What kind of nutjob would accuse American leaders of war crimes?

Um, this guy -- who was a ranking official in the State Department during the Bush years:

A top adviser to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned the Bush administration that its use of “cruel, inhuman or degrading” interrogation techniques like waterboarding were “a felony war crime.”

What’s more, newly obtained documents reveal that State Department counselor Philip Zelikow told the Bush team in 2006 that using the controversial interrogation techniques were “prohibited” under U.S. law — “even if there is a compelling state interest asserted to justify them.”

Zelikow argued that the Geneva conventions applied to al-Qaida — a position neither the Justice Department nor the White House shared at the time. That made waterboarding and the like a violation of the War Crimes statute and a “felony,” Zelikow tells Danger Room. Asked explicitly if he believed the use of those interrogation techniques were a war crime, Zelikow replied, “Yes.”

Of course, after Zelikow's memo, a number of top government officials were indeed indicted and several are now in ja....ha, ha, just kidding. Instead, U.S. officials launched an effort to round up and destroy every single copy of Zelikow's memo, and they nearly succeeded. Kudos to national security blogger Spencer Ackerman and the National Security Archives at George Washington University for getting this out there.

For the inevitable comments about why I write about this "ancient" episode from the Bush years and not what a disgrace President Obama is in 2012 -- that is exactly why I write this. It's disgraceful that Obama never launched a serious criminal investigation of these acts -- as he promised me that he would when I asked him about Bush administration misconduct four years ago this month. And it's disgraceful that these lawbreakers -- who sullied America's reputation more than any other so-called "leaders" in my lifetime -- have been allowed to get away with it.

Disgraceful, but not surprising. America has reached a place where as a nation we are incapable of serious self-examination or self-criticism. It would take a cataclysmic event like the Watergate-era resignation of a president -- which led to a brief period in which everything from the JFK assassination to CIA misconduct was examined in public -- and I just don't see it happening.

In fact, I believe that our obsession with the idea of American exceptionalism has rendered us, as a nation, into the same bind as the Catholic Church. An institution based on infallibility can't admit it that it was wrong about even one thing -- barring women from the priesthood leaps to mind -- lest the masses question what else it got wrong, Just as it's impossible for the greatest, most exceptional nation on earth to have war criminals -- none above the rank of lieutenant, anyway.

The real tragic thing was that Watergate -- the scandal that marks its 40th anniversary this summer -- actually made America feel better about itself, and even feel more exceptional. That's because while Richard Nixon and his goons nearly destroyed everything, the system -- our Constitutional checks and balances, and our unique courts and prosecutors -- actually worked. No one -- not even the president -- was above the law.

Or so we believed.

That was then. The system doesn't work anymore. And our so-called leaders don't have the will to fix it. It's up to the American people, and frankly I'm not sure if we can handle the job, either.