Accountability at the highest level

Citizens ought to hold the nation

WHO IS above the law? In the United States, the answer, supposedly, is "no one." Yet the powerful continue to evade responsibility for acts that are blatantly in defiance of the law. As a timely example, former Vice President Dick Cheney is one such elite who seems likely to dodge accountability in his lifetime.

The recent release of Cheney's memoir, "In My Time," has reignited discussion of his eight-year term as one of the most influential vice presidents in recent memory. There is, after all, plenty to reflect on, thanks to two disastrously mismanaged wars and the constant trampling of civil liberties.

I could provide the litany of offenses, but would rather direct readers to The Atlantic's article, "Remembering Why Americans Loathe Dick Cheney." Seeing the staggering collection of evidence should help clarify why his eight-year term has given the United States such a bad reputation abroad.

Cheney makes himself easy to criticize by often owning up to the acts he committed but insisting that they were legal. According to reviewers, his memoir's central idea is that what he did was right, as his book is scant on apologies. To give just one example, Cheney has explained that he was instrumental to implementing waterboarding and other extreme "interrogation methods." Amnesty International's Tom Parker points out that whether or not waterboarding really is torture, it always has been treated by the law as such.

In 1983, a sheriff who waterboarded suspects to elicit confessions was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The judge who handed down the ruling said, very clearly, that waterboarding is torture. Legal precedent does not matter, however, when you are one of the powerful, insulated from the demands that the law places on normal people.

Defenders of Cheney would say he was acting in the interest of national security. If that is the case, he could not have chosen a worse way to do it. In 2003, a top terror suspect, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in the course of a month. Such "interrogation" was not ultimately what produced the location of Osama bin Laden. Rather, it provided propaganda for anti-American extremists who could point to something concrete and morally repellent when they said the United States is a torture-inflicting empire.

Perhaps if leaders knew they would be held accountable for their actions, then the illegal actions of the Bush-Cheney Administration could have been prevented. Lives could have been spared and the United States would have avoided the loss of much of its international prestige.

It does not seem likely, however, that we will have a domestic solution to this lack of accountability anytime soon. Our political class of Democrats and Republicans is reluctant to establish oversight that eventually might be used against their own kind.

President Obama declared he would not investigate possible Bush-era crimes, saying, "We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards." This virtually guarantees that abuses will continue to happen.

As an extension of this failure to apply the rule of law, Obama has continued policies endorsed by Cheney such as the Patriot Act, the protection of companies that enabled warrantless wiretaps and the imprisonment of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. Democratic leaders have been mostly silent now that it is one of their own applying these questionable policies. Cheney's maneuvering helped strengthen the executive branch to the point where it is, practically speaking, above the law.

When the late Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger gave a guest lecture at Professor Larry Sabato's "Introduction to American Politics" course last spring, I was able to ask him several questions after the lecture about human rights and international law. He had worked at a time when Slobodan Milosevic was in power in Serbia and expressed great regret about not catching on to the despot's genocidal intentions earlier. I asked what he thought of other nations trying United States officials for war crimes. He said they can try, though he doubted their chance of succeeding.

One can see his skepticism was well-founded. In 2002 Congress passed what is nicknamed the "Hague Invasion Act." The act means the president may release U.S. citizens from International Criminal Court custody by any means necessary

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