How Bush's new torture bill eviscerates the promise of Nuremberg.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Sept. 26 2006 5:15 PM

Forget Nuremberg

How Bush's new torture bill eviscerates the promise of Nuremberg.

Sen. John McCain. Click image to expand.
Sen. John McCain at immigration reform hearing

The burning question is: What did the Bush administration do to break John McCain when a North Vietnamese prison camp couldn't do it?

Could it have been "ego up"? I'm told ego up is not possible with a U.S. senator. That probably also rules out ego down. Fear up harsh? McCain doesn't have the reputation of someone who scares easily. False flag? Did he think they were sending him to the vice president's office? No, he already knew he was in the vice president's office. Wait, I think I know the answer: futility—which the Army's old field manual on interrogation defined as explaining rationally to the prisoner why holding out is hopeless. Yes, the explanation must be that the Bush lawyers would have successfully loopholed any law McCain might write, so why bother? Futility might have done the trick.

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How else can we explain McCain's surrender this week on the torture issue, one on which he has been as passionate in the past as Lindsey Graham was on secret evidence?

Marty Lederman at Balkinization explains here and here some of the worst bits of the proposed "compromise legislation" on detainee treatment. But the fact is, virtually every word of the proposed bill is a capitulation, including "and" and "the." And yesterday's draft is even worse than last week's. It unexpectedly broadens the already broad definition of "unlawful enemy combatant" to include those who fight against the United States as well as those who give them "material support"—a legal term of art that appears to include anyone who has ever provided lodging or given a cell phone to a Taliban foot soldier out of sympathy with his cause. Now, not only the foot soldier but also his mom can be detained indefinitely at Guantanamo.

But the real tragedy of the so-called compromise is what it does to the legacy of Nuremberg—a legacy we would have been celebrating next week at the 60th anniversary of the judgment.

What does the bill do to Nuremberg? Section 8(a)(2) holds that when it comes to applying the War Crimes Act, "No foreign or international sources of law shall supply a basis for a rule of decision in the courts of the United States in interpreting the prohibitions enumerated in subsection 2441(d)." That means the customary international law of war is henceforth expelled from U.S. war-crime law—ironic, to say the least, because it was the U.S. Army's Lieber Code that formed the basis for the Law of Armed Conflict and that launched the entire worldwide enterprise of codifying genuinely international humanitarian law.

Ironic also because our own military takes customary LOAC as its guide and uses it to train officers and interrogators. Apparently there is no need to do that anymore, at least when it comes to war crimes. That means goodbye, International Committee of the Red Cross; the Swiss can go back to their fondue and cuckoo clocks. It also means goodbye, jurisprudence of the Yugoslav tribunal, which the United States was instrumental in forming.

And also goodbye, Nuremberg.

Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 mark the 60th anniversary of the tribunal's judgment. If the opening chapters of Telford Taylor's superb The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials make one thing crystal clear, it's the burning desire of the United States to create international law using those trials. Great Britain initially opposed the Nuremberg trials and urged simply shooting top Nazis, out of fear they would use the trials for propaganda. Stalin favored conducting trials, but only to establish punishments, not guilt. Like Great Britain, he thought punishing the top Nazis should be a political, and not a legal, decision. The trials happened as they did only because the United States insisted on them for purposes of establishing future law—a task that summary justice at executive say-so could never have done.

At the London conference that wrote the Nuremberg Charter, France and Russia both objected to criminalizing aggressive war for anybody but the Axis countries. But Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, the American representative, insisted that creating universally binding international law was the prime purpose of the tribunal.

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