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Alberto Gonzales & the Lawyers of the Third Reich
As Attorney General Alberto Gonzales struggles to keep his job due to the U.S. Attorney firings scandal, many have forgotten the role he played in creating policies that are profoundly more troubling from a global perspective. These policiesparticularly the torture memos prepared by Gonzales and his colleagues from 2002 to 2003 led to grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, the UN Convention against Torture, and the UN Charter.
The most infamous memo was a January 25, 2002 letter from Gonzales to Bush, which argued that the war against terrorism is a new kind of war . [T]his new paradigm renders obsolete Genevas strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions regarding treatment of suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban members. Gonzales also noted that this would substantially reduce the threat of criminal prosecution of U.S. personnel for war crimes. It is now clear that the memos soon became official policy, leading to the classification of detainees as enemy combatants who were stripped of their legal rights, harsh interrogation techniques that eventually included torture, and the escalation of extraordinary rendition (state-sponsored abduction) of suspected terrorists to secret overseas prisons.
Once the memos were released in 2004, human rights and civil liberties groups sought to hold the Bush-Cheney legal team accountable for detainee abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and secret overseas prisons. Their efforts reached a climax when the Center for Constitutional Rights and dozens of other organizations filed a criminal complaint in Germany last November on behalf of 12 detainees. The suit alleged that Gonzales, Rumsfeld, and a dozen other U.S. officials committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Executive Power Grab
The U.S. Attorney firings and other domestic scandals in which Gonzales has been implicatedthe National Security Administrations use of warrantless surveillance and the FBIs abusive application of the USA PATRIOT Actare the other side of a radical executive power grab that became apparent after the September 11 attacks. It included Congresss rapid passage of laws that ceded tremendous power to the president and a series of executive decrees framed within the context of a newly declared war on terror.
Gonzales (who was Bushs legal counsel at the time) was deeply involved in forging these policies, along with an entire team of Bush-Cheney lawyers that included David Addington (Cheneys legal counsel), John Yoo and Jay Bybee (Justice Department lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel), and Timothy Flanigan (deputy to Gonzales during his tenure as White House counsel), among others. Most were members of the ultraconservative Federalist Society and subscribed to the unitary executive theorythe idea that congressional and judicial power over the executive branch should be strictly limited and that the president should retain absolute control over all cabinet-level agencies.
Many of the new policies swept away restrictions on the treatment and interrogation of detainees, which shocked a number of prominent people in the U.S. In January 2005 a dozen retired generals and admirals publicly opposed Gonzaless attorney general nomination, declaring, U.S. detention and interrogation operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere have fostered greater animosity toward the U.S., undermined our intelligence gathering efforts, and added to the risks facing our troops serving around the world.
Days later, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee attending Gonzaless confirmation hearings were stunned by Admiral John Hutsons testimony. Hutson, a retired U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General, warned, The strongest nation on earth can ill afford an attorney general who engages in sloppy, shortsighted legal analysis or who doesnt object when others do.
Even more frightening are the words of retired U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Corps, Jordan Paust, who wrote, Not since the Nazi era have so many lawyers been so clearly involved in international crimes concerning the treatment and interrogation of persons detained during war. Other legal scholars, including Scott Horton and Sanford Levinson, have made similar observations.
Bush-Cheneys Legal Team and the Third Reich Jurists
Such comments beg a serious question: To what extent are Bushs legal counselors (including Gonzales) playing a role analogous to that of Nazi jurists in the 1930s? The answer is disturbing. Though there are obvious differences in political ideologies and historical context, there are key similarities:
1. A state of emergency was declared to strengthen executive power. In both cases, government lawyers claimed that extraordinary circumstances required boosting executive power vis-a-vis both Congress (Reichstag in Germany) and the courts. In Germany, a state of emergency was triggered by the February 1933 Reichstag fire, which led to President von Hindenbergs signing of the Reichstag Fire Decree. This allowed the Nazis to suspend civil liberties and detain suspected Communists. A month later the Reich- stag passed the Enabling Act, which gave the chancellor power to enact laws, foreign treaties, and constitutional changes without parliamentary approval.
In the U.S., the 9/11 attacks triggered a state of emergency. Congress passed the Use of Force Resolution on September 14 (which ceded war power to the president) and the USA PATRIOT Act on October 26 (which restricted civil liberties). A November 13 executive order proclaiming a state of extraordinary emergency announced rules for defining enemy combatants and for forming military commissions not subject to congressional or judicial review.
2. Political theories provided a legal framework for executive usurpation of power. In the 1920s, influential German legal scholar Carl Schmitt argued that a strong dictatorship more effectively embodies the peoples will than parliamentary democracies, since dictators can act more quickly and decisively. He theorized that a government capable of decisive action must include a dictatorial element in its constitution, which can be triggered in emergencies. This was the tool he crafted for dismantling liberal democracy. (Schmitt later joined the Nazi party and was appointed director of the Union of Nazi Jurists.) This theory became fully developed in the Führer principlethe notion that the Führers will is the lawand was realized in 1934, when Hitler merged the offices of president and chancellor.
In the U.S., the unitary executive theory emerged as an important concept among a radical Republican fringe beginning in the 1970s. In a recent article for the New Republic, Jeffrey Rosen documents the development of this theory in recent years, highlighting the post-9/11 transformation of unitary executive theory into practice under the guidance of Gonzales, Addington, Yoo, Bybee, Flanigan, and others.
3. Parliamentary power was reduced following legal reforms. Parliamentary power in both cases was reduced to a shadow of itself as checks and balances eroded. In Nazi Germany, the impact of the Enabling Act was so severe that by 1934, the Reichstag was effectively a rubber stamp for the Führer.
In the U.S., Congress has not effectively challenged the expansion of executive power since 9/11. Even the conservative group American Freedom Agenda (founded by four prominent Republicans) has recently expressed concern that since 9/11, the executive branch has chronically usurped legislative or judicial power, and has repeatedly claimed that the president is the law.
4. Officials from the executive exerted pressure on jurists to limit their independence. In Germany Nazi Justice Minister Roland Freisler warned judges in 1934 that, It is not the role of the judge to alter the existing laws of the nation because chaos and anarchy would replace unified leadership were judges to decide questions which can be solved only from the superior vantage point of the Führer.
In the U.S. Alberto Gonzales has directed polite warnings to the Supreme Courtfor example last September when he said, The Constitution provides the courts with relatively few tools to superintend military and foreign policy decisions, especially during wartime . [W]hen courts issue decisions that overturn long-standing traditions they cannotand should notbe shielded from criticism . A proper sense of judicial humility requires judges to keep in mind the institutional limitation of the judiciary. The U.S. attorney firings are a not-so-polite warning to independently minded federal prosecutors.
5. Legal advisors argued that an unconventional enemy rendered international laws obsolete. In the case of the Nazis, the German General Staff claimed that Russian partisans driven by radical Communist ideology were engaging in terrorist attacks, and therefore not subject to the protections of the 1929 Geneva Conventions or the 1907 Hague Convention.
In the U.S. Gonzales, Yoo, and others have argued that Al Qaeda and the Taliban (among others) are driven by radical religious ideology and engaged in terrorist attacks and are therefore not subject to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Consequently, both the Nazi jurists and the Bush legal team viewed international laws as obsolete.
6. Transformations in law led to state-organized brutality. In both cases, the consequences of legal opinions, memos, and directives led to state-organized practices of brutal interrogation, torture, and extermination of enemies. Secret prisons were a feature of both Nazi and U.S. systems though there are significant differences in scale. The Nazis organized the mass murder of millions of people. By contrast, 108 detainees have been reported killed in U.S. custody since 2001, with 34 of those suspected or confirmed homicides resulting from harsh interrogations. (It is important to note, however, that an estimated 655,000 excess deaths of Iraqis have occurred since 2003, the vast majority of which were civilian deaths.)
Points of Difference
There are, of course, important differences. Nazi lawyers adopted a political ideology cast in terms of race, blood, and more generally, the people (volk). The good of the volknot of individual Germanswas given precedence over other considerations and Nazi jurists viewed the Führer as the embodiment of the peoples will. This has no analog among the members of the Bush- Cheney legal team.
Another difference is that in the case of Germany, the Reichstag never recovered independent power until after the war. In the case of the U.S. elections of 2006, the Democratic party succeeded in winning a majority. Whether or not they will be willing to roll back the gains in power made by the executive branch since 2001 remains to be seen.
So far, the results have been mixed. While the Senate Judiciary Committee has begun investigating the Justice Departments domestic policies, they are not likely to repeal the Military Commissions Act or reinstate habeas corpus rights for aliens.
Despite these distinctions, the lengthy list of similarities should concern those who cherish a democratic system of checks and balances. It should also give pause to those who value the rule of international law.
It would be fair to note that the Bush-Cheney administration represents one end of a relatively narrow political spectrum in the U.S., which at the supposed liberal end is represented by the Clinton administration and new Democrats such as John Kerry. It is worth remembering that extraordinary rendition was developed by the Clinton administration in the mid-1990s following the Oklahoma City bombing (even though that tragedy was orchestrated by Americans). Furthermore, the regime change policy towards Iraq was first formalized when Clinton signed into law the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. It was also William Cohen (Clintons defense secretary) who noted that the U.S. would make unilateral use of military power to ensure uninhibited access to key markets, energy, supplies, and strategic resources.
John Kerry, days before the 2004 presidential elections, told the Boston Globe, I do not think the United States should join the International Criminal Court . U.S. officials, including soldiers, should be provided some protection, presumably from those seeking to apply the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention against Torture. Never did the new Democrat display concern for providing protection to civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, much less to those illegally detained at Guantanamo.
How does Alberto Gonzales fit into this picture? He has been deeply involved in the creation of enemy combatant policies, the torture memos, legal justifications for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the escalation of extraordinary rendition policies. He has also been deeply involved in other policies that have dramatically expanded presidential powerthrough warrantless surveillance and in firing U.S. attorneys for apparently political reasons.
Gonzales and a handful of others pursued an unprecedented power grab on behalf of Bush and Cheney to the point that some establishment conservatives describe their policies as reminiscent of the kingly abuses that provoked the Declaration of Independence.
The conservative Financial Times of Londontypically understated in its approachrecently summarized Gonzaless career by reminding readers that As attorney-general, he is meant to be the peoples lawyernot the presidents . [H]e has provided spurious legal justifications for government torture, detentions, and surveillance policies, parts of which have been found to violate U.S. and international law and the U.S. constitution . [Mr. Gonzales] has amply proved that he will never be anything other than Mr. Bushs lawyera mere apologist for the imperial presidency.
As the U.S. attorney firings scandal unfolds, it is important to view it and other domestic abuses as part of a broader authoritarian project orchestrated by Gonzales and other unitary executive theorists. Most recently, this has included the creation of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 by the Bush-Cheney legal team and key members of the U.S. Senate. (It was passed into law by Congress last fall as a response to Supreme Court decisions that checked the presidents power to hold detainees indefinitely without charge.) The MCA terminates the writ of habeas corpus for non-citizens, grants the president the right to label persons enemy combatants thereby stripping them of their legal rights, and grant retroactive immunity for government officials who authorized or ordered acts of torture or abuse.
Those who know Gonzales describe him as a pleasant person. Yet in his institutional roles, he and his colleagues have paved the way for the suppression of civil liberties, the brutal interrogation of prisoners, and a war of aggression acts that violate international law and the U.S. Constitution.
Roberto J. González is associate professor of anthropology at San Jose State University. His most recent book is Anthropologists in the Public Sphere: Speaking Out on War, Peace, and American Power (2004).
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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
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MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
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MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
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MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
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LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
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CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
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NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
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ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
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LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
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LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
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WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
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HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
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SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
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WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
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POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
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VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
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OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
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COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.