Glenn Greenwald: Growing Responsibility for the Bush Torture Regime

By Glenn Greenwald,

Recent ACLU-compelled disclosures of previously concealed DOJ documents reveal many of the details of what has been long known: that the highest levels of the Bush administration secretly implemented an illegal torture regime. But while those torture programs began in secret, we have gradually learned more and more about them. The more time that goes by and the more we learn — particularly if we do nothing meaningful to stop it — the more the responsibility for these policies shifts from the administration to all of us collectively.

Torture and America

While there is much rhetorical protest over these torture programs in the halls of Congress and in our elite media institutions, there has been little real action in response. Indeed, it has long been known that we are torturing, holding detainees in secret prisons beyond the reach of law and civilization, sending detainees to the worst human rights abusers to be tortured, and subjecting them ourselves to all sorts of treatment which both our own laws and the treaties to which we are a party plainly prohibit. None of this is new.

But our elite political institutions have decided, collectively, to do nothing about that. Quite the contrary, with regard to many of the revelations of abuse, our elected representatives — with some noble exceptions — have chosen to remain largely in the dark about what was done. When forced by court rulings or media revelations to act at all, they have endorsed and legalized this behavior — not investigated, outlawed or punished it.

A 2006 ruling by the Supreme Court in Hamdan that the President's interrogation and detention policies violated the law led Congress, on a largely bipartisan basis, to enact The Military Commissions Act to legalize those policies. That enabling behavior followed a familiar pattern with other abuses: for instance, revelations that the President and telecom companies were breaking our surveillance laws led to the legalization of much of that program with the Protect America Act, and may soon lead to amnesty for the lawbreakers. With regard to all of the most severe acts of illegality, no criminal prosecutions have been commenced and no truly meaningful Congressional investigations have been pursued.

Whether it's the war in Iraq or illegal surveillance or the abolition of habeas corpus and now the systematic use of torture, it's the Bush administration that conceived of the policies, implemented them and presided over their corrupt application. But it's Congressional leaders who were the key allies and enablers, never getting their hands dirty with implementation — and thus feigning theatrical, impotent outrage once each abuse was publicly exposed — but nonetheless working feverishly the entire time to enable all of it every step of the way.

It is vital to emphasize here that these matters are not obsolete matters of the distant past — something we can all agree to leave behind in the spirit of harmoniously moving forward. The torture, detention and surveillance policies in question are still the formal and official position of our government — and thus can be applied with far greater vigor not merely in the event of a new terrorist attack, but at any time. An October, 2007 New York Times article reported on the new disclosure of a 2005 memorandum authorizing various torture techniques and emphasized:

[T]he 2005 Justice Department opinions remain in effect, and their legal conclusions have been confirmed by several more recent memorandums, officials said. They show how the White House has succeeded in preserving the broadest possible legal latitude for harsh tactics.

Although Democratic leaders in Congress have often issued dramatic statements condemning torture, there is ample evidence that many of them were aware of these programs long before the public was, and did nothing.

In December, 2007, The Washington Post reported that the Bush administration, beginning in 2002, repeatedly briefed leading Congressional Democrats on the Senate and House Intelligence Committees — including, at various times, Jay Rockefeller, Nancy Pelosi, and Jane Harman — regarding the CIA's "enhanced interrogation methods," including details about water-boarding and other torture measures. With one exception (Harman, who vaguely claims to have sent a letter to the CIA), these lawmakers not only failed to object to these policies, but affirmatively supported them.

Those political officials who were in a position to put a stop to these abuses but failed to do so have the greatest responsibility to take meaningful action now. And there are some mildly promising signs, including the testimony which House members have been seeking from John Yoo, David Addington and others as to the specifics of how this torture regime was implemented. But that must be but the first step, not merely a symbolic palliative to those demanding action.

It isn't surprising or particularly revealing that there were not immediate consequences for these revelations. Our political system, by design, works slowly and methodically. The Founders purposely imposed significant hurdles to undertaking the most significant steps (such as criminal investigations of high Executive officials or impeachment) precisely to ensure that such actions were taken deliberatively, not impetuously. It took two-and-a-half years for the much simpler Watergate scandal to lead to what would have been the impeachment of Richard Nixon. The failure to impose immediate or even rapid consequences, while frustrating to many, would not really be a cause for legitimate complaint.

But when it comes to Bush's torture policies and other examples of extremism and lawlessness, we're not imposing consequences slowly. We're not really imposing consequences at all. Quite the contrary, we've been moving in the opposite direction — when we're not affirmatively endorsing and providing protection for that conduct, we're choosing not to know about it, or simply allowing it to fester. And the more that happens, the less that behavior becomes the exclusive province of the Bush administration and the more it becomes our country's defining behavior.

This could — and should — still all be reversed. The Congress could aggressively investigate. Criminal prosecutions could be commenced. Our opinion-making elite could sound the alarm. New laws could be passed, reversing the prior endorsements and imposing new restrictions, along with the will to enforce those laws. We still have the ability to vindicate the rule of law and enforce our basic constitutional framework.

We always possess the choice — still — to take a stand for the rule of law and our basic national values, but with every new day that we choose not to, those Bush policies become increasingly normalized, increasingly the symbol not only of "the Bush administration" but of America.

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Well put! I often wonder why Democrats and Republicans alike consider it inexpedient or impossible to put the administration to task for what seem to be (all innocent before proven guilty) its crimes against the American people and humanity. I think that as long as we allow these crimes to stand uninvestigated and unpunished, we have lost our identity as "Americans" due to such a far deviation from the spirit and the letter of The Constitution, and have become something else entirely... "Amerikkkans", perhaps.


@GG - maybe not torture per se, but did you see this?


The two things Congress should be grilled on the most regarding both torture and the Military Commissions Act are:

1) Specifically related to torture, the habeas corpus provision is not the most damaging. Far more damaging is the fact that the act eviscerates the War Crimes Act, and sharply narrows the Torture Act, the first of which implements Geneva, the second UNCAT, and makes these changes retroactive to 1997. That in itself is illegal under UNCAT, since it is a move by a government to protect people who it knows have tortured, and it is illegal under Geneva for the same reasons with respect to a grave breach.

2) Under UNCAT, the government is required to investigate, prosecute and punish on torture. Since the Congress is the body that does that with respect to the executive branch, they don't really have the liberty to move so slowly as to not prosecute at all, regardless of whether the Founders wanted significant hurdles or not. They are required to do so, and should obey the treaties, which are signed and ratified and thus the supreme law of the land.



The increasingly frantic scramble to justify impunity, and to legislate away basic rights, are essentially connected.

Before the invasion of Afghanistan, the Bush administration demanded that the Afghan government turn over Osama bin Laden. The Afghans replied, "show us an indictment, and an extradition request". Bush & Company simply repeated the bald demand for an individual. There was a good deal of a "Bill of Attainder" going on here; but the Afghan government insisted on the forms of law, so the U.S. invaded (and replaced the Taliban with a narco-Mafia).

After the Bill of Attainder, this administration has gone on to commit almost all the acts listed as the abuses which impelled the American Revolution; till finally embracing torture, repeal of Habeas Corpus, with the claim that any act of the "Commander in Chief" is by definition legal. Even King George had not gone quite that far.

Treaties have full force and effect of U.S. federal law - try having your business violate NAFTA rules, and find out. The Nuremberg Charter and the U.N. Charter list conspiracy to initiate aggressive war a "Crime against Peace". The U.S. decided this was a capital felony, and a bunch of German and Japanese officials were executed - by the U.S. - for Crimes against Peace, Crimes of War, and Crimes against Humanity.

And those are all still capital felonies under U.S. federal law.

What this administration and it's supporters have forgotten is that there is a rule of law - even if it grinds slow.

Do the crime, do the time, Mr. Bush.

Got rope?


Thanks, Glenn! I've been trying to make these points to my Congressman for more than a year. The best I can get out of him is that he signed Wexler's letter to start impeachment proceedings.

Speaker Pelosi must be replaced by someone with clean hands. Her otherwise progressive voting record is worthless besides her collusion with Bush & Cheney on torture.

Bob in HI


The only consolation I have been taking in all this mess is that history (yeah, that stuff!) has shown us that perpetrators of war crimes and the like are almost always brought to justice AFTER they are out of office. That has held true recently (Slobodan Milosevic) as well as in the past (Nazis and others). So, much as we would all like to see the current administration impeached and convicted right now - the wheels of justice do grind slowly. Hopefully, they are now grinding away and eventually we WILL get to the desired outcome - punishment of those primarily responsible, a recognition that this kind of stuff is ALWAYS AND FOREVER WRONG, and a reversal of our policies, including but not limited to passage of laws specifically prohibiting ALL of these so-called 'enhanced interrogation techniques' so there is no ambiguity, and repeal of the Patriot Act, The Warner Defense Authorization Act, and any other shameful piece of legislation passed within the last 8 years that has the effect of reversing centuries of prohibitions against torture and established legal guarantees and precedents.

lokywoky bitter hussein


It's been my opinion for some time that or national legislative body, on both sides of the isle, are far too indebted to corporate sponsorship. They seem more the gatekeepers and purveyors to public resources than serving in the interest of the public at large domestically and especially in regards to foreign policy. The looting of America as we are seeing now is far too lucrative to allow any law, even the most fundamental, to stand in the way. This cannot happen. We as citizens have to press hard to hold our Executive and Legislative officials culpable or we are less likely to hold this democracy together on anything other than a regional level. We have become a corporate state where profits are elevated above the health, welfare and freedom of our citizens as well as governments and people of other nations who stand in our way. We would do well also to hold corporate leadership under due process in regards to the war in Iraq. I for one would love to see Exxon-Mobil stand up for charges of crimes against humanity, as well Haliburton and the rest of the boys and girls who have made war for profit their game plan. Somehow a precedence has to be set after these miserable years of Mr. Bush, the man who stole the presidency, after all there should be no great mystery what ills the United States. Without prosecution the bar of justice will forever stay low for those who stand to profit by it.


Since the USA is still the biggest guy on the block, and we have no one in this country protecting us from these lawbreakers. It probably will be up to the international community to bring these criminals to justice some day. I hope that someone retains the list of voters who keep reelecting these war criminals. Because I believe, that not only the administration; the congress,the supreme court, the justice department,the media-especially the right wing media , should all be put on trial for war crimes.


Like many of you I've written letter after letter concerning America's torture policy. I've also made my views known to some of our Congressional leaders while visiting Washington. I even gave Senator McConnell a book that detailed the Bush administrations policy of torture in the hopes that he would be shamed into doing something.

Unfortunately, I think it's painfully obvious to all of us that so far each of our individual efforts have been far too easy to ignore. Perhaps it's time to develop a sustained, multi-pronged plan where all of us can band together to make it harder for our media, our leaders and our fellow citizens to ignore this issue. With that thought in mind I think this new blog is an excellent first step.


I do not want to detract from, or undermine, your message, because the need for practical action is paramount.

However, I do wonder whether you need to revisit and review one of your basic premises - namely, the question as to whether a lack of respect for the life and dignity of "others" is, and for some time has been, your country's "defining behavior" and one of your country's "basic national values".

To make my point in perhaps a less provocative way, what I'm trying to suggest is that the pre-eminent defining behavior of the USA over, say, the past 100 years, is to define, then pursue, its "national interest" in a manner that pays absolutely no respect for the lives, sovereignty or interests of others (i.e., non-Americans).

A country that, as a matter of policy, devalues the lives and fates of others, has to expect that such a policy will, from time to time, manifest more acutely, in the form of torture (e.g., the Philippines) and worse (e.g., acts of aggressive war, such as the invasion of Iraq).

The shorthand for what I'm describing is "exceptionalism", but this is too broad and vague a term, because it masks the core, defining principle in play, namely, a refusal to recognize the lives and interests of others as anything other than subordinate to the lives and interests of America and Americans.

For as long as this pertains, you can expect (indeed, guarantee) that your country will, in your name, commit atrocities. Unless and until America begins to respect human life regardless of ethnicity and citizenship, it is difficult to see how anything will change. After all, we've all seen America wring its collective hands over torture before...and we all know how that turned out. The reaction today is much the same as in 1902 --

"It sips its coffee and reads of its soldiers administering the “water cure” to rebels; of how water with handfuls of salt thrown in to make it more efficacious, is forced down the throats of the patients until their bodies become distended to the point of bursting; of how our soldiers then jump on the distended bodies to force the water out quickly so that the “treatment” can begin all over again. The American Public takes another sip of its coffee and remarks, “How very unpleasant!”

(April 16, 1902, edition of the New York World newspaper)

The world continues to watch and wonders: “Why will this time be any different?”

-- The Reality Kid


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