences.
The American people were largely ignorant of the American detention and torture programs for years, but even when it was reported in the news, there was no significant backlash against politicians. Much of the outrage that should accompany these programs was mitigated by the fact that these programs were very rarely used upon Americans and the Bush administration endlessly proclaimed that the people being detained were the “worst of the worst” and dangerous terrorists. As many Americans were afraid of another 9/11, they stifled their outrage at our government’s actions and tolerated our government’s betrayal of our values.
Not only is there substantial evidence that the Bush administration created a torture program, but we also have comments by the highest officials of the Bush administration that virtually brag about the implementation of torture. In his book “Decision Points”, President George W. Bush claims that his response to being asked to authorize water-boarding was simply “Damn Right”. Vice President Dick Cheney, a self-admitted architect of the US torture program, has admitted several times in interviews that “I was a big supporter of water-boarding”. The Bush officials’ absolute lack of shame (if not the presence of pride) surrounding the American torture program reflects very badly upon us, as a country—if we desire any international credibility on the issue of human rights, the United States must begin by punishing our own abusers.
Whether in the courts of the United States justice system or in the war crimes tribunals of the world court, the criminals of the Bush administration must be brought to justice. Ultimately, it may be politically impossible to prosecute an ex-president within the United States, but it is certainly possible to transfer all evidence to the international courts and avail the Bush administration officials to their jurisdiction. A refusal to prosecute torture, merely because the criminals are our former leaders, is an abrogation of the rule of law and an invitation to future abuses. The fact that those who committed the crime of torture were elected officials doesn't mitigate their crimes rather, it makes it that much worse: not only did these people torture, but they did so in our names. Unless we swiftly punish these criminals, there will be a terrible precedent set, where those in power are given the right to violate our most sacred laws and simply walk away without fear of legal consequence.