Monday, May 4, 2009


One of the most powerful movies I watched as a kid was the Judgement at Nuremburg. Spencer Tracy, Montgomery Clift, Maximilian Schell and Burt Lancaster were among he stars. Lancaster played a judge who had presided over show trials in which people were condemned to the death camps. He was prosecuted for his acts and criticized for allowing the law to be used as a political vehicle to rid the society of unwanted elements. One of the phrases that was condemned over and over in both the movie and in the real Nuremburg trials was the claim that "...I was just following orders." After Nuremburg, the claim that one was ordered to commit a horrible or immoral or illegal act became a non-starter. In fact, the court established the rule that a soldier or government official had a duty, a moral obligation, to disobey orders if what they were told to do was immoral or a war crime or illegal. They had a duty to disobey or be held accountable. The United States prosecuted German war criminals and executed some of them. We did the same thing to members of the Japanese High Command for war crimes involving mass murder, rape, the Bataan Death March and others. When Sergeant William Cally tried to claim he was just following orders when he destroyed the village of Mei Lai, that defense was rejected. An Ohio man, John Demjanjuk is facing deportation because he was a death camp guard who escaped to this country 60 years ago. This government argued that there was no statute of limitations on crimes like his and he had to be punished. A court in Spain found General Augusto Pinochet guilty of war crimes in Chile and sais not even the leader of a nation is immune from prosecution. Sloboden Milosevich was captured and turned over to the World Criminal Court at the Hague, as was Radivan Karadsik for the horrible crimes that they ordered and oversaw in Bosnia and Yugoslavia. Recently, the same court issued an arrest warrant for the current President of the Sudan accusing him of crimes against humanity for the genocide in Darfur. What is a consistent theme in all of these examples is that you cannot hide behind the law when you commit immoral or illegal acts. You cannot claim some special exemption from culpability because you are at war or believe your country is under attack. You cannot hide behind the law of the land and shield your actions even if you wrote the law or run the country. You cannot claim you were just following orders, nor can you use fear of any group to single some out for torture or illegal imprisonment or any other illegal or immoral act. Perhaps most important of all, the Nuremburg trials and all subsequent legal opinions established clearly that the "end can never justify the means." So this week, when we discovered that American citizens, government employees, and CIA agents had been given permission to torture suspected terrorists; that they had in fact engaged in torture and that they had engaged in violations of both American law and international law. I felt sure that they would be prosecuted and brought to justice. How wrong could I have been? It appears that when Americans engage in torture, illegal detention, or human rights abuse; that they are immune from prosecution. In fact we were told that when CIA agents water boarded, slapped, electro-shocked, stripped naked, or used sleep deprivation against prisoners; they were acting honorably(according to former CIA directors and the current one Leon Panetta). We are told that because the Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush Justice Department wrote an opinion that such actions were in fact legal and appropriate; that these agents who followed orders and who took advantage of this legal cover were acting honorably and should be thanked for their service. We are told by President Obama that nothing will be served by pointing fingers and affixing blame. We are told by the President that it would be too divisive to hold these government employees accountable for their actions. We are told that if these criminals and torturers are tried, it will make agents timid and they will think twice before they do what must be done for fear of being prosecuted. We are told that after 9/11 we were all scared and thought another attack was imminent and just ordered the CIA to do what must be done, and besides, the lawyers said it was legal. We are told that this President and Attorney General will give a blank check to our intelligence agencies when the chips are down. When it's in America's interest torture is acceptable. The President signed an order saying "don't do it anymore." But if things get sticky again, we will ask our "honorable" CIA agents to hit, torture, and terrorize at will, knowing that they will never be held accountable. Legal scholars who have read these torture memos say they are not legal opinions, but merely political cover for acts the Bush Administration wanted to engage in after 9/11. The CIA destroyed all video tapes of these interrogations. Why did they do that if what they were doing was honorable and legal? If what the CIA was doing was justified, because of the fear of another attack, would it have been acceptable to torture the wife and children of these men if they could be captured? Could a White House lawyer write an opinion on the legality of torturing family members and make it an honorable thing to do? In a piece in the Wall Street Journal, two prominent intelligence and legal figures argued that it was terrible that these memos were made public. If Americans find out what the CIA was doing, it could prevent them from engaging in activity like this and make our intelligence gathering weak and less effective. The argument is made that weak and ineffective intelligence led us to being vulnerable to a 9/11 type attack. This is revisionist history at it's worst. Prior to 9/11, the CIA and the National Security Advisor Richard Clarke had "their hair on fire" that entire summer because they were sure something was about to happen. On August 6th, 2001, the CIA briefed the President in Texas with a paper concluding that Osama bin Laden was going to attack the United States and possible use our planes. Bush is alleged to have told the agents "...thanks, you have covered your ass" and then went fishing. Richard Clarke was told not to mention Osama bin Laden anymore in the White House. There was plenty of intelligence, but no interest in it in the Bush national security apparatus. President Obama has sent a terrible message to the rest of the world. When you engage in torture, kidnapping, and illegal activity, you will not be held accountable. When we do it we are acting honorably, and there will be no accountability. In a fair and just world, every one of these agents would be prosecuted. In a fair and just world, the lawyers who issued the opinions justifying these crimes would be prosecuted and disbarred. In a fair and just world, the President would condemn such acts and put in place the oversight necessary to prevent it from happening again. In a fair and just world, those who had been tortured at Guantanamo or any of the secret prisons run by the CIA or at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan would have access to the American justice system to sue those who had tortured them. If the President Obama is worried that trials would be divisive or prosecution would weaken the CIA, then at the very least he could endorse Senator Leahy"s call for a truth commission. He says he wants a transparent administration. The American people have a right to know how close we came to the destruction of the Constitution and the creation of some form of authoritarian government under George Bush. The American people deserve to know the truth. No one will be prosecuted; but we need to know how deep the torture went, how extensive the illegal spying was, how many lies were told to get us into Iraq, and how many laws were broken to keep Bush and Cheney in power. Americans need to know the truth. In the movie Judgment at Nuremburg, Burt Lancaster, the chief judge, is on the stand trying to justify why he gave his legal imprimatur to the acts of the Nazis. It dawns on him that he had subverted the very institution which was supposed to protect the people from the government's illegal acts. It dawns on him that he should have said no and refused to cooperate, but too late. There was no honor in the torture rooms and prisons. There was no honor in the pain inflicted. There was no honor as people screamed and begged for mercy. There is no honor trying to hide the truth. The only honor that can come from this tragic incident will come from shining the light of day on these modern war criminals and making sure they do not do it again. What do you think? I welcome your comments and rebuttals. Please send them to


  1. you still got it :)
    - D R C

  2. ACCOUNTABILITY and the Principles of Nuremberg

    What toll has the policy of torture of detainees taken of our own young people?

    Like many, I have been haunted and disturbed by news of Alyssa Peterson’s suicide.

    Here is a young woman whose whole life was build on loving admiration and gratitude to the U.S. Army. Her whole background and training as a missionary for the Latter Day Saints was marked by her excellence. She learned languages in other countries and after joining the Army she took the training in interrogation and information gathering. She learned effective ways to get reliable intelligence without resorting to torture. She knew very well the difference between interrogation for intelligence as opposed to torture for vengeance.
    Don't we all remember the thirst for vengeance that many Americans felt after 2001 09 11?
    Don't we see that it is more important than ever to learn the whole story of 9/11?

    While there may have been specific abuses that pushed Alyssa Peterson over the edge after she witnessed them or was ordered to participate in them, US torture of detainees is more than the sum of a set of abusive interrogation techniques. The abuses occur in an environment which may be as devastating as any of the events that occur during interrogations.

    Since Kevin Elston’s initial report about Army specialist Alyssa Peterson’s suicide over her participation in military interrogations in Iraq, more information has come out about this tragedy.

    Kevin Elston . . . did a report for his station KNAU. It contained the following passages:

    The investigative report states that a sergeant and team leader both ‘detailed the aversion she had towards applying the interrogation methods to detainees.’ Peterson’s first sergeant, identified as James D. Hamilton, told investigators, ‘It was hard for her to be aggressive to prisoners/detainees, as she felt that we were cruel to them,’ the report states. . . .

    She avoided eating with her interrogation team and spent time reading at her desk when she did not have other assignments. No one in the unit reported signs of impending suicide.

    On the evening of Sept. 15, 2003, she got off work at about 9 p.m. and was not seen again that night. According to the documents, the company executive officer heard two gunshots at about 9:30 p.m. but did not investigate.

    At 9 the next morning, an aircraft passing over the nearby landing zone reported seeing Peterson’s body in a grassy field next to her service rifle. Documents disclosed that she had two gunshot wounds - her weapon apparently had been set on burst - beneath her chin.”

    We don’t know what interrogation techniques were being used at the Tal-Afar air base because, according to army officials, all records of the practices from September 2003 have been destroyed. Yet Editor & Publisher’s Greg Mitchell has turned up some further hints at what might have been at play. Mitchell recently interviewed Kayla Williams, who served in the same battalion in Iraq at the same time as Peterson. Combining his own interview with Kayla Williams’ own written account and previous interviews with others, Mitchell pieced together the following picture:

    There were prisoners that were burned with lit cigarettes. . . . They stripped prisoners naked and then removed their blindfolds, so that I was the first thing they saw. And, then, we were supposed to mock them and degrade their manhood. And it really didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me. I didn’t know if this was standard. But it did not seem to work. And it really made me feel like we were losing that crucial moral higher ground, and we weren’t behaving in the way that Americans are supposed to behave.

    As soon as that day ended, after a couple of these sessions, she told a superior she would never do it again.

    In another CNN interview, on Oct. 8, 2005, she explained:

    I sat through it at the time. But after it was over I did approach the non-commissioned officer in charge and told him I think you may be violating the Geneva Conventions. . . .
    He said he knew and I said I wouldn’t participate again and he respected that, but I was really, really stunned and struggled a lot with whether or not I should do anything about it because I don’t know whether or not it’s appropriate technique.

    “I think you may be violating the Geneva Conventions.” With Kayla Williams’ realization must come other realizations. “Are we going to hold these people forever?,” asked Michael Scheuer, former CIA counter-terrorism expert, who helped start the practice of extraordinary rendition in the mid-90s (under Clinton).

    Once a detainee’s rights have been violated, he says, “you absolutely can’t” reinstate him into the court system. “You can’t kill him, either,” he added. “All we’ve done is create a nightmare.”

    Scheuer is alluding to past CIA intelligence operations which were not subject to public scrutiny and were not complicated by competing law enforcement objectives of gathering evidence for prosecutions of terrorists.
    Alfred McCoy explains:

    As we slide down the slippery slope to torture in general, we should also realize that there is a chasm at the bottom called extrajudicial execution. . . . The ideal solution to this conundrum from an agency perspective is pump and dump, as in Vietnam—pump the terrorists for information, and then dump the bodies. . . . [T]he CIA’s Phoenix program produced, by the agency’s own count, over 20,000 extrajudicial killings.

    Thus the Defense Department’s assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, Cully Stimson’s, recent statement that 300+ detainees at Guantanamo “could be held for the duration of their lives.” Whether secretly executed or held without legal recourse, access to family or a meaningful existence, these detainees are the human refuse of the so-called “War on Terror.”

    The environment is as devastating as the individual practices. The abuses and acts of torture are horrific in and of themselves—enough, I believe, to severely traumatize those who witness them. But the broader consequences of the individual abuses—mass, indefinite detention and abuse of people not charged with any particular crime—is also devastating.

    Alyssa Peterson attempted to stop associating with her fellow interrogators, refusing to eat with them. But she also avoided participating in the life of the Tel-Afar air base altogether, spending her time “reading at her desk when she did not have other assignments.”

    Was it a particular incident in an interrogation room? Or was it the stench of humanity left to rot, which pervaded every corner of the air base, from which Alyssa Peterson concluded there was no escape?

  3. Listen to Allen Michael's channeling at