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US Torture Scandal: "Unacceptable Whitewash"

"The US press is not playing along this time. The general amnesty at the end was not missed by botht he Washington Post and the New York Times. They railed against an unacceptable whitewash.." Top-ranking military and politicians were released from all responsibility.

By Marc Pitzke, New York

[The proceedings against the US military policewoman Lynndie England involved in the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib have begun but the higher ranks are getting off lightly. The Pentagon has now secretly released all the top officials and politicians from all responsibility.]

[This article originally published in: Spiegel Online, August 4, 2004 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/0,1518,311502.00.html.]

New York - Veterans of Washington's political scene know: Whoever wants to hide unpleasant news doesn't keep it secret but publishes it at best on Friday, a holiday or in the slipstream of another event filling the headlines. "That is the best time for the lavoratory water flush" advises Lanny Davis, legendary "spin doctor" under Bill Clinton.

The political water flush was confirmed on July 22, 2004. The bold headline that day was the final report of the terrorism investigatory committee. Two top-flight press conferences were presented, one with the telegenic presence of the president. The findings of the commission dominated the TV evening news and the front pages of the daily papers the next morning. The report in book form was an overnight national bestseller.

However another weighty and not unimportant government paper was released that day in Washington almost unnoticed as a kind of intentional shelf-warmer. The authors referred to their press conference at the last moment, knowing that most capitol correspondents would be elsewhere. Electronic copies of the report were hard to find on the Internet for days. This story was destined to fall under the table.


These authors focused on the Pentagon and the general inspector of the army, Paul Mikolasthek. The unpleasant document which they tried to remove so elegantly was the official investigative report on the torture scandal at the army prison Abu Ghraib near Baghdad.

The official investigators largely acquitted all high-ranking officers from any responsibility for the hideous actions at Abu Ghraib. Only "a few individuals" were guilty in the matter. That was the end of the affair.

Lynndie England received bad news. The 21-year old military policewoman is the best known of these "individuals". Her child's face went around the world on that miserable photo from Abu Ghraib where with others she dragged a naked prisoner on a dog's leash. England is the last of the seven directly indicted soldiers at the Fort Bragg army base in North Carolina facing a military commission that will decide in a speedy process. Conspiracy to abuse prisoners, body violations, refusal of commands and "obscene acts" are among the 19 individual charges. England is threatened with up to 38 years imprisonment.


Three months after the pictures from Abu Ghriab triggered worldwide indignation, US Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld pensioned the culprits and president George W. Bush expresses an agonized "Sorry" to the Arab world. The debate of Americans on collective joint responsibility, political guilt and self-esteem have long been stifled, buried by the next debate on lessons from 9/11, the election campaign and new terror warnings. What is left is punishing the "scapegoats" in the words of political scientist Jonathan Turley.

The pivotal argumentative point of this Operation Scapegoat practiced in Fort Bragg is the Pentagon report recently "published" in a clandestine way. In this 321-page defensive report, lieutenant general Mikolashek kept strictly to the official version of Rumsfeld and the White House: Only the directly involved soldiers were responsible in the mistreatments of Iraqi prisoners of war.

Nevertheless the US press is not playing along this time. The general amnesty at the end was not missed by either the "Washington Post" or the "New York Times". They railed against an "unacceptable whitewash" in almost synchronized editorials two days after publication of the report. The term "whitewash" occurred to the local "Courier-Journal" paper in Kentucky in whose precinct many MPs are stationed.


What is surreal in the report is that the Pentagon after five months of investigation actually confirmed 94 individual cases of mistreatment by US soldiers in Iraq including 40 mysterious deaths, half of them murders. Only a quarter of the 16 prisons analyzed by the investigating team had a copy of the Geneva conventions. These shocking discoveries are deeply buried in the omnibus army volume. Instead the military is well-behaved so a "systemic" problem in no way occurred here. Abu Ghraib was only the result of "unauthorized actions of several individuals" and "inadequate supervision".

None of the incriminated cases will be only analyzed more closely. They will only be crossed off as numbers. Mikolashek praises the "commanders, leaders and soldiers" in Iraq in how "humanly" they treated the prisoners in his presence and criticizes the lack of "experienced interrogation officials and translators".

Human rights activists protest. "That 94 cases of mistreatment can be documented without acknowledging a systemic problem is hard to believe", declared Michael Posner, the executive director of the legal group Human Rights First. Their report is in striking opposition to the earlier report of the army general Antonio Taguba who first publicized the scandal, the investigations of the international committee of the Red Cross and statements gathered by the US Congress. They all point to a "systemic" action.


More is involved than only stamping a few "unsavory soldiers" as scapegoats of the affair, decried democratic senator Jack Reed, a member of the armed forces committee. However whether Congress will do justice this year to his supervisory authority is unlikely. The military committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate have announced they will take up the scandal again in the fall. Both chambers (and committees) are controlled by republicans. The sensitive theme will probably not be touched until after the presidential election.

Lynndie England's fate will run its course. The pregnant woman appeared yesterday in the interrogation room in her camouflaged field green uniform. Two dozen witnesses will be heard by the end of the summer in the military trial. The defense wanted Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and US vice-president Dick Cheney to testify. The commission refused.

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