An international criminal conspiracy occurs, with responsibility flowing up to and including the President of the United States. Victims are brutalized in secret, lives are lost, the rule of law flouted.

But no one is prosecuted since the only law enforcement official capable of bringing the criminals to justice is completely beholden to the very government leaders who would face charges.

The latest John Grisham thriller? A re-run of the show 24? Hardly.

The crime is torture, clearly prohibited by national and international law. The corrupt system is the existing structure of U.S. law enforcement. When executive branch misconduct occurs, an inherent conflict of interest is presented by investing prosecutorial discretion in a U.S. Attorney General appointed by, and serving at the pleasure of, the president.

The attorney general is sworn to uphold the Constitution and investigate and prosecute illegal activity. But the attorneys general appointed by President George W. Bush not only refused to investigate and prosecute allegations of sanctioning torture, their Offices of Legal Counsel wrote "get out of jail free" memos in response to congressional, judicial and popular resistance to the brutal policies.
"The verdict is in: The president and his appointees enjoy de facto immunity for torture crimes."
The fox was guarding the henhouse, and everyone in the Bush administration knew it.

The legendary checks and balances of the U.S. federal government were put to the test when high-level members of the Bush administration and the president himself defied laws banning torture. Congress responded with a bipartisan effort to rein in the administration's torture activity, and the Supreme Court insisted that al-Qaeda detainees were entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions.

Yet, each time, appointees of the attorney general responded by internally redefining the definition of torture so that the administration's actions appeared legal.

Even after the president and attorneys general who sanctioned torture were replaced, no executive branch officials have been held responsible. President Obama has said that prosecution of Bush administration officials would distract from his other first-term priorities, and his Attorney General Eric Holder is following his boss' lead.

So, the verdict is in: The president and his appointees enjoy de facto immunity for torture crimes.

To remedy this systematic miscarriage of justice, we need to "unbundle" the federal executive by allowing U.S. voters to directly choose the attorney general. Unbundling already is the norm in most states and municipalities, which directly elect multiple executive officials, including state attorneys general and local prosecuting attorneys.

Research shows unbundled executive structures do a better job of reflecting voter preferences. And the record of the constitutional deliberations and first Congress show the founders never intended for the president to have full control over federal law enforcement.

Would a directly elected attorney general have made a difference on torture? Polling data from 2004 suggests that any successful candidate for attorney general in a national election that year would have been compelled to pledge vigorous investigation and prosecution of torturers and their enablers.

We must free the attorney general from presidential control and remedy this state of impunity. which mocks the principle of equal justice for all.

Fran Quigley Fran Quigley can be reached at .