The UK barrister trying to put Rumsfeld in the dock
Philippe Sands QC has persuaded a US judicial committee to investigate the Bush administration for war crimes. He talks to Ben Silverstone
IN THE years following 9/11, the government lawyer has gone missing. While myriad legal opinions are proffered by politicians to counter accusations of war crimes or human-rights abuses, when it comes to apportioning moral or legal blame, the lawyer, Macavity-like, is just not there. Perhaps it takes a lawyer to catch a lawyer. In his new book, Torture Team, Philippe Sands, a QC and professor of law at University College London, has tracked down the high-ranking American government attorneys — the socalled “torture team” — who advised the then US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, in his authorisation of the infamous “enhanced interrogation techniques” at Guantanamo Bay.
Since renounced by the Bush White House, these methods were employed with particular brutality against Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Guantanamo detainee and suspected high-ranking al Qaida member. On the basis of interviews with top legal officials, Sands has assembled detailed evidence to point to the individual responsibility within the “torture team” for possible war crimes in connection with these interrogations.
So compelling is Sands’s account that, after publication last month of a Vanity Fair magazine article based on the book, the Judicial Committee of the US House of Representatives has taken notice. This is the body responsible for the impeachment of federal officials — it acted against President Richard Nixon in 1974 over Watergate, and against President Bill Clinton 24 years later.
As Sands says, the response of the committee could have major implications for the individuals discussed in Torture Team. “The committee is inviting all the characters in the upper echelons of the story I tell to appear before them in their investigations into torture and international law. The House is focusing on questions of cover-up and perjury. Did the administration lie? Did it mislead? Did it push for aggressive interrogation techniques and then present a story in the context of Abu Ghraib which claimed that the request trickled up from the bottom?
“I will be a principal witness on May 6 — testifying with me is a guy called Larry Wilkerson who was [former Secretary of State] Colin Powell’s chief of staff throughout this period. He has gone on the record to say that war crimes were committed and that some of these people must bear responsibility.”
Sands himself is cagier on the question of prosecution, acknowledging that a recent immunity law passed in the US currently saves those involved from criminal responsibility at home. But, he notes: “If one of the incidental consequences of the book is that individuals like [former General Counsel of the Department of Defence] Jim Haynes no longer feel able to travel outside the United States, I won’t be unhappy about that.”
Indeed, he has passed on documents and testimony relating to the allegations in Torture Team to a senior European prosecutor and judge who have suggested that there might be grounds for prosecutions outside America.
But Sands denies that building a case against pre-selected individuals was his plan. “Governments don’t take decisions; people do. What I wanted was to get into the minutiae of this narrative, to identify the people involved and construct the whole story. So I focused on a single memo, the one signed by Donald Rumsfeld on December 2 2002, to authorise these new interrogation techniques, and followed the track of decision-making leading up to it.”
And it is an intriguing trail. Linking the army, the FBI and several departments of state, the story is one of rivalry, scapegoating and buck-passing, fuelled by overpowering political demands and the ambitions of individuals who subverted policy-making procedures for their own ends. It was a process that at times left Sands “incensed” at the cruel techniques which may well have elicited no useful intelligence at all — and with the “ideology and incompetence” of the members of the legal hierarchy.
“These are ideological people who saw 9/11 as a chance to do away with the international legal order. They were also serially inept — Doug Feith, head of policy at the Pentagon, simply never turned his mind to the consequences for American soldiers of dismissing these international rules.”
Given Sands’s careerlong commitment to international law — involvement in the Pinochet case as a barrister, condemnation of American breaches of international law in his earlier book Lawless World — you cannot help wondering why many of the interviewees agreed to meet him. Sands agrees. “It’s amazing. Many of these people had never talked to anyone before. I really appreciated that they met with me — they didn’t need to. I think it’s because I’m not an American and I’m not a journalist. Perhaps the QC thing provided an increased level of comfort.”
Torture Team throws up a piquant irony. That a single lawyer, armed only with an English accent and his professional accreditation, may have extracted more valuable information than those Guantanamo interrogators whose practices have left such a heavy moral legacy. The Torture Team is published by Penguin, priced £20
President Bush’s former Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, is targeted by Philippe Sands’s investigation
Philippe Sands: a principal witness