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How The U.S. Created The Central American Migration Crisis

It’s hard to believe that more than four years have passed since the police shot Amílcar Pérez-López a few blocks from my house in San Francisco’s Mission District. He was an immigrant, 20 years old, and his remittances were the sole support for his mother and siblings in Guatemala. On February 26, 2015, two undercover police officers shot him six times in the back, although they would claim he’d been running toward them with an upraised butcher knife.

For two years, members of my little Episcopal church joined other neighbors in a weekly evening vigil outside the Mission police station, demanding that the district attorney bring charges against the men who killed Amílcar. When the medical examiner’s office continued to drag its feet on releasing its report, we helped arrange for a private autopsy, which revealed what witnesses had already reported — that he had indeed been running away from those officers when they shot him. In the end, the San Francisco district attorney declined to prosecute the police for the killing, although the city did reach a financial settlement with his family back in Guatemala.

Still, this isn’t really an article about Amílcar, but about why he — like so many hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans, Hondurans, and El Salvadorans in similar situations — was in the United States in the first place. It’s about what drove 225,570 of them to be apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol in 2018 and 132,887 of them to be picked up at or near the border in a single month — May — of this year. As Dara Lind observed at Vox, “This isn’t a manufactured crisis, or a politically engineered one, as some Democrats and progressives have argued.”

It is indeed a real crisis, not something the Trump administration simply cooked up to justify building the president’s wall. But it is also absolutely a manufactured crisis, one that should be stamped with the label “made in the U.S.A.” thanks to decades of Washington’s interventions in Central American affairs. Its origins go back at least to 1954 when the CIA overthrew the elected Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz. In the 1960s, dictatorships would flourish in that country (and elsewhere in the region) with U.S. economic and military backing.

When, in the 1970s and 1980s, Central Americans began to rise up in response, Washington’s support for right-wing military regimes and death squads, in Honduras and El Salvador in particular, drove thousands of the inhabitants of those countries to migrate here, where their children were recruited into the very U.S. gangs now devastating their countries. In Guatemala, the U.S. supported successive regimes in genocidal wars on its indigenous Mayan majority. To top it off, climate change, which the United States has done the most of any nation to cause (and perhaps the least to forestall or mitigate), has made subsistence agriculture increasingly difficult to sustain in many parts of Central America.

U.S. Actions Have Central American Consequences

Scholars who study migration speak of two key explanations for why human beings leave their homes and migrate: “pull” and “push” factors. Pull factors would include the attractions of a new place, like economic and educational opportunities, religious and political liberties, and the presence there of family, friends, or community members from back home. Push factors driving people from their homes would include war; the drug trade; political, communal, or sexual violence; famine and drought; environmental degradation and climate change; and ordinary, soul-eating poverty.

International law mandates that some, but not all, push factors can confer “refugee” status on migrants, entitling them to seek asylum in other countries. This area of humanitarian law dates from the end of World War II, a time when millions of Europeans were displaced, forcing the world to adjust to huge flows of humanity. The 1951 Geneva Convention defines a refugee as anyone who has

“a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”

Almost three-quarters of a century later, that legal definition still theoretically underlies U.S. policy toward refugees, but this country has always welcomed some refugees and not others. In the 1980s, for instance, Salvadorans fleeing U.S.-supported death squads had almost no hope of getting asylum here. On the other hand, people leaving the communist island of Cuba had only to put a foot on U.S. territory to receive almost automatic asylum.

Because of its origins in post-war Europe, asylum law has a blind spot when it comes to a number of forces now pushing people to leave their homes. It’s unfortunate that international law makes a distinction, for instance, between people who become refugees because of physical violence and those who do so because of economic violence. A well-founded fear of being shot, beaten, or raped may get you asylum. Actual starvation won’t.

Today, a number of push factors are driving Central Americans from their homes, especially (once again) in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Key among them are political corruption and repression, the power of the drug cartels, and climate change — all factors that, in significant ways, can be traced back to actions of the United States.

According to World Bank figures, in 2016 (the latest year available), El Salvador had the highest murder rate in the world, 83 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Honduras took second place with 57 per 100,000, while tenth place went to Guatemala, with 27. Mexico wasn’t far behind with 19. (By comparison, with 5.3 per 100,000, the United States was far down the list.)

By any measure, the three Central American nations of what’s sometimes called “the Northern Triangle” are dangerous places to live. Here’s why.

Political repression and violent corruption: Honduras, for example, has long been one of Central America’s poorest and economically most unequal countries. In the 1980s, the United States supported a military-run government there that routinely “disappeared” and tortured its opponents, while the CIA used the country as a training ground for the Contras it backed, who were then fighting the Sandinistas across the border in Nicaragua (who had recently deposed their own U.S.-backed dictator).

By the turn of this century, however, things were changing in Honduras. In 2006, José Manuel Zelaya became president. Although he’d run on a conservative platform, he promptly launched a program of economic and political reforms. These included free public education, an increased minimum wage, low-interest loans for small farmers, the inclusion of domestic workers in the social security system, and a number of important environmental regulations.

In 2009, however, a military coup deposed Zelaya, installing Porfirio Lobo in his place. Four of the six officers who staged the coup were graduates of the U.S.’s notorious School of the Americas, where for decades Latin American military officers and police were trained in the ways of repression and torture.

Washington may not have initiated the coup, but within days Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had given it her seal of approval, supporting that power grab in defiance of the Organization of American States. Since then, murder rates have skyrocketed, while corruption and drug trafficking have flourished as the drug cartels and local governing bodies, as well as the national government, melded into a single countrywide nightmare. In a recent New York Times report, for instance, Sonia Nazario detailed what this has meant just for public transportation where anyone who operates a taxi or a bus must pay a daily tax (double on special days like Christmas) amounting to 30% to 40% of the driver’s income. But this isn’t a government tax. It goes to MS-13, the 18th Street gang (both of which arose in the United States), or sometimes both. The alternative, as Nazario reports, is death:

“Since 2010, more than 1,500 Hondurans working in transportation have been murdered — shot, strangled, cuffed to the steering wheel and burned alive while their buses are torched. If anyone on a bus route stops paying, gangs kill a driver — any driver — to send a message.”

The police, despite having all the facts, do next to no­thing. Violence and corruption have only become more intense under Honduras’s current president, Juan Orlando Hernández, who returned to office in what was probably a stolen election in 2017. Although the Organization of American States called for a redo, the Trump administration hastily recognizedHernández and life in Honduras continued on its murderous course.

The drug business: Along with coups and Coca-Cola, Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, is another U.S. import to Central America. Although Donald Trump likes to cast most refugees as dark and dangerous gang members from south of the border, MS-13 had its roots in Los Angeles, California, among Salvadorans who had fled the U.S.-backed dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s. When young people who grew up in Los Angeles returned to El Salvador at the end of that country’s civil war, MS-13 went with them. What had begun as a neighborhood street gang created to protect Salvadoran youth from other gangs in that city has now grown into a vast criminal enterprise of its own — as has the 18th Street gang, or Calle 18, which also came out of Los Angeles, following a similar path.

Without a major market for their product, drug cartels would have vastly less power. And we all know where that market lies: right here in the United States. Fifty years of this country’s “war on drugs” turn out to have provided the perfect breeding ground for violent outlaw drug cartels, while filling our own jails and prisons with more inmates than any other country holds. Yet it has done next to nothing to stanch addiction in this country. These days, if they remain in their own lands, many young people in the Northern Triangle face a stark choice between joining a gang and death. Not surprisingly, some of them opt to risk the trip to the U.S. instead. Many could have stayed home if it weren’t for the drug market in this country.

Climate Change and Environmental Degradation: Even if there were no corrupt regimes, no government repression, and no drug wars, people would still be fleeing Central America because climate change has made their way of life impossible. As what the New York Times calls the biggest carbon polluter in history, the United States bears much of the responsibility for crop failures there. The Northern Triangle has long been subject to periods of drought and flooding as part of a natural alternation of the El Niño and La Niña phenomena in the Pacific Ocean. But climate change has prolonged and deepened those periods of drought, forcing many peasants to abandon their subsistence farms. Some in Guatemala are now facing not just economic hardship but actual starvation thanks to a heating planet.

All along a drought corridor that runs from Nicaragua through Guatemala, the problem is a simple lack of water. The Guardian’s Nina Lakhani reports that, in El Salvador, many people now spend their days in search of enough water to keep their families alive. Even where (unsafe) river water is available, the price — in money or sex — extracted by the gangs for using it is often too high for most women to pay, so they are forced to rely on distant municipal taps (if they even exist). While El Salvadorans live with strict water rationing, the U.S.-based multinational Coca Cola remains immune to such rules. That company continues to take all the water it needs to produce and sell its fizzy concoction locally, while pouring foul-smelling effluvia into nearby rivers.

In Honduras, on the other hand, the problem is often too much water, as rising sea levels eat away at both its Atlantic and Pacific coasts, devouring poor people’s homes and small businesses in the process. Here, too, a human-fueled problem is exacerbated by greed in the form of shrimp farming, which decimates coastal mangrove trees that normally help to keep those lands from eroding. Shrimp, the most popular seafood in the United States, comes mostly from Southeast Asia and — you guessed it — Central America. Whether it’s shrimp or drugs, the point is that U.S. desires continue to drive devastation in Central America.

As the Trump administration does everything it can to accelerate and deepen the climate crisis, Central Americans are literally dying from it. Under international law, however, if they head for the U.S. in an attempt to save their lives and livelihoods, they don’t qualify as refugees because they are fleeing not physical but economic violence and so are not eligible for asylum.

No Asylum for You

These days, even immigrants with a well-founded fear of persecution who perfectly fit the Geneva Convention’s definition of “refugee” may no longer get asylum here. The Trump administration doesn’t even want to offer them a chance to apply for it. The president has, of course, called such groups of migrants, traveling together for safety and solidarity, an “invasion” of “very bad people.” And his administration continues to take a variety of concrete steps to prevent non-white refugees of just about any sort from reaching U.S. territory to make such a claim.

His early efforts to deter asylum seekers involved the infamous family-separation policy, in which children who arrived at the border were taken from their parents in an effort to create the sort of publicity that would keep others from coming. An international outcry — and a federal court order — brought an official end to that policy in June 2018. At the time, the government was ordered to return such children to their parents.

As it happened, the Department of Homeland Security proved largely incapable of doing so, because quite often it hadn’t kept decent records of the parents’ names or locations. In response to an ACLU lawsuit listing 2,700 individual children living without their families in this country, the administration acknowledged that, in addition to named children, thousands more fell into that category, lost in what can only laughingly be called “the system.”

You might think that, if the goal were to keep people from leaving their homes in the first place, the Trump administration would do what it could to improve life in the Northern Triangle. If so, however, you would be wrong. Far from increasing humanitarian aid to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, the administration promptly slashed those funds, ensuring yet more misery and undoubtedly forcing yet more to flee Central America.

Its most recent ploy: to require refugees to apply for asylum in the first country they come to after leaving their own. Because Guatemala lies between Mexico and the rest of the Northern Triangle, that means Salvadorans and Hondurans will officially have to apply there first. President Trump even used the threat of new tariffs against Guatemalan goods to negotiate such an agreement with that country’s outgoing president Jimmy Morales to secretly designate his nation a “safe third country” where migrants could apply for asylum.

There is something more than a little ironic in this, given that the Guatemalan government can’t even offer its own people anything like safety. Significant numbers of them have, of course, been fleeing to Mexico and heading for the U.S. border. Trump’s solution to that problem has been to use the threat of tariffs to force Mexico to militarize its own border with Guatemala, in the process frustrating the new administration of President Andres Manuel López Obrador.

On August 1st, a federal judge in San Francisco issued an injunction against that “safe third country” policy, prohibiting its use for the time being. For now (at least theoretically), migrants from the Northern Triangle should still be able to apply for asylum in the U.S. The administration will certainly fight the injunction in the courts while doing everything in its power to stop those immigrants in any way it can.

Meanwhile, it has come up with yet another way to prevent people from claiming asylum. Historically, family members of those persecuted in their own countries have been eligible to apply, too. At the end of July, Attorney General William Barr announced that “immigrants fearing persecution because of threats against their family members are no longer eligible for asylum.” This is particularly cruel because, to extort cooperation from their targets, drug gangs routinely make — and carry out — threats of rape and murder against family members.

A Real Crisis

There is indeed a real crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. Hundreds of thousands of people like Amílcar are arriving there seeking refuge from dangers that were, to a significant degree, created by and are now being intensified by the United States. But Donald Trump would rather demonize desperate people than deploy the resources needed to attend to their claims in a timely way — or in any way at all.

It’s time to recognize that the American way of life — our cars and comforts, our shrimp and coffee, our ignorance about our government’s actions in our regional “backyard” — has created this crisis. It should be (but in the age of Trump won’t be) our responsibility to solve it.

 

Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes. Her previous books include Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States and Letters from Nicaragua.

Copyright 2019 Rebecca Gordon

War Crimes: Pardons For The Lowly, Free Passes At The Top

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

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.

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 Guantánamo 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 Englanddid, 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 Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo in an infamous December 2002 memo requested by Miller, you’re an elder statesman and honored philanthropist.

War Crimes and Cover-Ups

Of course, the war on terror isn’t the first American conflict in which higher-ups have escaped responsibility for war crimes. I was only 17 in November 1969, but I still remember when investigative reporter Seymour Hersh broke the story of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. He recounted the events of a day of horror in March 1968 when a small band of U.S. soldiers, led by Lieutenant William Calley, systematically murdered somewhere between 350 and 570 Vietnamese civilians, all of them old men, women, or children. It would later emerge that, in addition to shoving Vietnamese peasants into ditches and machine gunning them, executing people kneeling outside a temple, setting fire to homes, and shooting people as they ran out to escape the flames, soldiers raped many women and girls.

A witness told Hersh, “They didn’t put up a fight or anything. The women huddled against their children and took it. They brought their kids real close to their stomachs and hugged them, and put their bodies over them trying to save them. It didn’t do much good.”

Alone among the 26 servicemen tried for My Lai, Lieutenant Calley was convicted in 1971 of murder. All the rest were acquitted. Calley was sentenced to life in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, later reduced to 20 years.  However, in a move that would presage Donald Trump’s order to release Eddie Gallagher, the day after Calley’s conviction, President Richard Nixon arranged for him to be moved to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he lived under house arrest until his parole a mere three-and-a-half years later.

As Nick Turse revealed in the Nation 40 years later, My Lai was no aberration. It was part of a larger operation calledSpeedy Express, conceived at the highest military levels, involving civilian murders committed across a wide swath of South Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. As Turse wrote in 2008:

“From December 1968 through May 1969, a large-scale operation was carried out by the Ninth Infantry Division, with support from nondivision assets ranging from helicopter gunships to B-52 bombers. The offensive, known as Operation Speedy Express, claimed an enemy body count of 10,899 at a cost of only 267 American lives. Although guerrillas were known to be well armed, the division captured only 748 weapons.”

Quoting an anonymous sergeant who in 1970 wrote a 10-page letter to Army Chief of Staff General William Westmoreland, Turse added that

“these killings all took place for one reason: ‘the General in charge and all the commanders, riding us all the time to get a big body count. Nobody ever gave direct orders to “shoot civilians” that I know of, but the results didn’t show any different than if… they had ordered it. The Vietnamese were dead, victims of the body count pressure and nobody cared enough to try to stop it.'”

No one was ever prosecuted for the crimes of Operation Speedy Express and only William Calley was ever convicted for the horrors of My Lai, themselves but one example of what Westmoreland’s anonymous correspondent called, “a My Lay [sic] each month for over a year.” Indeed, the expression “a Lieutenant Calley” came to signify a low-level scapegoat for war crimes ordered (however implicitly) by higher ups who managed to keep their hands — and their legacies — clean of the taint of atrocity.

Of course, no high-ranking officer, cabinet-level official, or U.S. president would ever stand trial for the crimes of the Vietnam War. Not for the extensive use of the incendiary napalm against defenseless civilians; not for the CIA’s infamous Phoenix Program in which between 20,000 and 40,000Vietnamese were murdered (often after being tortured); not for the carpet bombing of parts of North Vietnam and significant parts of South Vietnam; not for the deaths of as many as two million civilians in North and South Vietnam.

Remember Nuremberg?

The United States was not always so reluctant to put national leaders on trial for their war crimes. That’s exactly what this country, along with the other three “Great Powers” of World War II — France, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union — did when they tried high-ranking Nazis and their enablers at Nuremberg.

In his opening remarks at the first Nuremberg trials in 1945, Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor for the United States (and an associate justice of the Supreme Court), issued a warning: “We must not forget that the record on which we judge the defendants today is the record on which we will be judged tomorrow.”

As it turned out, he was wrong. The practices established at Nuremberg, and the understandings behind them, later codified in the 1950 Nuremberg Principles, have not proved to be the record by which U.S. actions in war, whether in Vietnam or in today’s never-ending war on terror, have been judged. Nonetheless, it’s worth taking a look at those ideas, because they provide an excellent basis for assessing just who are the real war criminals still walking among us.

Nuremberg established the principle that the international laws of war are real laws and that breaking them is a real crime. That’s what the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, was created to adjudicate — even though the United States quickly removed itself from the ICC in 2002, the year it began functioning. It was then that President George W. Bush’s top officials started getting nervous about their new CIA torture program. And lest we think of that as ancient history, remember that it was John Bolton, President Trump’s current national security advisor, who delivered the newsto the United Nations that the U.S. was leaving the court.

Under the Nuremberg Principles, even heads of state or other high government officials are not immune from prosecution for war crimes or crimes against humanity, nor can anyone be exonerated for them on the sole grounds of a superior’s orders. (That defense was nevertheless used by the My Lai killers and some of those President Trump is now thinking about pardoning.)

Before the Nuremberg tribunals could begin, the organizers had to decide what the charges would be. They settled on three major kinds of offense, which still frame the way we think about war crimes today. The first (which generated the most disagreement among the four Great Powers) was “crimes against peace” — in other words, involvement in launching a war of aggression. The French and the Soviets were dubious about trying Nazi officials for a crime that wasn’t explicitly identified in international law when the war started. Ironically, in view of this country’s twenty-first-century wars, it was Robert Jackson, backed by Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who in 1945 argued that all the rest of Germany’s war crimes sprang from this initial crime of waging an unprovoked war of aggression. In short (and logically enough), no war, no war crimes.

“War crimes” — violations of the laws of war such as mistreatment, torture, or execution of prisoners, or disproportionate harm to civilians — formed the second category. The third was, like the first, a new kind of crime made necessary by the unprecedented genocide of the Holocaust, and it was called “crimes against humanity.”

As I argued in my book American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, there’s a sense in which most of the crimes of the U.S. war on terror — the tortures, the drone assassinations, the hundreds of thousands of pointless civilian deaths, the millions of people displaced and turned into refugees — sprang from the determination of then-Vice President Dick Cheney and his coterie of neocons to commit a crime against peace by invading Iraq. (Some of his acolytes like Elliott Abrams and John Bolton have ominously resurfaced in the Trump administration and have been doing their best lately to gin up new wars of aggression against Venezuela and Iran.)

Some (myself among them) have argued that the invasion of Afghanistan was also a crime against peace. Starting what has become the longest war in U.S. history was not the only option available to the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks. It could have, for example, treated them as a horrendous crime, rather than an act of war, and used international channels like the International Criminal Court to prosecute those responsible. It could have continued its negotiations with the Taliban government for the extradition of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders. After all, the Trump administration is talking to the Taliban now. How many lives might have been saved with a little more patience in 2001?

In any case, U.S. war crimes, including torture, sprang from the desire to invade Iraq. Within a few days of the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11, Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz were already pushing for a war against Iraq, according to George W. Bush’s autobiography. At a Camp David “war council” held four days later, Bush wrote, Rumsfeld told him that “dealing with Iraq would show a major commitment to antiterrorism.”

As many of its victims have reported, one of the original purposes of the CIA’s infamous torture program (and its archipelago of “black sites” around the planet) was not to prevent further attacks on the United States, but to get someone, anyone, to admit to a connection between Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks. (There was none, of course.)

One of those prisoners was a Libyan named Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi who was shipped to Egypt and waterboarded until he agreed to the proposition that, as President George W. Bush put it in an October 2002 speech to the nation, “Iraq has trained al-Qaeda in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases.” In the same speech, Bush even explained where he got this “information,” saying, “Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications, and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda.” Secretary of State Colin Powell then repeated this claim in an infamous speech to the U.N. Security Council justifying the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Al-Libi later recanted, saying his statement implicating Iraq had been forced out of him under torture, but by then, of course, Washington’s war in Iraq was well underway.

The Other War Criminals

If the United States had been judged by the standard set at Nuremberg, people of much higher position than Eddie Gallagher would be lining up today for Trump pardons. The list would be long indeed, but would certainly include President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, CIA Director George Tenet, Attorneys General Alberto Gonzales and John Ashcroft, and Zalmay Khalilzad, who was Bush’s ambassador to both Afghanistan and Iraq and is presently serving as U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation.

Meanwhile, our current criminal president contemplates pardoning the small fry, even as he orders an investigation into the agencies that had the temerity to investigate the Russian hacking of the 2016 election. We can only hope that one day soon he also finds himself in need of a pardon — like the one President Gerald Ford gave Richard Nixon after he avoided impeachment by resigning from office.

Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes. Her previous books include Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States and Letters from Nicaragua.

IMAGE: Former Vice President Dick Cheney speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., Feb. 10, 2011, photo by  Gage Skidmore via Flickr.