and Cynthia L. Cooper
Beacon Press, $26.95
Elizabeth Holtzman, a Harvard Law graduate and the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, served on the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate and was district attorney of Kings County (Brooklyn). Now, she and her co-author, the journalist and attorney Cynthia L. Cooper, have written a real eye-opener, “Cheating Justice: How Bush and Cheney Attacked the Rule of Law and Plotted to Avoid Prosecution — and What We Can Do About It.” In clear, fact-based prose, they have laid out the basis of possible criminal charges against former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney. Ms. Holtzman believes they are still legally prosecutable for the following crimes:
Purposeful false statements in the 2003 State of the Union Message.
Purposeful false statements to Congress in a letter of determination to go to war against Iraq.
Violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 regarding the right to privacy of Americans.
Violation of international standards and laws, as well as of the U.S. Constitution, regarding torture.
Furthermore, the authors add the charge that the Bush-Cheney team and their supporters engaged in actions both nationally and internationally to prevent investigations and to suppress information regarding their illegal activities. The authors charge they systematically set out to modify applicable laws to provide loopholes for their defense in order to keep themselves from being convicted should their acts ever be investigated and prosecuted.
They were apparently confident in the success of their efforts. Ms. Holtzman and Ms. Cooper document that Bush and Cheney openly admitted that they ordered and approved tactics including torture, or as they put it, “enhanced interrogation tactics,” of detainees held indefinitely without formal charges or due process.
During the recent presidential election, there was much talk from both parties about upholding the Constitution, restoring America to its accustomed prestige on the world stage, being proud of America and its values, and keeping America strong. If any one of the accusations against Bush-Cheney put forth by Ms. Holtzman and Ms. Cooper is partially true, the country’s integrity has been severely undermined by the former administration. If the charges are mostly or all true, the damage to the country in the long run will extend far into the future.
“Cheating Justice” was released nearly a year ago. I live among and socialize with people who, I believe, are politically aware and interested in a strong America, and who would tend to be interested in the hypotheses and information contained in this book. After reading the book in preparation for this review, I realized how important its questions are. And the answers to the questions are even more relevant to the future of our country. Since I likely would not have read the book had The Star not asked me to review it, I decided to survey some friends to see if they were more informed. A few thought they had heard about the book. No one I talked to, however, had participated in one conversation about Elizabeth Holtzman or the book.
Then I checked the World Wide Web and could not find a review of the book done by a major print magazine or newspaper. I found a YouTube video about Ms. Holtzman’s appearance at Hunter College and several Internet news pieces about how important but overlooked the book is. The process has left me shaken, more worried about my country and more vexed about my own lack of participation in what we call “our democracy.”
During Watergate, the White House counsel John Dean cautioned President Nixon about the spreading of lawlessness from the White House into the whole country. According to the Nixon tapes, Mr. Dean said, “We have a cancer within — close to the presidency, that’s growing.” Ms. Holtzman and Ms. Cooper point out in this book that a new cancer, a milieu of lying, deceit, and abuse of power similar in some ways to Watergate, may be more prevalent than we have admitted. The authors document abuses by the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., and I would add there may be diminishing integrity in military leadership, where bad judgment if not illegal activity has exposed weaknesses in leaders who before were held up as paragons of honesty.
The authors of “Cheating Justice” document what is, perhaps, the most shocking part of the post-Bush-Cheney years: The international community is now leading the United States in efforts to address the illegal activities conducted during the Bush-Cheney administration. They note that other countries have mounted or are mounting efforts to address the crimes those countries unwittingly became involved in due to the deception of the Bush-Cheney doublespeak. The authors state: “Mounting evidence around the world makes the transgressions of President Bush and Vice President Cheney increasingly difficult to ignore in the United States.” Accountability efforts have already occurred in Spain, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, and in international and regional tribunals. But many others are on hold, waiting for the United States to put its own house in order, although “Italy did prosecute and convict C.I.A. officers in absentia for plucking a Muslim cleric off the streets and sending him to Egypt to be tortured.”
Former President Clinton’s indiscretions and then his lies about his behavior embarrassed the nation, but not since Watergate has there been so much potential for presidential behavior to endanger the confidence of both Americans and the world in the ability of the United States to participate in a viable international community. Instead of leading the world toward international standards of law, the U.S. has fallen behind, refusing to join the International Criminal Court, which opened at the Hague in 2002 to try individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. As the authors note, “At stake . . . is nothing less than preserving the oxygen that keeps democracy going — and that is the rule of law.”
Four years ago, when Bush left office, 25 percent of the general population of the United States believed the Bush administration was guilty of war crimes, while 70 percent believed it would be “bad” should top leaders be brought up on charges. These figures partially explain why this book has been largely ignored, although I have to admit the flicker of a conspiracy theory has flitted through my mind. Not one single print magazine or newspaper besides The Star has, at this point, bothered to review a very competently written book by a well-known political figure. (The accuracy of this statement has been verified by Beacon Press.) I am in no way underestimating the importance of any local paper such as The Star. I’m asking, why has our country not taken note of such a competent and important book?
Barack Obama, for his part, has just duplicated the feat of George W. Bush, having been elected and sworn in for his second term of office. Ms. Holtzman and Ms. Cooper point out that his efforts to address the crimes that may have been committed in the prior administration have been halfhearted at best. The book does not directly address the reasons. Is it better simply to move on and forget the past, as has been claimed by some?
During an appearance in 2008 on MSNBC, Jonathan Turley, a constitutional lawyer, said, “It is truly amazing because Congress — including Democrats — have avoided any type of investigation into torture because they do not want to deal with the fact the president ordered war crimes. . . . I never thought I would say this, but I think it might in fact be time for the United States to be held internationally to a tribunal.”
“Cheating Justice” implies, without stating explicitly, some disturbing questions. Given the emergent ability of small organizations not officially allied with a specific country to wreak havoc on the general citizenry of the United States, do we, the people, agree to grant our leaders leeway to step over historic rights of privacy and due process in their attempts to provide security? Have we, by our silence, been complicit in acts of torture and illegal detention? Have we thereby helped to advance our country toward “post-democracy,” where our leaders may do what they deem best for us even if their action takes them outside the law as long as that action is in the guise of promoting “a greater good”?
That was the very reason President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney gave for the behavior that Ms. Holtzman lists as criminal and prosecutable.
Gary Reiswig is the author of “The Thousand Mile Stare: One Family’s Journey Through the Struggle and Science of Alzheimer’s.” He lives in Springs.
Elizabeth Holtzman has a house in Orient.