Bush's successor must bring torturers to trial

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 April, 2008, 12:00am

If the US prosecution system wasn't so generally competent, I would advocate referring America to the International Criminal Court so that senior Bush administration figures could be arrested and tried for crimes against humanity, in particular the use of torture.

But it is competent, although it has been hamstrung by the legal footwork of the current administration, plus the use of the presidential veto - as with the recent veto of legislation that would have required all intelligence services to abide by the restrictions contained in the US Army Field Manual on holding and interrogating prisoners.

We all know that the US practises torture against terrorist suspects - waterboarding, or simulated drowning, is clearly that - and we all know that when a new president is elected, given the clear statements of the remaining three candidates, the practice will stop. What we don't know is if a new president will have the guts to open the windows in the Justice Department and allow the fresh air of the rule of law to blow into every corner. If he or she does, unless Congress declares an amnesty, then senior Bush figures will be hauled into court.

A recent Associated Press story on the decision-making that led to torture being authorised appears to suggest that the net of culpability will be spread wide - not only embracing hardliners such as Vice-President Dick Cheney and former attorney general John Ashcroft but more liberal figures including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her predecessor, Colin Powell.

These were the participants in White House Situation Room meetings that led to the infamous Justice Department memos which laid out the justification for tough interrogation tactics. According to AP, CIA officers demonstrated some tactics to make sure the principals understood what they would do.

What argument could the Bush principals argue in their defence? Can they even prove torture works? There is no General Accounting Office report that weighs the results of torture against other forms of intelligence gathering. The most recent investigations of the value of torture have been done in the wake of the so-called Battle of Algiers in the 1950s by the many French official torturers who have written memoirs describing what they did. Their conclusion was that the intelligence torture produced was inferior to work done by informers and other policing activities.

According to Darius Rejali in his monumental work Torture and Democracy, if we go through the entire battle event by event, we find only two instances in which one could say that torture generated true and critically timely information. General Jacques Massu, the top French commander in Algeria - when asked later if torture was indispensable in wartime - replied: 'No, it grieves me. We could have done things differently.'

The French government managed to silence the debate at the time. Today's America is a much more open society. Let us see, once free of the Bush administration, what it can do to punish those involved in this grievous wrong.

Jonathan Power is a London-based journalist