The result is a pretty exemplary popcorn movie.
Everybody knows that murder has no statute of limitations. So although it may seem a little late to bring criminal charges against George W. Bush for his conduct in office, the evidence against him is is overwhelming and undisputed. The facts aren't in question, but now that he's no longer president the matter of what to do about them remain: How should he and his administration be held accountable for their deceit? Should Bush be prosecuted? Who has the jurisdiction to do so? And what are the proper charges? Vincent Bugliosi, the celebrated prosecutor who convicted Charles Manson, believes Bush should be tried for murder. And from the sound of it, he'd rather have a beer with Manson.
According to the same legal principles Bugliosi invoked against Manson (Title 18, Section 2B of the U.S. Code -- what he calls the "vicarious liability rule of conspiracy"), Bush is legally culpable for the deaths of more than 4,000 American military personnel and more than 100,000 civilians in Iraq:
"In other words, if Bush personally killed an American soldier, he would be guilty of murder. Under the law, he cannot immunize himself from his criminal responsibility by causing a third party to do the killing. He's still responsible. George Bush cannot sit safely in his Oval Office in Washington, D.C., while young American soldiers fighting his war are being blown to pieces by roadside bombs in Iraq, and wash his hands of all culpability. It's not quite that easy. He could only do this if he did not take this nation into war under false pretenses. If he did, which the evidence overwhelmingly shows, he is criminally responsible for the thousands of American deaths in Iraq."
The nonprofit Center for Public Inquiry has documented 935 fabrications that top members of the Bush administration fed to the public during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in March, 2003. That in itself is criminal, but there's no law that prohibits politicians from lying (you saw the first presidential debate, no?), but when the lies involve sending Americans into combat, the standards of responsibility (moral? ethical? legal?) are considerably higher than lying about your own tax plan. "The Prosecution of an American President" is based on Bugliosi's 2008 book, The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder. Some might complain that the film is "biased" or "unfair," but the title is not "The Prosecution and Defense of an American President." This is quite obviously presented as the counter-argument to the one the Bush administration originally made. It is the case for the prosecution. Watching it, I often felt that it was recycling old news, but given the misperceptions so many Americans still have, maybe I'm wrong. (As for my position on holding Bush and co. responsible for their treachery, I've been clear I think they should be given a trial, televised worldwide.)
Organized into three parts, the movie begins as a commercial for Vincent Bugliosi: great guy, best-selling nonfiction author (Helter Skelter, Outrage, The Betrayal of America), a perfect record of 21 for 21 murder convictions... (Character witnesses Alan Dershowitz, whom you may remember as Ron Silver in "Reversal of Fortune" says: "He. Will. Get. At. The. Truth.") The second part is a one-sided mock-prosecution -- essentially a stage monolog with an audience of non-voting "jurors" -- that Bugliosi conducted at his alma mater, the UCLA Law School in 2008. And the third part is devoted to his testimony before Congressman John Conyers' House Judiciary Committee in 2008.
At an hour and forty minutes, "The Prosecution of an American President" gets repetitious -- in part because Bugliosi, fiery, melodramatic figure that he is, just can't contain his outrage and the filmmakers indulge him. The movie is bloated in other ways, too. Directors Dave Hagen and David J. Burke pack the movie with hackneyed stock images to punch up Bugliosi's speechifying (Ken Burns treatments of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; stirring patriotic shots of national monuments, from the Lincoln Memorial to Mount Rushmore...), set to a richly recorded, bass-heavy horror-movie score. Photos of war carnage are sensationally juxtaposed with cheap-shot images of Bush looking goofy and having a heck of a good time. (Yes, we all know he was The Vacation President spending almost a third of his eight-year administration away from the office or on vacation, but as another famous Los Angeles law enforcement figure used to say, let's just stick to the facts, ma'am.)
Sometimes it's hard to tell if you're watching a propaganda film or a parody of one. The movie even brings in a dramatic surprise witness, the mother of a young American killed in Iraq, to declare: "George Bush murdered my son." She's well within her right to feel that way -- because Bush and his co-conspirators manipulated and distorted the facts to justify a march to war that they'd already decided upon -- but such manipulative, theatrical flourishes don't strengthen Bugliosi's case.
Let's be clear about this: Nobody could have known for certain whether Saddam had or didn't have some old Weapons of Mass Destruction hanging around from 1991, or whether he was in any position to begin reconstituting a plan to develop nuclear weapons. There was little or no evidence to suggest he did have those weapons, but that wasn't the story put forward by the administration.
"We know where they are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat."
-- Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (March 30, 2003)
"Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." -- Vice President Dick Cheney (August 26, 2002)
"Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised." -- President George W. Bush (March 18, 2003)
"No doubt"? The intelligence said no such thing, as declassified reports have shown, and those three quotations alone are enough to prove fraud. Bugliosi bases his case primarily on the infamous October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, a heavily redacted version of which (consisting of carefully selected "Key Judgments") was declassified by the Bush administration (and available to anyone on official US government web sites) in July, 2003. It contained findings from intelligence agencies regarding the probability that Saddam had WMD and was developing a nuclear weapons program -- but most contradictory findings were eliminated from the released document, which was hardly a "slam dunk" even in bowdlerized form. A few red flags were apparent, including some statements by the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, including this one:
The activities we have detected do not, however, add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing what INR would consider to be an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons. Iraq may be doing so, but INR considers the available evidence inadequate to support such a judgment. Lacking persuasive evidence that Baghdad has launched a coherent effort to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program, INR is unwilling to speculate that such an effort began soon after the departure of UN inspectors or to project a timeline for the completion of activities it does not now see happening. As a result, INR is unable to predict when Iraq could acquire a nuclear device or weapon.
In INR's view Iraq's efforts to acquire aluminum tubes is central to the argument that Baghdad is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program, but INR is not persuaded that the tubes in question are intended for use as centrifuge rotors. INR accepts the judgment of technical experts at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) who have concluded [in April, 2001] that the tubes Iraq seeks to acquire are poorly suited for use in gas centrifuges to be used for uranium enrichment and finds unpersuasive the arguments advanced by others to make the case that they are intended for that purpose.
INR turned out to be right on both counts. What's important here is not so much that Saddam turned out to have no WMD or nuclear program, but that there was no strong evidence to back up the Bush administration's assertions, which they proclaimed were fact.
More interesting, to me at least, was how the administration used a pattern of word association to create the illusion of a connection between Saddam and the attacks of 9/11/2001. As the Christian Science Monitor reported five days before the invasion in March, 2003:
In his prime-time press conference last week, which focused almost solely on Iraq, President Bush mentioned Sept. 11 eight times. He referred to Saddam Hussein many more times than that, often in the same breath with Sept. 11.
Bush never pinned blame for the attacks directly on the Iraqi president. Still, the overall effect was to reinforce an impression that persists among much of the American public: that the Iraqi dictator did play a direct role in the attacks. A New York Times/CBS poll this week shows that 45 percent of Americans believe Mr. Hussein was "personally involved" in Sept. 11, about the same figure as a month ago.
Sources knowledgeable about US intelligence say there is no evidence that Hussein played a role in the Sept. 11 attacks, nor that he has been or is currently aiding Al Qaeda. Yet the White House appears to be encouraging this false impression, as it seeks to maintain American support for a possible war against Iraq and demonstrate seriousness of purpose to Hussein's regime.
That's just a taste of Bugliosi's case against Bush and his co-conspirators. I haven't read his book, but there's quite a bit of good reporting and original source documents available on the web. (You could start with some of the links included in this post.) Unfortunately, I doubt the half of the country that is still so woefully misinformed will seek it out.
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