That, apparently, is a concern now being taken seriously by Attorney General Gonzales, who is quietly working with senior White House officials and friendly members of Congress to do what murderous dictators in Chile, Argentina and other bloodthirsty regimes have done as their future in office began to look uncertain: pass laws exempting them from prosecution for murder.
At issue is a growing legal threat of the president and other top administration officials facing prosecution for violations of the U.S. War Crimes statutes, which since 1996 have made violation of Geneva Conventions adopted by the U.S. violations of American law, too.
Gonzales knows the seriousness of this threat. As he warned the president, in a January, 25, 2002 "Memorandum to the President" (published in full in the appendix of Barbara Olshansky's and my new book, "The Case for Impeachment"), "It is difficult to predict the motives of prosecutors and independent counsels who may in the future decide to pursue unwarranted charges based on Section [the US War Crimes law]." In another part of that same memo, Gonzales notes that the statute "prohibits the commission of a 'war crime'" by any U.S. official, with a war crime being defined as "any grave breach of" the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War or of the Geneva Convention's Article 3. That article extends protection to combatants in other than official wars or formal armies. Gonzales, in that memo, also pointedly notes that the punishments for such violations, under U.S. law, in the event that mistreated captives die in custody, "include the death penalty."
Of course, the president could not be indicted for this offense while in office. The Constitution provides a protection against that. But he could be indicted once his term ends. Meanwhile, other administration personnel, including the vice president, have no such protection against indictment even while in office.
The very fact that Gonzales, according to a report in today's Washington Post, has been "quietly approaching" Republican members of Congress about passing legislation exempting Americans involved in the "terrorism fight" from war crimes prosecution suggests how worried Bush and his subordinates really are.
Of course, this attempt at a legal dodge might not work. Not only could a future prosecutor seek to have such a law ruled illegal itself (after all, the U.S. is a signatory of the Geneva Conventions, making them legally binding anyhow), but because the U.S. is a signatory of the Geneva Conventions prohibiting torture in any form, the president and his subordinates could also be charged as war criminals by other nations--particularly if it were determined that the U.S. was unwilling or legally unable to prosecute.
That could make things a little claustrophobic for administration personnel once they leave office.
No doubt Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et all would like to continue their world travels once they leave government "service." For one thing, there's lots of money to be made on the international speaking circuit. Lots more can be made by doing international business consulting. But if there were a threat of arrest and prosecution by prosecutors in countries like Spain, Germany or Canada, such travels would pose a huge risk. Similar fears have kept former National Security Director and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pretty much housebound since a near detention in Paris on war crimes charges a few years back.
Gonzales' anxious behind-the-scenes scuttling about in the halls of Congress in an effort to save his boss's neck also suggests that the White House is getting anxious about the November election. After all, if they thought they had a secure grip on Congress through November 2008, why the sudden rush to get a bill through undermining the War Crimes statute now? Maybe Bush is afraid that if he waits until November, he'll be dealing with a Democratic House and/or Senate, which would be unlikely to grant him such legal protection.
There is a delicious irony in watching this law-and-order, let-'em-fry president and his tough-guy VP, attorney general and defense secretary, resorting to the same kind of dodgy legal tactics that they accuse convicted killers (and terrorists) of using in an attempt to avoid the gallows.
Chances are their strategy will work, at least in the U.S. But at least it's entertaining to watch.