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Biden State Dept. Nominee Demanded Prosecution of Bush and Cheney for War Crimes

Sarah Margon pushed for investigations into Bush officials for ‘crimes against humanity’

Sarah Margon / Getty Images
• April 28, 2021 5:00 am

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President Joe Biden’s nominee for human-rights chief at the State Department has called on the Hague to investigate U.S. armed forces and former Bush administration officials for alleged "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity" related to the war on terror, a stance that conflicts with the Biden administration's stated opposition to the international court probe.

Sarah Margon, Biden’s nominee for assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, was the Washington, D.C., director for Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the foreign policy director at the Open Society Foundations. She has advocated prosecuting U.S. officials in foreign criminal courts over the CIA’s enhanced interrogation programs and other activities in Afghanistan—a position at odds with the Biden administration’s stance that could draw scrutiny ahead of Margon’s Senate confirmation hearing.

The Hague, also known as the International Criminal Court, launched an investigation last year into U.S. military and government officials for supposed "war crimes of torture and cruel treatment," prompting the Trump administration to institute sanctions and a visa ban against ICC officials.

The Biden administration lifted the sanctions earlier this month but continues to oppose the ICC’s efforts to prosecute U.S. officials.

"We continue to disagree strongly with the ICC's actions relating to the Afghanistan and Palestinian situations," said Secretary of State Antony Blinken in April. "We maintain our longstanding objection to the Court’s efforts to assert jurisdiction over personnel of non-States Parties such as the United States and Israel."

Margon slammed the sanctions last year while she was working at the Open Society Foundations, arguing for the necessity of the ICC probe.

"It has never been so clear that we need to hold U.S. government officials accountable for their actions. Today’s economic sanctions against the International Criminal Court represent an attack on the institutions that offer hope when governments fail to provide that accountability—as well as a stunning betrayal of some of the best traditions of U.S. foreign policy," Margon said in a statement.

She also wrote on Twitter that "Visa bans are for war criminals & corrupt individuals, not those trying to uncover & expose their abuse. Shame on the US."

During Margon’s time at HRW in 2015, the group called on the Justice Department and foreign governments to investigate Bush administration officials—including President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—for "conspiracy to torture as well as other crimes."

Former Bush Department of Justice official John Yoo, who was also named in the HRW report as a target for prosecution, told the Washington Free Beacon that Margon’s nomination was a signal of a larger foreign policy problem within the Biden administration.

"Sadly, it is an example of the lack of seriousness that the Biden administration is nominating figures like this to lead our foreign policy, and who think (much like the withdrawal from Afghanistan) that they can wish away the world’s difficult problems with tweets and rhetoric," said Yoo.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R., Wyo.), a defender of the Bush administration’s enhanced interrogation program and daughter of former vice president Cheney, said Margon "has a record of prioritizing the interests of terrorists over the security of the United States."

"President Biden is already jeopardizing America's safety by cutting the defense budget while our adversaries make advances. Now he is sending the message that we will give cover to those who want to do us harm. That is wrong and undermines American security," Cheney told the Free Beacon.

During Margon’s time as Washington director at HRW, the group argued that the CIA’s terrorist interrogation methods, such as waterboarding, fell within the legal definition of torture and should be treated as a crime. Defenders of the techniques maintain that the CIA tactics were legal and effective at eliciting information from high-value terrorist detainees, such as senior al Qaeda leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

"Dear AG Holder, All we want for xmas is a criminal investigation into torture," wrote Margon in a Dec. 22, 2014, Twitter post, linking to an HRW letter asking then-attorney general Eric Holder to appoint an independent prosecutor.

In a 2015 report, HRW argued that foreign governments should take steps to prosecute former U.S. officials involved with the interrogation program who enter their countries.

"To All Foreign Governments: Exercise jurisdiction, including universal jurisdiction, as provided under domestic and international law, to investigate and, evidence permitting, prosecute US officials alleged to have been involved in criminal offenses against detainees in violation of international law," the group recommended in its 2015 report, "No More Excuses: A Roadmap to Justice for CIA Torture."

The report called on foreign governments to "gather evidence to facilitate future prosecution of US officials should such officials enter their territory" and take steps "to ensure that all relevant national agencies, including immigration, police, and prosecutorial authorities, are able to monitor, investigate, and prosecute US officials and others implicated in CIA torture should they enter the country."

Margon did not return a request for comment.