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.

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.

A compromise left the international status of Nuremberg law ambiguous—the tribunal's jurisdiction covered only the Axis countries, but nowhere does the charter suggest that the crimes it was trying were only crimes if committed by the Axis powers. Because of this ambiguity, the status of the Nuremberg principles as international law was not established until 1950, when the U.N. General Assembly proclaimed seven Nuremberg Principles to be international law. The American agenda had finally prevailed.

Well, forget all that as well. The Nuremberg Principles, like the entire body of international humanitarian law, will now have no purchase in the war-crimes law of the United States. Who cares whether they were our idea in the first place? Principle VI of the Nuremberg seven defines war crimes as "violations of the laws or customs of war, which include, but are not limited to ... ill-treatment of prisoners of war." Forget "customs of war"—that sounds like customary international law, which has no place in our courts anymore. Forget "ill-treatment"—it's too vague. Take this one: Principle II, "The fact that internal law does not impose a penalty for an act which constitutes a crime under international law does not relieve the person who committed the act from responsibility under international law." Section 8(a)(2) sneers at responsibility under international law. Or Principle IV: "The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him." Moral, shmoral. The question is, do you want the program or don't you?

The Nuremberg trials presupposed something about the human conscience: that moral choice doesn't take its cues solely from narrow legalisms and technicalities. The new detainee bill takes precisely the opposite stance: Technicality now triumphs over conscience, and even over common sense. The bill introduces the possibility for a new cottage industry: the jurisprudence of pain. It systematically distinguishes "severe pain"—the hallmark of torture—from (mere) "serious" pain—the hallmark of cruel and degrading treatment, usually thought to denote mistreatment short of torture. But then it defines serious physical pain as "bodily injury that involves ... extreme physical pain." To untutored ears, "extreme" sounds very similar to "severe"; indeed, it sounds even worse than "severe." But in any case, it certainly sounds worse than "serious." Administration lawyers can have a field day rating painful interrogation tactics on the Three Adjective Scale, leaving the rest of us to shake our heads at the essential lunacy of the enterprise.

And then there is section 8(3), which says that "the President has the authority for the United States to interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions." Section (B) makes it clear that his interpretation "shall be authoritative (as to non-grave breach provisions)."

On Aug. 1, 2006, The Onion ran a story headlined "Bush Grants Self Permission To Grant More Power to Self." It began: "In a decisive 1-0 decision Monday, President Bush voted to grant the president the constitutional power to grant himself additional powers." It ended thusly: "Republicans fearful that the president's new power undermines their ability to grant him power have proposed a new law that would allow senators to permit him to grant himself power." How life imitates art! In the end, the three courageous Republican holdouts didn't want the president unilaterally trashing Geneva. Now it turns out that the principle they were fighting for was simply Congress' prerogative to grant him the unreviewable power to do so.

This article is based on an earlier posting at Balkinization.

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