The presumption of innocence may be slowly dying in the courtrooms where our terror trials are being held, as Karen Greenberg, executive director of the Center on Law and Security at NYU Law School, suggests in her latest piece, "Guilty Until Proven Guilty." Here's the curious thing, though: that same presumption of innocence seems stronger than ever when it comes to those who once ran or carried out the Global War on Terror. Afghanistan to Washington, Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo, those prospective criminals continue to live within a bubble of official innocence.
Only the other day, our former president, George W. Bush, told NBC's Matt Lauer with visible pride that he had personally authorized the waterboarding of prisoners, an act which, throughout history, has been considered a form of "torture." In medieval Europe, where the term "enhanced interrogation techniques" had yet to be invented, it was simply known as "the water torture." As Dan Froomkin, the Huffington Post's senior Washington correspondent, recently pointed out, the U.S. has in the past prosecuted waterboarders as torturers.
So the former president fesses up and then takes the weasel route out, blaming his decision on "the lawyers." ("He said it did not fall within the anti-torture act. I'm not a lawyer. But you gotta trust the judgment of people around you, and I do.") Those lawyers were, of course, the crew of reprobates the Bush people put in place to give them the leeway to do anything. They then produced the infamous "torture memo," which in pretzled prose essentially declared open season on anything the president wants. Last January, those lawyers were, in turn, assured of no further legal consequences by the Obama Justice Department. ("Bush administration lawyers who paved the way for sleep deprivation and waterboarding of terrorism suspects exercised poor judgment but will not be referred to authorities for possible sanctions...")
If our government has never seen a terror suspect who wasn't guilty before trial, on the Seinfeldian theory that everything balances out in this great world of ours, no authority, major or minor, in the U.S. military, the CIA, or the government has evidently committed an abuse of power or been responsible for acts of torture or criminality that couldn't be absolved. Only recently after careful study, for instance, the Obama Justice Department decided that the CIA officials who willfully destroyed video evidence of the Agency's brutal acts of interrogation at "black sites" abroad should be similarly absolved of possible criminal charges.
Generally, you can't find an American above the absolute lowest levels who, in all these years of torture, murder, and outright slaughter has been found guilty of a thing. Even the nightmare of Abu Ghraib did not result in a single officer or civilian authority being convicted of anything, though it was clearly no rogue operation. It seems that all of them from the president on down played Monopoly with the American justice system with get-out-of-jail-free cards in their back pockets. As novelist Kurt Vonnegut used to say, so it goes.
© 2010 TomDispatch.com
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture: a History of the Cold War and Beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. His most recent book is The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's (Haymarket Books).