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General News    H3'ed 6/6/19

Tomgram: Rebecca Gordon, Of Crimes and Pardons

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How about a little round of Auld Lang Syne? After all, when it comes to war crimes, whatever he ends up doing, Donald Trump will still be a johnny-come-lately. Remember, for instance, that top officials in the administration of George W. Bush, including Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, reportedly had methods of torture demonstrated to them in the White House and officially green-lighted such methods in their post-9/11 campaign to, as they put it, "take the gloves off" in the Global War on Terror. Similarly, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, on hearing about stress techniques being used by the CIA on prisoners in the war on terror, complained that they were too timid. "I stand for 8-10 hours a day," he wrote. "Why is standing limited to 4 hours?" Meanwhile, Justice Department lawyers were promoting what were then being euphemistically called "enhanced interrogation techniques" as anything but torture. They even redefined "severe physical or mental pain or suffering" in the classic legal description of such acts more or less out of existence. An act would not be considered torture, they decided, if "intent" wasn't there -- and the only way to know about intent would be to ask the potential torturer. (Even then, he or she would need to have "specific intent to cause pain" in mind.)

This was the mentality of the Bush White House as CIA "black sites" (essentially secret torture prisons) spread around the planet, while Guanta'namo was set up as the administration's offshore Bermuda Triangle of injustice. The CIA even waterboarded -- in a blunter age, it was known as "the water torture" -- one prisoner 83 times in a single month (a technique banned after Barack Obama came into office). So candidate Donald Trump was in good company in 2016 when he began claiming that he would load up Gitmo "with some bad dudes," while bringing "back waterboarding, and a hell of a lot worse." In that campaign year, he repeatedly called for its use and swore that, as president, he'd approve it "in a heartbeat" because "only a stupid person would say it doesn't work... [and] if it doesn't work, [the terrorists] deserve it anyway, for what they're doing." We're talking, of course, about a candidate without pity who swore that, in fighting ISIS, he would do more than just kill its members. "When you get these terrorists," he said, "you have to take out their families."

His rally audiences ate it up and so a man who was openly and preemptively proud of being a future war criminal -- no euphemisms for him -- was elected president of the United States. Think of that as you consider what TomDispatchregular Rebecca Gordon has to say today about his urge to pardon convicted (or accused) war criminals in the lower ranks of the U.S. military. It's a small, small world we live in and it's getting smaller every day. Tom

Clemency for the Lowly
Free Passes for the Mighty
By Rebecca Gordon

Memorial Day has come and gone and President Trump did not issue his pardons after all. There was substantial evidence that he was planning to use the yearly moment honoring the country's war dead to grant executive clemency to several U.S. soldiers and at least one military contractor. All have been accused, and one already convicted, of crimes in the never-ending war on terror. But apparently Trump received enough resistance from serving and retired senior military officers and former soldiers, including presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, to change his mind -- for now.

The Friday before Memorial Day, the president was evidently still undecided but moved, so he told reporters, by his compassion for former fighters who are being "really treated very unfairly." After all, he explained, "Some of these soldiers are people that have fought hard and long. You know, we teach them how to be great fighters, and then when they fight..." -- well, we're sometimes cruel enough to hold them to the standards set by U.S. and international law. Of course, there are those, including ethics students of mine in the Reserve Officer Training Corps, who might argue that part of the training to be a "great fighter" is learning to obey the laws of war, including, for example, the Geneva Conventions.

Trump has already pardoned one war criminal. On May 6th, he granted full executive clemency to Michael Behenna, convicted in 2009 of murdering an Iraqi prisoner named Ali Mansur Mohammed. Behenna served five years of a 25-year sentence and was paroled in 2014. What did Behenna do to Mansur? Guardian columnist Gary Younge offers some details: "On Mansur's release Behenna was supposed to take him home, but instead took him to a secluded area, stripped him naked and shot him dead, later claiming Mansur had made a lunge for his gun." Now, Behenna has a presidential pardon and Ali Mansur Mohammed is still dead.

Who else is in line for a possible pardon? The list includes Nicholas Slatten, a former contractor for Blackwater, twice convicted of murder in federal court for his part in the infamous Nisour Square massacre of 14 civilians in Baghdad in 2007. Blackwater, you may recall, was a mercenary outfit owned until 2010 by Erik Prince, a Trump confidant and the brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Also under consideration for pardons:

  • Army Major Matthew Golsteyn, a Green Beret accused of murdering an unarmed Afghan
  • Navy Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward Gallagher, accused among other things of "stabbing a defenseless teenage captive to death, picking off a school-age girl and an old man from a sniper's roost," and "indiscriminately spraying neighborhoods [in Mosul, Iraq] with rockets and machine-gun fire," according to the New York Times

Trump seems to have taken an interest in Gallagher's case as early as this March, when he tweeted, "In honor of his past service to our Country, Navy Seal #EddieGallagher will soon be moved to less restrictive confinement while he awaits his day in court. Process should move quickly!" For once, Trump wasn't lying and soon afterwards he ordered the Navy to release the prisoner from the brig while he awaits trial. Gallagher is now merely restricted to his base.

Small Fry Get Tried, Big Fish Walk

Both military figures and civilians have expressed disgust at Trump's Memorial Day pardon talk. Some, like Buttigieg, argue that pardons for war crimes endanger those now serving in the military. "If the president blows a hole in" the military justice system, the Democratic candidate for president told the Washington Post, "he is blowing a hole in the military and he is putting troops' lives at risk" by signaling to adversaries that the United States is not bound by the laws of war, so they needn't be either.

Other critics point to potential harm to the integrity of the military justice system, which requires that military commanders refrain from seeking to influence ongoing judicial processes. Presumably the category of "military commanders" includes the commander-in-chief. Yet Trump has done just that, most recently by telling reporters he might wait until after the trials are over to consider issuing those pardons, a pretty strong signal to the courts of the outcomes he'd like to see.

Outrageous as these potential and actual pardons may be, even the most outraged of observers continue to avoid a more significant issue: only relatively low-level soldiers and contractors have been held responsible for crimes committed in the war on terror. With all the recent discussion of pardons and war crimes, who's talking about holding responsible the authors of the policies that put those soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq in the first place? (Or, for that matter, in Syria, Yemen, Niger, or any of the other acknowledged and unacknowledged battlefields in our forever wars?) If the crime is big enough -- like creating or countenancing a U.S. torture archipelago that stretched from Thailand to Poland to Guanta'namo Bay, or lying to the world to justify launching an aggressive war on Iraq -- the risk of trial is nonexistent. No pardons required.

Should pictures surface of you tormenting Iraqis in some foreign prison like Iraq's Abu Ghraib, as Army reservists Charles Graner and Lynndie England did, you might indeed end up in jail for a while and become the possible object of a presidential pardon. If, however, you're Major General Geoffrey Miller, who ran the Guanta'namo prison for then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- well, you're a hero. In 2003, Rumsfeld dispatched Miller from Cuba to take charge of U.S. military prisons in Iraq, especially Abu Ghraib, and to "Gitmo-ize them," which he certainly did. And if you're Donald Rumsfeld himself, who approved the use of torture at Guanta'namo in an infamous December 2002 memo requested by Miller, you're an elder statesman and honored philanthropist.

War Crimes and Cover-Ups

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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