Profile: War Crimes Act
War Crimes Act was a participant or observer in the following events:
The War Crimes Act (HR 3680) becomes Public Law No: 104-192. It prohibits Americans—top officials and soldiers alike—from committing “grave breaches” of the Geneva Conventions. It states: “Whoever, whether inside or outside the United States, commits a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions,” provided that the perpetrator or the victim is a member of the US military or a national of the US, “shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for life or any term of years, or both, and if death results to the victim, shall also be subject to the penalty of death.” [Newsweek, 11/5/2001]
Justice Department lawyers John Yoo and Robert Delahunty send a classified memo to the chief legal adviser for the State Department, William Howard Taft IV. The contents of the memo will remain secret, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will later learn that the memo concerns the Justice Department’s interpretation of the War Crimes Act. According to Yoo and Delahunty, the War Crimes Act does not allow the prosecution of accused al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects. Yoo will cite this memo in a 2003 memo concerning the military interrogation of so-called enemy combatants (see March 14, 2003). [American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 ]
Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, who for a year has advocated that the US issue clear rules about detention and interrogation of terror suspects (see Summer 2005), calls a meeting of three dozen Pentagon officials, including the vice chief and top uniformed lawyer for each military branch. England wants to discuss a proposed new directive defining the US military’s detention policies. The secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force are present, as are generals from each branch of service and a number of military lawyers, including Naval General Counsel Alberto Mora. The agenda is set by Matthew Waxman, the deputy assistant secretary for detainee affairs. Waxman says that the president’s general statement that detainees should be treated humanely “subject to military necessity” (see February 7, 2002) has left US military interrogators and others unsure about how to proceed with detainees. Waxman has proposed making it official Pentagon policy to treat detainees in accordance with Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions, which bars cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, as well as “outrages against human dignity.” The standard has already been in effect since the Geneva Conventions were first put into place over 50 years ago, and US military personnel are trained to follow it. In 2007, the Washington Post will observe, “That was exactly the language… that [Vice President] Cheney had spent three years expunging from US policy.” Mora will later recall of the meeting, “Every vice chief came out strongly in favor, as did every JAG,” or Judge Advocate General.
Opposition - Every military officer supports the Waxman standard, but two civilians oppose it: Stephen Cambone, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, and William Haynes, the Pentagon’s general counsel and a close associate of Cheney’s chief counsel, David Addington. Cambone and Haynes argue that the standard will limit the US’s “flexibility” in handling terror suspects, and it might expose administration officials to charges of war crimes. If Common Article III becomes the standard for treatment, then it might become a crime to violate it.
War Crimes Questions - An exasperated Mora points out that whether the proposal is adopted or not, the Geneva Conventions are already solidly part of both US and international law. Any serious breach is in legal fact a war crime. Mora reads from a copy of the US War Crimes Act, which already forbids the violation of Common Article III. It is already the law, Mora emphasizes, and no one is free to ignore it. Waxman believes his opponents are isolated, and issues a draft of DOD Directive 2310, incorporating the Geneva-based language.
Browbeating Waxman - Within a few days, Addington and Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, bring Waxman in for a meeting. The meeting goes poorly for Waxman. Addington ridicules the vagueness of the Geneva ban on “outrages upon personal dignity,” saying it leaves US troops timid in the face of unpredictable legal risk. Waxman replies that the White House policy is far more opaque, and Addington accuses him of trying to replace the president’s decision with his own. Mora later says, “The impact of that meeting is that Directive 2310 died.” Shortly thereafter, Waxman will leave the Pentagon for a post at the State Department. [New Yorker, 2/27/2006; Washington Post, 6/25/2007]
Entity Tags: Alberto Mora, David S. Addington, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, William J. Haynes, War Crimes Act, Matthew Waxman, Gordon England, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, US Department of Defense, Geneva Conventions, Stephen A. Cambone
Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties
President Bush signs the Military Commissions Act into law. [Source: White House]President Bush signs the Military Commissions Act (MCA) into law. [White House, 10/17/2006] The MCA is designed to give the president the authority to order “enemy detainees” tried by military commissions largely outside the scope of US civil and criminal procedures. The bill was requested by the Bush administration after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (see June 28, 2004) that the US could not hold prisoners indefinitely without access to the US judicial system, and that the administration’s proposal that they be tried by military tribunals was unconstitutional (see June 28, 2004). [FindLaw, 10/9/2006] It is widely reported that the MCA does not directly apply to US citizens, but to only non-citizens defined as “enemy combatants. [CBS News, 10/19/2006] However, six months later, a Bush administration lawyer will confirm that the administration believes the law does indeed apply to US citizens (see February 1, 2007).
Sweeping New Executive Powers - The MCA virtually eliminates the possibility that the Supreme Court can ever again act as a check on a president’s power in the war on terrorism. Similarly, the law gives Congressional approval to many of the executive powers previously, and unilaterally, seized by the Bush administration. Former Justice Department official John Yoo celebrates the MCA, writing, “Congress… told the courts, in effect, to get out of the war on terror” (see October 19, 2006). [Savage, 2007, pp. 319, 322]
'Abandoning' Core 'Principles' - The bill passed the Senate on a 65-34 vote, and the House by a 250-170 vote. The floor debate was often impassioned and highly partisan; House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) called Democrats who opposed the bill “dangerous,” and Senate Judiciary Committee member Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said this bill showed that the US is losing its “moral compass.” Leahy asked during the debate, “Why would we allow the terrorists to win by doing to ourselves what they could never do, and abandon the principles for which so many Americans today and through our history have fought and sacrificed?” Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) had said he would vote against it because it is “patently unconstitutional on its face,” but then voted for it, saying he believes the courts will eventually “clean it up.” Specter’s attempt to amend the bill to provide habeas corpus rights for enemy combatants was defeated, as were four Democratic amendments. Republicans have openly used the debate over the MCA as election-year fodder, with House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) saying after the vote that “House Democrats have voted to protect the rights of terrorists,” and Boehner decrying “the Democrats’ irrational opposition to strong national security policies.” Democrats such as Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) say they will not fight back at such a level. “There will be 30-second attack ads and negative mail pieces, and we will be called everything from cut-and-run quitters to Defeatocrats, to people who care more about the rights of terrorists than the protection of Americans,” Obama says. “While I know all of this, I’m still disappointed, and I’m still ashamed, because what we’re doing here today—a debate over the fundamental human rights of the accused—should be bigger than politics.” [Washington Post, 10/19/2006] After winning the vote, Hastert accused Democrats who opposed the bill of “putting their liberal agenda ahead of the security of America.” Hastert said the Democrats “would gingerly pamper the terrorists who plan to destroy innocent Americans’ lives” and create “new rights for terrorists.” [New York Times, 10/19/2006]
Enemy Combatants - The MCA applies only to “enemy combatants.” Specifically, the law defines an “unlawful enemy combatant” as a person “who has engaged in hostilities or who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States or its co-belligerents,” and who is not a lawful combatant. Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch says the definition far exceeds the traditionally accepted definition of combatant as someone who directly participates in hostilities. But under the MCA, someone who provides “material support” for terrorists—whether that be in the form of financial contributions or sweeping the floors at a terrorist camp—can be so defined. Worse, the label can be applied without recourse by either Bush or the secretary of defense, after a “competent tribunal” makes the determination. The MCA provides no guidelines as to what criteria these tribunals should use. Taken literally, the MCA gives virtually unrestricted power to the tribunals to apply the label as requested by the president or the secretary. Mariner believes the definition is both “blatantly unconstitutional” and a direct contradiction of centuries of Supreme Court decisions that define basic judicial rights. [FindLaw, 10/9/2006] Under this definition, the president can imprison, without charge or trial, any US citizen accused of donating money to a Middle East charity that the government believes is linked to terrorist activity. Citizens associated with “fringe” groups such as the left-wing Black Panthers or right-wing militias can be incarcerated without trial or charge. Citizens accused of helping domestic terrorists can be so imprisoned. Law professor Bruce Ackerman calls the MCA “a massive Congressional expansion of the class of enemy combatants,” and warns that the law may “haunt all of us on the morning after the next terrorist attack” by enabling a round of mass detentions similar to the roundup of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. [Savage, 2007, pp. 322]
Military Commissions - The MCA mandates that enemy combatants are to be tried by military commissions, labeled “regularly constituted courts that afford all the necessary ‘judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples’ for purposes of common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.” The commissions must have a minimum of five commissioned military officers and a military judge; if death is a possible penalty, the commissions must have at least 12 officers. The defendant’s guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt; convictions require a two-thirds vote. Sentences of beyond 10 years require a three-quarters vote, and death penalties must be unanimously voted for. Defendants may either represent themselves or by military or civilian counsel. The court procedures themselves, although based on standard courts-martial proceedings, are fluid, and can be set or changed as the secretary of defense sees fit. Statements obtained through methods defined as torture are inadmissible, but statements take by coercion and “cruel treatment” can be admitted. The MCA sets the passage of the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA—see December 15, 2005) as a benchmark—statements obtained before the December 30, 2005 enactment of that law can be used, even if the defendant was “coerced,” if a judge finds the statement “reasonable and possessing sufficient probative value.” Statements after that date must have been taken during interrogations that fall under the DTA guidelines. Defendants have the right to examine and respond to evidence seen by the commission, a provision originally opposed by the administration. However, if the evidence is classified, an unclassified summary of that material is acceptable, and classified exculpatory evidence can be denied in lieu of what the MCA calls “acceptable substitutes.” Hearsay evidence is admissible, as is evidence obtained without search warrants. Generally, defendants will not be allowed to inquire into the classified “sources, methods, or activities” surrounding evidence against them. Some human rights activists worry that evidence obtained through torture can be admitted, and the fact that it was obtained by torture, if that detail is classified, will not be presented to the court or preclude the evidence from being used. Public access to the commissions will be quite limited. Many experts claim these commissions are illegal both by US constitutional law and international law. [FindLaw, 10/9/2006]
Secret Courts - The military tribunals can be partially or completely closed to public scrutiny if the presiding judge deems such an action necessary to national security. The government can convey such concerns to the judge without the knowledge of the defense. The judge can exclude the accused from the trial if he deems it necessary for safety or if he decides the defendant is “disruptive.” Evidence can be presented in secret, without the knowledge of the defense and without giving the defense a chance to examine that evidence, if the judge finds that evidence “reliable.” And during the trial, the prosecution can at any time assert a “national security privilege” that would stop “the examination of any witness” if that witness shows signs of discussing sensitive security matters. This provision can easily be used to exclude any potential defense witness who might “breach national security” with their testimony. Author and investigative reporter Robert Parry writes, “In effect, what the new law appears to do is to create a parallel ‘star chamber’ system for the prosecution, imprisonment, and elimination of enemies of the state, whether those enemies are foreign or domestic.” [Consortium News, 10/19/2006]
Appeals - Guilty verdicts are automatically appealed to a Court of Military Commission Review, consisting of three appellate military justices. The DC Circuit Court of Appeals has extremely limited authority of review of the commissions; even its authority to judge whether a decision is consistent with the Constitution is limited “to the extent [that the Constitution is] applicable.”
Types of Crimes - Twenty-eight specific crimes fall under the rubric of the military commissions, including conspiracy (not a traditional war crime), murder of protected persons, murder in violation of the bill of war, hostage-taking, torture, cruel or inhuman treatment, mutilation or maiming, rape, sexual abuse or assault, hijacking, terrorism, providing material support for terrorism, and spying. [FindLaw, 10/9/2006]
CIA Abuses - The MCA, responding to the recent Supreme Court decision of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (see June 30, 2006) that found the CIA’s secret detention program and abusive interrogation practices illegal, redefines and amends the law to make all but the most pernicious interrogation practices, even those defined as torture by the War Crimes Act and the Geneva Conventions, legal. The MCA actually rules that the Geneva Conventions are all but unenforceable in US courts. It also provides retroactive protection under the law to all actions as far back as November 1997. Under the MCA, practices such as waterboarding, stress positioning, and sleep deprivation cannot be construed as torture. [FindLaw, 10/9/2006] The MCA even states that rape as part of interrogations cannot be construed as torture unless the intent of the rapist to torture his victim can be proven, a standard rejected by international law. The MCA provides such a narrow definition of coercion and sexual abuse that most of the crimes perpetrated at Abu Ghraib are now legal. [Jurist, 10/4/2006] Although the MCA seems to cover detainee abuse for all US agencies, including the CIA, Bush says during the signing of the bill, “This bill will allow the Central Intelligence Agency to continue its program for questioning key terrorist leaders and operatives.” International law expert Scott Horton will note, “The administration wanted these prohibitions on the military and not on the CIA, but it did not work out that way.” Apparently Bush intends to construe the law to exempt the CIA from its restrictions, such as they are, on torture and abuse of prisoners. [Salon, 5/22/2007]
No Habeas Corpus Rights - Under the MCA, enemy combatants no longer have the right to file suit under the habeas corpus provision of US law. This means that they cannot challenge the legality of their detention, or raise claims of torture and mistreatment. Even detainees who have been released can never file suit to seek redress for their treatment while in US captivity. [FindLaw, 10/25/2006]
Retroactive Immunity - The administration added a provision to the MCA that rewrote the War Crimes Act retroactively to November 26, 1997, making any offenses considered war crimes before the MCA is adopted no longer punishable under US law. Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will write in 2007 that the only reason he can fathom for the change is to protect administration officials—perhaps including President Bush himself—from any future prosecutions as war criminals. Dean will note that if the administration actually believes in the inherent and indisputable powers of the presidency, as it has long averred, then it would not worry about any such criminal liability. [Dean, 2007, pp. 239-240]
Entity Tags: Human Rights Watch, Joanne Mariner, US Supreme Court, Patrick J. Leahy, Military Commissions Act, John Dean, George W. Bush, Scott Horton, Geneva Conventions, Bruce Ackerman, Dennis Hastert, American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Detainee Treatment Act, Arlen Specter, War Crimes Act, Barack Obama, Central Intelligence Agency, Bush administration (43), John Boehner
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Justice Department official Patrick Philbin testifies in a closed session of the House Intelligence Committee on the subject of interrogation tactics. Philbin testifies that each of the 24 approved interrogation tactics used by US personnel to interrogate terrorist suspects are “plainly lawful.” He notes that laws such as the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act and the Uniform Code of Military Justice define, to an extent, what is and is not torture, and prohibit excessive interrogation methods that might come under that rubric. He also notes that the US is a signatory to the Convention Against Torture (see October 21, 1994), which defines torture broadly as the intentional infliction of “severe pain or suffering” by anyone acting in an official capacity. He insists the US has done nothing to violate this treaty, nor the War Crimes Act, the Geneva Conventions, or Fifth and the Eighth Amendments to the US Constitution. Although terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and “extragovernmental” organizations such as the Taliban do not fall under the protection of the Geneva Conventions, Philbin argues that the US continues to follow its guidelines in its treatment of prisoners from those groups “to the extent consistent with military necessity…” [House Intelligence Committee, 7/14/2007 ] However, in 2004, a classified report by the CIA’s Inspector General concluded that some of the interrogation techniques used by the CIA probably did violate the Convention Against Torture (see May 7, 2004).
Entity Tags: War Crimes Act, US Department of Justice, Uniform Code of Military Justice, Patrick F. Philbin, Geneva Conventions, Convention Against Torture, Al-Qaeda, Taliban, House Intelligence Committee, Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act
Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties
Receive weekly email updates summarizing what contributors have added to the History Commons database
Developing and maintaining this site is very labor intensive. If you find it useful, please give us a hand and donate what you can.
If you would like to help us with this effort, please contact us. We need help with programming (Java, JDO, mysql, and xml), design, networking, and publicity. If you want to contribute information to this site, click the register link at the top of the page, and start contributing.