Vice President Dick Cheney, center, and senior administration officials, June 4, 2008. (Reuters/Larry Downing)
Americans have been facing a number of momentous deadlines, including the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the “sequester” of $1 trillion from federal programs. But another critical deadline is fast approaching without attracting much notice. Statutes of limitations applicable to possible crimes committed by former President George W. Bush and his top aides, with respect to wiretapping of Americans without court approval and to fraud in launching and continuing the Iraq War, may expire in early 2014, less than a year from now.
President Bush has publicly admitted to authorizing wiretaps of Americans on more than thirty separate occasions without a court order, an apparent violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). In justification, Bush claimed legal advice exempted him as commander-in-chief from obeying FISA. Normally, a lawyer’s advice is not a defense to prosecution, particularly when the client shapes the advice. Here, the White House worked closely with Justice Department lawyer John Yoo on the legal opinion and blocked standard Justice Department review, even though the opinion was seriously flawed according to Yoo’s successors. The opinion bears the hallmarks of a handy stay-out-of-jail card, instead of a serious independent analysis prepared and relied upon in good faith.
Because secrecy still surrounds the Bush wiretaps, we don’t know the dates on which they may have ended and therefore cannot calculate exactly when the five-year statute of limitations expires. Assuming that the warrantless wiretapping ended when Bush left office on January 20, 2009, the statute would run out on January 20, 2014.
President Bush and his team may have also violated the Conspiracy to Defraud the United States statute, which was used to prosecute top officials in the Watergate and Iran/Contra scandals. Together with others in his administration, he made many misstatements to Congress about the Iraq War. In one noteworthy example, just before the invasion, he notified Congress that the invasion met conditions it had set for an attack, including that it was aimed at persons or nations that “planned” or “aided” the 9/11 attacks. But neither Saddam Hussein nor Iraq planned or aided the attacks of 9/11.
The five-year statute of limitations for defrauding the US started running the day President Bush left office, because the Iraq War was undertaken not just to remove Saddam Hussein and install a new government but also, as the former president explained, to secure “victory” and create a “stable” Iraq, an effort that lasted through the end of Bush’s second term. That means the statue of limitations will expire on January 20, 2014.
Since no prosecutions can be brought after the statutes run out, unless investigations are started soon, any crimes that did occur will go unprosecuted and unpunished, deeply entrenching the principle of impunity for top officials. This would be shameful for our country and strike at the heart of the rule of law