May 24, 2004
It's pretty easy to get to the point where you don't want to hear any more about Abu Ghraib prison and what went on there. But there are some really good reasons why Americans should take a look at why this happened.
I suspect the division here is not between liberals and conservatives (except for a few inane comments made by some trying to be flippant), but between those who are following the story closely and those who are not. I particularly recommend both Sy Hersh's follow-up piece in the current issue of The New Yorker and the investigative piece in the current issue of Newsweek. What seems to me more important than the "Oh ugh" factor is just how easy it is for standards of law and behavior of slip into bestiality.
The problems go all the way back to the administration's refusal to abide by the Geneva Conventions. President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft "signed off on a secret system of detention and interrogation that opened the door to such methods. It was an approach that they adopted in order to sidestep the historical safeguards of the Geneva Convention, which protect the rights of detainees and prisoners of war," according to Newsweek.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and the military's lawyers objected. You may recall the military's objections (broadcast, as usual, by retired officers) were on the excellent grounds that if we didn't observe the Geneva Conventions neither would our enemies -- the very reason they were signed in the first place.
The Pentagon still insists that "suspected Al Qaeda followers" have no rights under Geneva III, as they are "enemy combatants" rather than POWs. Geneva III also has procedures for what to do if the status of a detainee is in doubt -- full Geneva rights apply until "a competent tribunal" decides. We have been holding 595 prisoners at Guantanamo for two and half years, not counting those we have already let go, in conditions in violation of Geneva. Only now are a few of these prisoners being assigned lawyers, and the lawyers are raising hell about the whole process.
The legal rationale came from White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, including the line, "In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."
According to Newsweek, Bush first signed a secret order granting new powers to the CIA, a directive authorizing it to set up secret detention facilities outside the United States and to question those held in them with unprecedented harshness. The agency also schlepped suspected terrorists off to other countries known to practice torture.
In addition to the fact that torture is morally repulsive, it also doesn't work. Of course you can torture information out of people. What you can't do is torture accurate information out of people who don't have it. The Defense Department's JAGs were so concerned they finally went to a New York lawyer who specializes in international human rights law and told him, "There is a calculated effort to create an atmosphere of legal ambiguity" about how Geneva should be applied.
These military lawyers named Assistant Secretary Douglas Feith and the Pentagon's general counsel William Haynes, since nominated for an appeals court judgeship by Bush.
Meanwhile, Gitmo had been taken over by Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, under whose loving care the "72-point matrix for stress and duress" was developed, laying out as ugly a set of rules for of-course-it-is-torture-stupid as anyone could dream up.
You may recall Rumsfeld testifying before Congress that Miller had been sent to "inspect" Abu Ghraib in September 2003, as though that had been some step toward responsible oversight. In fact, Miller told the general then running the prison the place should be turned over to military intelligence.
Normally something like Abu Ghraib can be blamed in part on the Downward Communication Exaggeration Spiral, which afflicts most organizations. Someone at the top makes a mild suggestion, and by the time it reaches the troops, it's iron- clad law. This appears to be a rare case of a reverse spiral, with the orders coming from the very top and questions being raised about them all the way down, until finally Army Spc. Joseph Darby spoke out and set off the Taguba investigation.
In this case, there is more than sufficient evidence pointing to the culpability of those at the top. But at the same time, the Pentagon is putting out the word that it was "only a few bad apples," six low-level soldiers who have already been charged, with no one else involved. This just stinks of cover-up. Damned if I think these six low-level soldiers should be hung out there to take the blame for a set of explicitly written and signed policies made by people wearing expensive suits, getting paid big bucks and bearing some of the highest titles in the land.
You can read all the memos and documents for yourself. It's important to know how fascism starts.