Reviewing Marjorie Cohn’s “Cowboy Republic”

Marjorie Cohn is a distinguished law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego where she’s taught since 1991 and is the current president of the National Lawyers Guild.  She’s also been a criminal defense attorney at the trial and appellate levels, is an author, and has written many articles for professional journals, other publications, and for noted web sites such as Global Research, ZNet, CounterPunch, AfterDowning Street, Common Dreams, AlterNet and others.  Her long record of achievements, distinctions and awards is broad and varied for her teaching, writing and her work as a lawyer and activist for peace, social and economic justice.


Cohn’s latest book just published, and subject of this review, is titled “Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law.”  It provides a thorough, impressive and incisive account of the most important ways the Bush administration defied, defiled and weakened the rule of law and by so doing hurtled the nation toward tyranny.  This book is an essential guide to their lawless record, its threat to the nation and world, and the desperate need to confront it, challenge it and remove it from office before it’s too late.  The stakes couldn’t be greater – the fate of the republic hangs by a thread as well as all humanity if people of conscience fail to act and swiftly.  Cohn’s book lays out the problem clearly.  The rest is up to us.


Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, introduces what’s to follow in his brief introduction to Cohn’s book. In it, he states the most important lesson of the disastrous Iraq war is that “adherence to international law serves the national (as well as) human interest in time of war.” More than at any other time, with the nation at war, US presidents can practically operate as dictators outside the normally constraining check and balancing influences of the other two branches of government, when they choose to use them.


For the past six and a half years, they’ve been nowhere in sight, and George Bush took full advantage. He’s defied constitutional and international law with arrogance and impunity including the Nuremberg Principles defining what constitutes a war crime.  Falk quotes its chief prosecutor, Justice Robert Jackson, saying ….”the record on which we judge these (Nazi) defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow.”  Throughout our history, pre and post-Nuremberg, this nation broke the “Nuremberg promise….repeatedly” but never to the degree as under George Bush. That’s the legacy he’ll pass to future administrations they’ll have to live with and confront as an obstacle in an attempt to move ahead. Their job won’t be easy.




Cohn begins her book with a definition of “cowboy” applicable to George Bush – one “who undertakes a dangerous or sensitive task needlessly.” Other definitions refer to someone who’s “reckless, aggressive or irresponsible.”  Those characterizations pretty much sum up the record of the current President who won’t go down in history like the legendary heros who won the West and most dictionaries say are “hired hands who tend cattle and perform other duties on horseback” on the range “where the deer and antelope play.”


Despite our nominal constitutional protections, Cohn recounts how the history of the country was marked by abuses of power going back to the Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams. They were enacted to stifle dissent in time of possible war, but, in fact, were used against Republican opponents to deny them what Jefferson called “the highest form of patriotism” – the right to dissent. 


Our reputed greatest President, Abraham Lincoln, followed in Adams‘ tradition during the Civil War.  He suspended habeas and other civil liberties, instituted an unfair draft, blatantly abused his power overall and functioned ad libitum as a virtual dictator. Woodrow Wilson was no different, and so was Franklin Roosevelt, both of whom justified their right to set aside constitutional protections in time of war.  No evidence suggests doing it helped. There’s plenty, however, to prove they weakened the republic making it easier for future Presidents to take even greater liberties interpreting the law as they wished. Enter George Bush. Case closed.


Cohn notes that few Americans understand international law, or the Constitution either, for that matter, aside from some pro forma words they can recite perfunctorily but not explain.  They also don’t know international law is US law as well under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. It states all treaties “shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” They include the UN Charter, four Geneva Conventions, the UN Convention Against Torture banning any form of the practice at all times for any reason, and all other treaties the nation signs.  Sadly, Cohn observes, constitutional and international law “didn’t prevent a series of executive branch violations in the 1960s (under Lyndon Johnson mostly) and 1970s (egregiously under Richard Nixon) when the executive branch” operated outside the limits of the law they were sworn to uphold but didn’t.


Cohn then gets into the meat of her important book recounting George Bush’s six specific appalling abuses of power still raging unrestrained out of control and in recent days got even worse as explained below.


A War of Aggression


International law bans premeditated aggressive war under any conditions.  The UN Charter clearly states a nation may only use force under two conditions: when authorized to do it by the Security Council or under Article 51 that allows the “right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member….until the Security Council has taken measures to maintain international peace and security.” In other words, self-defense is permissible but an unprovoked attack on another nation violates sacred international law and constitutes what the Nuremberg Charter called “the supreme international crime against peace.”


Clear evidence exists that the Bush administration intended to attack Afghanistan and Iraq prior to 9/11. All that was needed (as laid out in 2000 by the neoconservative Project for a New American Century – PNAC) was “some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a New Pearl Harbor” to militarize the nation and wage aggressive war.  On 9/11, the Bush administration got its wish and “swung into action” by going to war based on deceit and lies about invalid threats and for reasons other than stated. 


Former CIA head of counterintelligence, Vincent Cannistraro, later acknowledged it was based on “cooked intelligence.”  And CIA analyst Michael Scheuer said the agency was resigned “that we were going to war” and no facts or analysis would stop it. In addition, an August 6 John Conyers-ordered report found that “members of the Bush administration misstated, overstated, and manipulated intelligence with regards to linkages between Iraq and Al Queda; the acquisition of nuclear weapons” along with other lies to justify war including so-called WMDs known not to exist years earlier.


In July, 2002, the New York Times got access to a highly classified document titled “CentCom Courses of Action” containing what the Pentagon called a “war plan” to invade Iraq.  It began in earnest as a secret air war in May, 2002 that by end of August “had become a full air offensive,” according to the London Sunday Times.  British MI 6 chief Richard Dearlove then revealed the secret contents of the so-called Downing Street memo based on a July, 2002 Washington meeting where “the facts (to justify war with Iraq) were being fixed around the policy.” 


Earlier on September 18, 2001, the administration set off on the road to war with the joint House-Senate resolution passage of the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF).  It authorized “the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States.” Then in October, 2002, Congress surrendered its authority to George Bush by passing the Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces Against Iraq to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat of Iraq.” Republicans and Democrats acted together knowing Iraq posed no threat and that its action violated the UN Charter.


Cohn explains the real motive behind attacking, invading and occupying Iraq that by now a bright ten year old understands. Paul Wolfowitz finally admitted using WMDs as an excuse was “for bureaucratic reasons” and the one pretext everyone could agree on. He later had to admit what everyone already knew. The real issue is oil and the fact that Iraq potentially has more of the cheap light sweet easily accessible kind than any other country on earth, including Saudi Arabia. One Wall Street oil analyst calls the country “the most valuable real estate on the planet” and the last of the “low-hanging fruit.”


Solidifying a huge military presence in the region is also key with the US well-entrenched now on 106 known sites, including four super bases (with more planned) as large as small towns and with all their amenities, and a Vatican-sized largest embassy in the world. The Middle East is where two-thirds of proved oil reserves are located, and that fact was never lost on present and prior US planners.  Notions of WMDs, removing a dictator, protecting national security, preventive self-defense, establishing democracy and conducting a humanitarian mission were all concocted rubbish.  Sadly, it was believed by most people and too many still do, the result of lots of forced-fed dominant media hyperventilating help round the clock and on board with the administration to the bitter end for an illegal venture gone sour.


Along with so many other violations of international law, Cohn noted the Bush administration ignored the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that’s part of US law “under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution.” Article I (1) says: “All people have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they (can) freely determine their political status and  (can) freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” Cohn stated the US had no “legal authority to intervene in the affairs of the Iraqi people and choose their leadership for them.”


The Bush administration set about doing it in March, 2003.  It followed the secret air war it waged months earlier as a softening up action for the “shock and awe” to come that the New York Times praised as “almost (having) biblical power.”  The entire corporate media also ignored the use of illegal weapons like depleted uranium, white phosphorous, and cluster bombs that keep killing and maiming long after the end of battle. In addition, experimental weapons are freely used, some targeting innocent civilians to inflict terror, and all intended to subdue a population hostile to a foreign occupier.


These are “weapons of mass destruction,” stated Cohn. She also cited the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in time of War (Geneva IV). It calls “willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body and health” a grave breach of law.  The Bush administration deliberately flouts the law and “is committing war crimes with its use of these weapons.”  The result since March, 2003 alone has been mass deaths in appallingly high numbers, immeasurable human misery and suffering, and destruction on an enormous scale – all of which is still ongoing daily with innocent civilians afflicted most.


Has it made the US and world safer? Hardly, by any measure and quite the opposite, in fact, according to an April, 2006 National Intelligence Estimate Cohn quoted.  It stated the Iraq conflict became “a ’cause celebre’ for jihadists, breeding deep resentment (against the US) in the Muslim world (and) shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives.”  In committing “the supreme international crime against peace” against two nations, the US has become “the greatest menace of our times,” quoting Nuremberg chief Justice Robert Jackson’s reference to the crime of aggression and by implication any nation committing it.


The Torture of Prisoners


Post-9/11, “the gloves came off” said former CIA Counterterrorism Center chief, Cofer Black, now part of the paramilitary mercenary operation at Blackwater, USA operating freely outside the law as thuggish hired guns in Iraq, New Orleans and coming soon to a neighborhood near you. Cohn noted “Soon after 9/11, senior administration lawyers wrote memoranda to redefine and justify torture” along with most everything else they planned outside domestic and international law. George Bush announced Geneva Conventions didn’t apply to Guantanamo prisoners, and Alberto Gonzales (as White House legal council) sweepingly called them “quaint” and “obsolete” in 2002.  What they had in mind is anything goes and that includes torture even though it’s widely known not to elicit useful information. It’s also known as an effective terror weapon and a useful means of social control. 


The practice is also abhorrent and violates at least two US laws – the 1996 War Crimes Act and 1994 Torture Statute. That’s along with numerous widely accepted international ones, even though all too frequently many countries, including so-called “civilized” ones, don’t observe them.  We all know what happened since from the appalling abuses at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and at secret CIA and Pentagon ‘black sites” around the world. They’re in countries known to use torture and are now in league with US agencies doing it for whatever favors they’re getting in return.


Cohn reviewed some of the laws banning torture including the 1994 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment than bans mistreatment as well as torture. The US is also “party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)” that guarantees the right to life and prohibits cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. She then notes “the most famous anti-torture treaties are the four Geneva Conventions (of 1949). The first two provide for the protection of sick and wounded (forces in battle).” The third one defines who is a prisoner of war “and establishes minimum standards” for POW treatment.  The fourth convention applies to civilians and affords them protections during war that require they be treated humanely.


All four conventions have a common thread called Common Article Three. “It requires that persons taking no active part in hostilities (including the detained) be treated humanely at all times.”  War crimes are grave breaches under Geneva, and the 1996 War Crimes Act provides up to life imprisonment or the death penalty for persons convicted of committing war crimes within or outside the US.  Administration memos from officials like Gonzales as well as John Yoo and Jay Bybee (writing for the DOJ Office of Legal Council) advised Al-Queda and Taliban interrogators were exempt from these laws “under the President’s commander-in-chief powers.” Cohn explained “the Torture Convention permits no such exemption, even during wartime.” 


As bad or worse was narrowing and distorting definitions with Yoo and Bybee writing psychological harm must last “months or even years” to be torture. Cohn noted Yoo was the architect of the repressive Patriot Act and domestic surveillance program.  Bybee was later appointed to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit proving lawlessness is rewarded as long as lawbreakers have friends in high places.


Cohn reviewed how torture was authorized at the highest level with damning evidence from human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). They’ve shown how widespread it’s been in Iraq, Guantanamo and at all secret “black sites.” Human Rights Watch also documented that its use is “systematic” and known “at varying levels of command” with explicit testimony proving it.


The human consequences are devastating and widespread with the ICRC saying as many as 90% of persons detained were arrested by mistake.  Seton Hall University Law School professor Mark Denebeaux and others analyzed unclassified government data gotten through FOIA requests, basing their report on evidentiary summaries from 2004 military hearings.  They learned the majority of Afghan prisoners at Guantanamo weren’t accused of hostile acts and 95% of them were seized by Afghan bounty hunters who “sold” them to US forces for $5000 per claimed Taliban and $25,000 for supposed Al-Queda members.


What they endure as a result is horrific with Cohn detailing how they’re treated that’s reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition or the worst abuses under the Nazis.  They amount to a menu of “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal” acts against innocent people, including women and children. 


One particularly appalling procedure is force-feeding applied to as many as one-third of Guantanamo detainees and an unknown number of prisoners  elsewhere. The practice is so violent, it amounts to torture. Tubes, at times the thickness of fingers, are inserted in the nose and thrust all the way down throats and into stomachs causing extreme pain, vomiting up blood, and even greater pain when tubes are removed with blood gushing out in the process.


One victim of this practice described the pain as “unbearable,” and attorney Julia Tarver (representating Guantanamo clients) explained physicians violated their Hippocratic Oath to do no harm by being a part of it. The 53-nation UN Human Rights Commission also confirmed in 2006 that “doctors and other health professionals are participating in force-feeing detainees” by this method that amounts to horrific torture.


Cohn noted an August, 2004 Independent Panel to Review Department of the Defense Detention Operations report called the Schlesinger Report.  It concluded “Policies approved for use on al Queda and Taliban detainees (who never got Geneva protection but should have)….(are also) applied to detainees who did fall under” Geneva.  Another August, 2004 Army report indicated the most extreme abuses “are, without question criminal.”


They’re also done “by proxy” at “black sites” and through the illegal practice of “extraordinary rendition” with victims secretly sent to other countries where they disappear into torture-prison hellholes, out of sight and mind.  The Convention against Torture prohibits what’s called “refoulement – expelling, returning, or extraditing a person to another country where there are substantial grounds to believe he would be in danger of being tortured.” Popular sites include Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Morocco, Ethiopia and other repressive countries.  Cohn quoted a former CIA agent saying: “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria.  If you want someone to disappear….you send them to Egypt.” 


With the Bush administration earmarking $63 billion in arms sales or giveaways to client Middle East countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others, things are guaranteed to get worse and may become explosive and out of control.  Increased violence will follow deliveries and with it abusive torture and much more.


On July 19, 2007, after the publication of Cohn’s book, George Bush’s arrogance, contempt for the law and hypocrisy were on display again in one package contained in another sweeping executive order (EO). According to AP, he “breathed new life into the CIA’s terror interrogation program (aka no holds barred torture) that would allow harsh questioning of suspects limited in public only by a vaguely worded ban (signifying none whatever) on cruel and inhuman treatment.” 


The order pretends to prohibit some practices, “to quell international criticism,” describes them only vaguely, and doesn’t say what practices are still allowed.  The Bush administration insists its interrogation operation is one of its most important tools in the “war on terrorism.” Bottom line – ugly business as usual will continue unchanged and unchecked, except for the doublespeak language signifying only deception from a President exposed as a serial liar.


Summary Execution and Willful Killing


Summary executions, or extra-judicial murders, have long been practiced by past US governments with rogue agencies like CIA masters of the black art and skilled at covering its tracks.  The Bush regime cares little about subtleties, so its operatives wantonly and openly engage in this simple way of removing adversaries even though Cohn stated: “Willful killing is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions (and) punishable as a war crime under the US War Crimes Act.”

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