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A day of reckoning for Bush's 'torture' lawyers

Attorney General Eric Holder must follow the gold standard of Nuremburg.

By Ronald Sokol / July 29, 2009

Aix en Provence, France

Under even the most dire conditions, there is a gold standard when it comes to applying the rule of law. It was set 65 years ago by a former attorney general of the United States. At issue today is whether the current attorney general will uphold that standard.

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Eric Holder must decide whether to pursue Bush administration lawyers and one sitting federal judge who set the legal stage for officially sanctioned torture and other degrading practices that violated fundamental principles of international law. As Mr. Holder wrestles with this decision, he must consider the gold standard set by his predecessor Robert Jackson at Nuremberg.

As World War II drew to a close and the defeat of Nazi Germany became certain, leaders debated what to do with the Nazis. The Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, argued that 50,000 German general staff officers should be executed.

In February 1945 at the Yalta Conference, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill favored shooting all the Nazi leaders. In April, French Gen.Charles de Gaulle came out in favor of a trial. The British continued to push for summary executions.

After President Harry Truman took office, he opposed executions and supported the idea of creating an international tribunal to try the war criminals. Soon after Italian leader Benito Mussolini was shot and German leader Adolf Hitler committed suicide, the United States assumed leadership in the creation of a new international court to "expand international penal law beyond the traditional limits of the laws of war."

On May 2 Truman appointed Robert Jackson as chief counsel to prepare the indictment of the Nazi leaders for atrocities and war crimes. Jackson felt strongly that it had to be scrupulously fair. "You must put no man on trial before anything that is called a court if you are not willing to see him freed if proven not guilty."

His opening statement set the tone for the trials:

"That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to reason.... We must summon such detachment and intellectual integrity to our task that this trial will commend itself to posterity as fulfilling humanity's aspirations to do justice."

Most, but not all, of the 21 defendants were convicted.

Some observers say that US government employees who carried out acts that the United States had previously called torture (when done by employees of other governments) should be left in peace because they were following orders.