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Dumb Question of the Twenty-first Century: Is It Legal?

Post-legal America and the national security complex.

| Tue May 31, 2011 4:02 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Is the Libyan war legal? Was Bin Laden's killing legal? Is it legal for the president of the United States to target an American citizen for assassination? Were those "enhanced interrogation techniques" legal? These are all questions raised in recent weeks. Each seems to call out for debate, for answers. Or does it?

Now, you couldn't call me a legal scholar. I've never set foot inside a law school, and in 66 years only made it onto a single jury (dismissed before trial when the civil suit was settled out of court). Still, I feel at least as capable as any constitutional law professor of answering such questions.

My answer is this: they are irrelevant. Think of them as twentieth-century questions that don't begin to come to grips with twenty-first century American realities. In fact, think of them, and the very idea of a nation based on the rule of law, as a reflection of nostalgia for, or sentimentality about, a long-lost republic. At least in terms of what used to be called "foreign policy," and more recently "national security," the United States is now a post-legal society. (And you could certainly include in this mix the too-big-to-jail financial and corporate elite.)

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It's easy enough to explain what I mean. If, in a country theoretically organized under the rule of law, wrongdoers are never brought to justice and nobody is held accountable for possibly serious crimes, then you don't have to be a constitutional law professor to know that its citizens actually exist in a post-legal state. If so, "Is it legal?" is the wrong question to be asking, even if we have yet to discover the right one.
 

Pretzeled Definitions of Torture

Of course, when it came to a range of potential Bush-era crimesthe use of torture, the running of offshore "black sites," the extraordinary rendition of terrorist suspects to lands where they would be tortured, illegal domestic spying and wiretapping, and the launching of wars of aggression—it's hardly news that no one of the slightest significance has ever been brought to justice. On taking office, President Obama offered a clear formula for dealing with this issue. He insisted that Americans should "look forward, not backward" and turn the page on the whole period, and then set his Justice Department to work on other matters. But honestly, did anyone anywhere ever doubt that no Bush-era official would be brought to trial here for such potential crimes?

Everyone knows that in the United States if you're a robber caught breaking into someone's house, you'll be brought to trial, but if you're caught breaking into someone else's country, you'll be free to take to the lecture circuit, write your memoirs, or become a university professor.

Of all the "debates" over legality in the Bush and Obama years, the torture debate has perhaps been the most interesting, and in some ways, the most realistic. After 9/11, the Bush administration quickly turned to a crew of hand-picked Justice Department lawyers to create the necessary rationale for what its officials most wanted to do—in their quaint phrase, "take the gloves off." And those lawyers responded with a set of pseudo-legalisms that put various methods of "information extraction" beyond the powers of the Geneva Conventions, the U.N.'s Convention Against Torture (signed by President Ronald Reagan and ratified by the Senate), and domestic anti-torture legislation, including the War Crimes Act of 1996 (passed by a Republican Congress).

In the process, they created infamously pretzled new definitions for acts previously accepted as torture. Among other things, they essentially left the definition of whether an act was torture or not to the torturer (that is, to what he believed he was doing at the time). In the process, acts that had historically been considered torture became "enhanced interrogation techniques." An example would be waterboarding, which had once been bluntly known as "the water torture" or "the water cure" and whose perpetrators had, in the past, been successfully prosecuted in American military and civil courts. Such techniques were signed off on after first reportedly being "demonstrated" in the White House to an array of top officials, including the vice-president, the national security adviser, the attorney general, and the secretary of state.

In the US (and here was the realism of the debate that followed), the very issue of legality fell away almost instantly. Newspapers rapidly replaced the word "torture"—when applied to what American interrogators did—with the term "enhanced interrogation techniques," which was widely accepted as less controversial and more objective. At the same time, the issue of the legality of such techniques was superseded by a fierce national debate over their efficacy. It has lasted to this day and returned with a bang with the bin Laden killing.

Nothing better illustrates the nature of our post-legal society. Anti-torture laws were on the books in this country. If legality had truly mattered, it would have been beside the point whether torture was an effective way to produce "actionable intelligence" and so prepare the way for the killing of a bin Laden.

By analogy, it's perfectly reasonable to argue that robbing banks can be a successful and profitable way to make a living, but who would agree that a successful bank robber hadn't committed an act as worthy of prosecution as an unsuccessful one caught on the spot? Efficacy wouldn't matter in a society whose central value was the rule of law. In a post-legal society in which the ultimate value espoused is the safety and protection a national security state can offer you, it means the world.

As if to make the point, the Supreme Court recently offered a post-legal ruling for our moment: it declined to review a lower court ruling that blocked a case in which five men, who had experienced extraordinary rendition (a fancy globalized version of kidnapping) and been turned over to torturing regimes elsewhere by the CIA, tried to get their day in court. No such luck. The Obama administration claimed (as had the Bush administration before it) that simply bringing such a case to court would imperil national security (that is, state secrets)—and won. As Ben Wizner, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who argued the case, summed matters up, "To date, every victim of the Bush administration's torture regime has been denied his day in court."

To put it another way, every CIA torturer, all those involved in acts of rendition, and all the officials who okayed such acts, as well as the lawyers who put their stamp of approval on them, are free to continue their lives untouched. Recently, the Obama administration even went to court to "prevent a lawyer for a former CIA officer convicted in Italy in the kidnapping of a radical Muslim cleric from privately sharing classified information about the case with a Federal District Court judge." (Yes, Virginia, elsewhere in the world a few Americans have been tried in absentia for Bush-era crimes.) In response, wrote Scott Shane of the New York Times, the judge "pronounced herself 'literally speechless.'"

The realities of our moment are simple enough: other than abusers too low-level (see England, Lynndie and Graner, Charles) to matter to our national security state, no one in the CIA, and certainly no official of any sort, is going to be prosecuted for the possible crimes Americans committed in the Bush years in pursuit of the Global War on Terror.


On Not Blowing Whistles

It's beyond symbolic, then, that only one figure from the national security world seems to remain in the "legal" crosshairs: the whistle-blower. If, as the president of the United States, you sign off on a system of warrantless surveillance of Americans—the sort that not so long ago was against the law in this country—or if you happen to run a giant telecom company and go along with that system by opening your facilities to government snoops, or if you run the National Security Agency or are an official in it overseeing the kind of data mining and intelligence gathering that goes with such a program, then—as recent years have made clear—you are above the law.

If, however, you happen to be an NSA employee who feels that the agency has overstepped the bounds of legality in its dealings with Americans, that it is moving in Orwellian directions, and that it should be exposed, and if you offer even unclassified information to a newspaper reporter, as was the case with Thomas Drake, be afraid, be very afraid. You may be prosecuted by the Bush and then Obama Justice Departments, and threatened with 35 years in prison under the Espionage Act (not for "espionage," but for having divulged the most minor of low-grade state secrets in a world in which, increasingly, everything having to do with the state is becoming a secret).

If you are a CIA employee who tortured no one but may have given information damaging to the reputation of the national security state—in this case about a botched effort to undermine the Iranian nuclear program—to a journalist, watch out. You are likely, as in the case of Jeffrey Sterling, to find yourself in a court of law. And if you happen to be a journalist like James Risen who may have received that information, you are likely to be hit by a Justice Department subpoena attempting to force you to reveal your source, under threat of imprisonment for contempt of court.

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