It did not take long. On January 20, the very day of the swearing-in of Barack Obama as the new president of the United States, Germany’s ZDF public television broadcast a report in which UN “torture rapporteur” Manfred Nowak called for the new American administration to prosecute outgoing President Bush and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on torture charges. As touched upon in my recent PJM article “Dubious UN ‘Expert’ Misrepresents Guantánamo — Again,” Nowak has made a name for himself in recent years by militating for the closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention center. He first came to broad public attention in 2006, when, in a highly publicized UN report, he accused the U.S. of practicing torture at Guantánamo.
His most recent comments were included as part of a segment on the ZDF news magazine Frontal21. The entire segment treats as established fact that it was U.S. government policy to use torture under the Bush administration. Thus in the intro, Frontal21 host Theo Koll declares, “Under [Obama's] predecessor America tortured detainees, even if for George Bush these were to the very end only ‘harsh interrogation methods.’” The narration that follows speaks of “the Bush administration’s legacy of torture and lawlessness in the fight against terror.” It is hardly surprising, then, that Nowak (as paraphrased by Koll) should conclude that “Obama is legally obligated to undertake criminal proceedings against Bush and Co.” Since it is treated as given throughout that America tortured and that the torture was a systematic practice approved — or, as the narrator puts it, “legalized” — by the Bush administration, this is in fact a foregone conclusion.
Besides Nowak, the other “experts” whose opinions are canvassed by Frontal21 are the German lawyer Wolfgang Kaleck and a representative of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). In 2006, Kaleck’s Berlin-based Union of Republican Lawyers (RAV) and the CCR jointly filed a “war crimes” complaint against Donald Rumsfeld in Germany. (On the German complaint, see my contemporaneous report here.)
The ZDF report repeatedly suggests, moreover, that waterboarding was one of the “harsh” interrogation methods approved by the Pentagon. For added dramatic effect, video images are shown of an apparent Gitmo detainee in an orange jumpsuit writhing as he undergoes the treatment. In fact, however, a request by Army interrogators to use waterboarding was expressly refused by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. (See the relevant memorandum here.) The source of the “writhing detainee” footage is given as Current TV. It is nowhere indicated that the “writhing detainee” is in fact Current TV reporter Kaj Larsen and that the scene comes from a would-be “reenactment.”