Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Are Crimes of the Bush Administration "Prosecutable"?

If I had to pick my favorite syndicated newspaper columnist, Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald certainly would be in the five finalists.

Pitts is a strong, reasoned, progressive voice in the South--if you consider Florida the South. And as an African-American male, he has a finely tuned ear on matters of injustice.

So imagine my astonishment when I read a recent Pitts column, essentially saying that we should give Bush officials a free pass on their apparent crimes.

Pitts states that the Bush administration's primary offenses were incompetence and arrogance, which are not illegal. He goes on to write:

Still, most of the signature sins of the Bush gang--Katrina, Iraq, torture, politicizing the Justice Department--are not so much violations of law as defilement of the public trust.

That is not--obviously--a small failing. But that doesn't make it prosecutable.

Pitts seems to be saying that violating the constitution is not prosecutable. That's an argument I've never heard before. And it doesn't seem to square with "The People v. Dick Cheney," a recent piece by Karen Greenberg at Mother Jones.

Greenberg reports:

The list of potential legal breaches is, of course, enormous; by one count, the administration has broken 269 laws, both domestic and international. It begins with illegal wiretapping and surveillance (which in the view of many experts violated the Fourth Amendment, the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, for starters), the politicization of the Justice Department and the firing of nine US attorneys, and numerous instances of obstruction of justice—from the destruction of cia interrogation tapes to the willful misleading of Congress and the public. Perhaps the paramount charge that legal experts have zeroed in on is the state-approved torture that violated not just the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture but also the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the 1996 War Crimes Act, which prohibits humiliating and degrading treatment and other "outrages upon personal dignity."

The administration has broken 269 laws? That sounds pretty prosecutable to me.

Such noted legal experts as Jonathan Turley of Georgetown University and Scott Horton of Columbia have said that Bush officials must be held accountable for their actions. Horton compares the Bush administration to a criminal enterprise, so he appears to see its actions as prosecutable.

At times, Pitts doesn't seem to believe his own argument. He wonders if America has the stomach for holding the Bush crowd accountable, and that is a legitimate concern. He even notes that certain right-wing voices would go apoplectic in the face of accountability for the Bushies, and then notes:

You might reasonably say we should not forestall justice just because people threaten temper tantrums. Good point.

Yes, it is a good point. And here's another one: Real people--who bleed and breathe and laugh and cry--have been victims of the Bush Justice Department, or people associated with it. I know, because I am one of those victims.

And I've just been on the periphery. I know of at least four people--Paul Minor, Wes Teel, John Whitfield, and Richard Scrushy--who are being held political prisoner in the United States right now. And former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman might be headed back to prison because the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals unlawfully upheld his conviction.

Leonard Pitts is a smart guy, so I wonder if he really believes what he wrote about Bush officials and their apparent crimes. It also makes me wonder if the Obama administration, which apparently wants to "look forward and not backward," is sending out this message to certain media outlets.

Alabama whistleblower Jill Simpson has repeatedly raised questions about White House Counsel Greg Craig and his former law firm, Williams & Connolly, which represents numerous Bush luminaries--Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove, Dubya himself. Simpson has raised concerns that Craig is more interested in protecting his old firm's clients than in achieving justice. And the Pitts column makes me wonder if the White House has launched a media offensive to help convince the public that we should let bygones be bygones.

How is this for irony? Barack Obama rode into the White House on a trail that was blazed by people like Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and many more. Does Obama think those civil-rights pioneers turned this country in a better direction by turning a blind eye to the sins of the past? How sad it would be if our first black president acted in a manner that is contrary to the lessons of America's civil-rights movement.

Pitts concludes by making an important point. He says that we, the people, largely are responsible for the mess Bush created:

Yes, the Supreme Court put Bush in office the first time, but 51 percent of us returned him there four years later, by which time we should have known better. But the Bush gang played our fears as old men in the park play chess, i.e., obsessively and with skill, a brilliant game of half truths, dire warnings, moral incoherence. And we--most of us--fell for it.

Pitts is right about that. A frightening number of Americans were duped by the Bush crowd. So the public must shoulder a large chunk of the blame.

But that doesn't mean our current representatives should not hold Bush officials accountable. The evidence is powerful that they did commit crimes. And those crimes are prosecutable.

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