Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Nature of Treason

I had wanted to avoid a Fitzmas discussion today, but the discussion about Cheney's role in Plamegate, in the Times and in Kos beg a response, especially in light of the sure to be denials on the part of conservatives.

So I ask my self, "What is treason?" Aaron Burr comes to mind. If this definition from Wikipedia bears any truth, the colloquial way it's been used to describe Treasongate may be quite fitting:

In law, treason is the crime of disloyalty to one's nation. A person who betrays the nation of their citizenship and/or reneges on an oath of loyalty and in some way willfully cooperates with an enemy, is considered to be a traitor. Oran's Dictionary of the Law (1983) defines treason as: "...[a]...citizen's actions to help a foreign government overthrow, make war against, or seriously injure the [parent nation]." It is also generally considered treason to attempt or conspire to overthrow the government...

United States

To avoid the abuses of the English law (including executions by Henry VIII of those who criticized his repeated marriages), treason was specifically defined in the United States Constitution, the only crime so defined. Article Three defines treason as only levying war against the United States or "in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort," and requires the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act or a confession in open court for conviction. This safeguard may not be foolproof since Congress could pass a statute creating treason-like offences with different names (such as sedition, bearing arms against the state, etc.) which do not require the testimony of two witnesses, and have a much wider definition than Article Three treason. For example, some well-known spies have generally been convicted of espionage rather than treason. In the United States Code the penalty ranges from "shall suffer death" to "shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States."

In the history of the United States there have been fewer than forty federal prosecutions for treason and even fewer convictions. Several men were convicted of treason in connection with the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion but were pardoned by President George Washington. The most famous treason trial, that of Aaron Burr in 1807, resulted in acquittal. Politically motivated attempts to convict opponents of the Jeffersonian Embargo Acts and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 all failed. Significantly, after the American Civil War, no person involved with the Confederate States of America was charged with treason, and only one major Confederate official, the commandant of the Andersonville prison, who was charged with war crimes, was charged with anything at all. The failure to prosecute Confederates was mostly due to the words and actions of President Abraham Lincoln, who considered peace and unity more important than vengeance. During the war, Lincoln issued a proclamation of amnesty for Confederates, and in his second inaugural address (1865) pleaded for a reconciliation "with malice toward none, with charity for all."

Several people generally thought of as traitors in the United States, such as the Walker Family, or Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were not prosecuted for treason per se, but rather for espionage. John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban" fighter in Afghanistan, was also thought of as a traitor by many. However, instead of being tried for treason, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder US nationals, aiding the Taliban and terrorist offences relating to Al Qaeda, even though he joined the Taliban before September 11, 2001, in the period when the Bush administration was aiding the Taliban to help their destruction of the opium crop.

The argument could well be made the Richard Cheney might have committed treason: it is an act during war time, his acts gave aid and comfort to the enemy if there were assets compromised, and indeed it looks like two witnesses might be able to be found for it.

Of course, whether or not Patrick Fitzgerald really goes for the Powerball charge is not known, and in my estimation, highly, highly unlikely. It only happened once before -with Burr.

But I'm sure then, as now, there was massive denial that Burr was a traitor.

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