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Framed: Prosecuting Officials for Crimes

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Framed: Prosecuting Federal Officials for Major Crimes

Torture, Spying and Defense of Democracy

Throughout history, some public officials have used their positions of power to commit illegal acts, often for personal gain. The normal actions of government and civic involvement are a suitable response to such crimes.

However, during the George W. Bush administration it became clear that some officials were willing to use crime to undermine democracy and to use the power of the federal government to obtain through the powers of government ends that they could not secure through private means. They abused state power to further ideological and special interest goals.

To these ends, Bush officials committed serious crimes, including:

Bush officials have stated publicly that they committed these acts, which should be sufficient to cause those responsible for enforcing the rule of law to indict them and bring them to trial. Specifically, officials in the Justice Department have cause to bring charges for:

Torture, spying and abuse of the justice system are all crimes that one or more Bush officials have confessed to the public. For an extensive list of references on torture, please see the Torture Timeline. For up-to-date information about prisoner abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, please see the Prisoner Abuse project.

All officials of the federal government, including the President, members of Congress and federal judges, are sworn to uphold the Constitution upon taking office. Therefore, knowingly allowing any official to violate that Constitution, especially in the commission of a serious crime, is dereliction of duty.

The officials of the federal government hold office as representatives of the people of the United States. The people are sovereign and therefore have a right to know all that such officials do and to hold them accountable under the law for their actions. As the sovereign of the nation, they also have an obligation to see that officials perform according to the law and in the best interests of the country. It is therefore incumbent on all citizens to demand that officials known to have committed serious crimes be brought to trial.

There are three legal and proper methods for holding officials accountable:

Officials in Switzerland have threatened to arrest George Bush under the International Conventions Against Torture (ICAT) if he travels there, based on allegations by the Center for Constitutional Rights that he knew about and ordered torture during his administration. The CCR case is laid out in an Indictment (PDF) that details his known participation in meetings that led to torture. For a list of participants and information on them, see the Center for Torture Accountability.


After the Bush Administration left office, the question arose as to whether officials from that administration that committed crimes would ever stand trial. The Obama Administration has not sought so far to prosecute even one of these individuals. Congress had the option to impeach these officials during the Bush Administration, but failed to do so. The current Congress has launched scattered investigations, mainly in response to the outrage of certain members of Congress over the brazenness with which Bush officials committed these crimes and the outrageous damage they have done to governance. Both Republicans and Democrats (as well as visible public speakers of various stripes, especially conservative pundits) have made arguments for or against investigations and/or prosecutions. Among the arguments for prosecution, we have:

Attack Frames (Use)

There is also the practical consideration that abusing detainees, many of whom have been picked up in the Muslim world, is a great recruiting tool for our enemies there. As such it is a danger to national security. While this is a compelling argument in practical terms, the kinds of torture and spying perpetrated by the Bush Administration are illegal and cannot be condoned regardless of the practical considerations.

Among arguments against prosecution, we have:

Defense Frames (Don’t use)

Using Frames

Proponents of keeping official actions legal need to be able to use the attack frames above to press home the need for investigations and prosecutions. Likewise, they need to be able to counter defensive frames of the apologists. It is important first to understand the defensive frames and their weaknesses. Opponents of accountability try to bring up as many of these as possible and go on from one to another in order to prevent rebuttal.

It is important to immediately confront each frame as it occurs. To do this, we must often put our foot in the door to prevent a filibuster with something like “Let’s talk about that” interjected when the defensive frame first comes out. Another option is, “Let me make a note and we can come back to that.”

On the offensive side, the most important point to get across is the Defense of Democracy point, following up with The Future. The whole reason why this is important has to do with what kind of a country and what kind of a world you want to live in. Make it real to the audience. Do they want to live in a police state, a dictatorship? We are already living in a soft dictatorship. Now is the moment to repudiate this, or we lose democracy, probably forever.

For hardcore, right-wing pundits, the point to lead on is patriotism. Constitutional rights are what define being an American. There is no common racial or ethnic definition of “American”. That which binds us together is our belief in core values as represented by the two dozen distinct guarantees of rights in the Constitution. Selling out the Constitution is unpatriotic behavior. Since right-wing pundits have made much of their “patriotism”, attacking them on this issue fixes their attention so that you can hit them with the other attack points.

Opposition Examples of Use

[We should have examples from others besides Dick Cheney, but he was so prolific that he seems to have wiped the others away. Please add examples from others that fit.]

Here are some examples of how apologists for this illegal behavior have tried to justify it:

Excuses: The National Security Defense, The Legal Defense “In the years after 9/11, our government also understood that the safety of the country required collecting information known only to the worst of the terrorists. And in a few cases, that information could be gained only through tough interrogations. In top secret meetings about enhanced interrogations [torture], I made my own beliefs clear. I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do. The intelligence officers who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work and proud of the results, because they prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people.” Dick Cheney, 21 May 2009

Excuse: The Political Defense “Some are even demanding that those who recommended and approved the interrogations be prosecuted, in effect treating political disagreements as a punishable offense, and political opponents as criminals.” Dick Cheney, 21 May 2009

Excuse: We Only Did It a Little “It is a fact that only detainees of the highest intelligence value were ever subjected to enhanced interrogation [torture]. You’ve heard endlessly about waterboarding. It happened to three terrorists.” Dick Cheney, 21 May 2009

Excuse: The Ticking Time Bomb “We had a lot of blind spots after the attacks on our country. We didn’t know about al-Qaeda’s plans, but Khalid Sheikh Muhammed and a few others did know. And with many thousands of innocent lives potentially in the balance, we didn’t think it made sense to let the terrorists answer questions in their own good time, if they answered them at all.” Dick Cheney, 21 May 2009

Excuse: A Few Bad Apples “In public discussion of these matters, there has been a strange and sometimes willful attempt to conflate what happened at Abu Ghraib prison with the top secret program of enhanced interrogations [torture]. At Abu Ghraib, a few sadistic prison guards abused inmates in violation of American law, military regulations, and simple decency.” Dick Cheney, 21 May 2009

Excuse: The Legislative Defense “On numerous occasions, leading members of Congress, including the current speaker of the House, were briefed on the program and on the methods.” Dick Cheney, 21 May 2009

Excuses: The Practical Defense, The Wounded Intelligence Defense “Those are the basic facts on enhanced interrogations. And to call this a program of torture is to libel the dedicated professionals who have saved American lives, and to cast terrorists and murderers as innocent victims. What’s more, to completely rule out enhanced interrogation methods [torture] in the future is unwise in the extreme. It is recklessness cloaked in righteousness, and would make the American people less safe.” Dick Cheney, 21 May 2009

Excuse: Weakness “And when they see the American government caught up in arguments about interrogations, or whether foreign terrorists have constitutional rights, they don’t stand back in awe of our legal system and wonder whether they had misjudged us all along. Instead the terrorists see just what they were hoping for – our unity gone, our resolve shaken, our leaders distracted. In short, they see weakness and opportunity.” Dick Cheney, 21 May 2009

Excuse: Let’s Get the Whole Truth Out “I believe this information will confirm the value of interrogations… If Americans do get the chance to learn what our country was spared, it’ll do more than clarify the urgency and the rightness of enhanced interrogations.” Dick Cheney, 21 May 2009

Excuse: The Stupid Defense “Why is it that people like Jesse Ventura are so concerned about how we treat people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?” I think Joe Scarborough just gave the game away


Here are some of the responses to defensive arguments that can be used:

Publicizing the Frame

The primary argument is as follows:

The future of democracy is at stake. We are faced with a choice of stopping illegal and undemocratic activity committed by officials of our government vs. letting this become accepted practice that can be picked up at a future time and used to complete the fashioning of a dictatorship. We are also faced with the choice of letting some of this behavior continue under the Obama Administration vs. setting limits and stopping it.

Do you want to be associated with criminals? Or, do you favor the rule of law?

Other Resources to Draw On

What Progressives Value and Want

Sustainability. Official criminal behavior is not sustainable in a democracy. It puts certain people or groups above the law, undermining the legitimacy of the government and invalidating democratic elections. Fairness. Western standards of due process were developed over centuries to ensure fairness. Would you want to be tortured to see if you have any information that might be useful to the government? Is it okay for the government to spy on you without any independent review (by the judiciary) of whether you may have committed a crime? The kind of illegal behavior exemplified by the Bush Administration creates an inherently unfair society that abuses the official power of the government for private ends. Consistency. It is inconsistent to allow government officials to break the law while requiring citizens to follow it. It is inconsistent to allow members of the executive branch to decide what behavior is criminal while requiring the other two branches to follow the law.


Remember: What’s at stake is our democracy. The common theme of lawlessness in the Bush Administration was to act without the consent of Congress or the people. Their policy was to operate in secret because they knew that in the open the American people would not approve their behavior. Spying without warrants opens up the possibility of spying on opposition politicians and private citizens funding opposition ends. Reserving the right to keep people in prison indefinitely without trial is a proven method of instituting dictatorship. Torturing captives is intended to create fear in those who might oppose government action, and is a proven method of terror. This is a critical moment in our history, one in which we have the option to decide whether to return to traditional democratic values or allow our government to be swept away into a form that facilitates dictatorship.

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This page was last modified 14:14, 10 July 2014 by Rich Wingerter. Content is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

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