Missing in Action: Accountability Is Gone in America

tags: national security, Iraq War, neoconservatives

Karen J. Greenberg, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law, the host of the Vital Interests Podcast, an International Security Fellow at New America, and the author of Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State and editor of Reimagining the National Security State: Liberalism on the Brink. Julia Tedesco helped with research for this article.

As contemporary historians and political analysts tell it, the decision to go to war in Iraq in the spring of 2003, which cost more than 8,000 American lives and led to more than 200,000 Iraqi deaths, military and civilian, was more than avoidable. It was the result of lies and doctored information engineered to get the U.S. involved in a crucial part of what would soon enough become its “forever wars” across the Greater Middle East and Africa.

As Robert Draper recently reminded us, those in the administration of President George W. Bush who contested information about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were ignored or silenced. Worse yet, torture was used to extract a false confession from senior al-Qaeda member Ibn Sheikh al-Libi regarding the terror organization's supposed attempts to acquire such weaponry there. Al-Libi’s testimony, later recanted, was used as yet another pretext to launch an invasion that top American officials had long been determined to set in motion.

And it wasn’t just a deceitful decision. It was a thoroughly disastrous one as well. There is today something like a consensus among policy analysts that it was possibly the “biggest mistake in American military history” or, as former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) put it four years after the invasion, “the worst foreign policy mistake in U.S. history,” supplanting the Vietnam War in the minds of many.

And that raises an obvious question: Who was held accountable for that still unending disaster? Who was charged with the crime of willfully and intentionally taking the nation to war -- and a failed war at that -- based on manufactured facts? In numerous books, the grim realities of that moment have been laid out clearly. When it comes to any kind of public censure, or trial, or even an official statement of wrongdoing, none was ever forthcoming.

Nor was there any accountability for the policy and practice of torture, “legally” sanctioned then, that took the country back to practices more common in the Middle Ages. (It’s worth noting as well that John Yoo, who wrote the memos authorizing such torture then, is now helping the Trump administration find ways to continue evading checks on the presidency.)

More than a decade ago at TomDispatch, I wrote about how the Bush administration supported such acts at the highest levels. As a result, in the early years of the war on terror, in 20 CIA “black sites,” located in eight countries, the U.S. government used torture, as a Senate Select Intelligence Committee Report of December 2014 would detail, to elicit information and misinformation from dozens of “high-value detainees.”

It should go without saying that torture violates just about every precept of the modern rule of law: the renunciation of adjudication in favor of brutality, the use of dungeon-like chambers and medieval equipment rather than the expertise of intelligence professionals gathering information, and of course the rejection of any conviction that civility and rights are valuable.

Among his first acts on entering the Oval Office, Barack Obama pledged that the United States under his leadership would “not torture.” Nonetheless, the lawyers who wrote the memos legally approving those policies were never held accountable, nor were the Bush administration officials who signed off on them (and had such techniques demonstrated to them in the White House); nor, of course, were the actual torturers and the doctors who advised them in any way censured or criminally charged in American courts.

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