||January 13, 2005
Atrocities in Plain Sight
By ANDREW SULLIVAN
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THE ABU GHRAIB INVESTIGATIONS
The Official Report of the Independent Panel and Pentagon on the Shocking
Prisoner Abuse in Iraq.
Edited by Steven Strasser.
TORTURE AND TRUTH
America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror.
By Mark Danner.
Illustrated. 580 pp. New York Review Books. Paper, $19.95.
IN scandals, chronology can be everything. The facts you find out first, the
images that are initially imprinted on your consciousness, the details that
then follow: these make the difference between a culture-changing tipping
point and a weatherable media flurry. With the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib,
the photographs, which have become iconic, created the context and the
meaning of what took place. We think we know the contours of that story: a
few soldiers on the night shift violated established military rules and
subjected prisoners to humiliating abuse and terror. Chaos in the line of
command, an overstretched military, a bewildering insurgency: all
contributed to incidents that were alien to the values of the United States
and its military. The scandal was an aberration. It was appalling.
Responsibility was taken. Reports were issued. Hearings continue.
But the photographs lied. They told us a shard of the truth. In retrospect,
they deflected us away from what was really going on, and what is still
going on. The problem is not a co-ordinated cover-up. Nor is it a lack of
information. The official government and Red Cross reports on prisoner
torture and abuse, compiled in two separate volumes, ''The Abu Ghraib
Investigations,'' by a former Newsweek editor, Steven Strasser, and
''Torture and Terror,'' by a New York Review of Books contributor, Mark
Danner, are almost numbingly exhaustive in their cataloging of specific
mistakes, incidents and responsibilities. Danner's document-dump runs to
almost 600 pages of print, the bulk of it in small type. The American Civil
Liberties Union has also successfully engineered the release of what may
eventually amount to hundreds of thousands of internal government documents
detailing the events.
That tells you something important at the start. Whatever happened was
exposed in a free society; the military itself began the first inquiries.
You can now read, in these pages, previously secret memorandums from sources
as high as the attorney general all the way down to prisoner testimony to
the International Committee of the Red Cross. I confess to finding this
transparency both comforting and chilling, like the photographs that
kick-started the public's awareness of the affair. Comforting because only a
country that is still free would allow such airing of blood-soaked laundry.
Chilling because the crimes committed strike so deeply at the core of what a
free country is supposed to mean. The scandal of Abu Ghraib is therefore a
sign of both freedom's endurance in America and also, in certain dark
corners, its demise.
The documents themselves tell the story. In this, Danner's book is by far
the better of the two. He begins with passionate essays that originally
appeared in The New York Review of Books, but very soon leaves the stage and
lets the documents speak for themselves. His book contains the two reports
Strasser publishes, but many more as well. If you read it in the order
Danner provides, you can see exactly how this horror came about - and why
it's still going on. As Danner observes, this is a scandal with almost
everything in plain sight.
The critical enabling decision was the president's insistence that prisoners
in the war on terror be deemed ''unlawful combatants'' rather than prisoners
of war. The arguments are theoretically sound ones - members of Al Qaeda and
the Taliban are not party to the Geneva Convention and their own conduct
violates many of its basic demands. But even at the beginning, President
Bush clearly feared the consequences of so broad an exemption for cruel and
inhumane treatment. So he also insisted that although prisoners were not
legally eligible for humane treatment, they should be granted it anyway. The
message sent was: these prisoners are beneath decent treatment, but we
should still provide it. That's a strangely nuanced signal to be giving the
military during wartime.
You can see the same strange ambivalence in Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld's decision to approve expanded interrogation techniques in December
2002 for Guantánamo inmates - and then to revoke the order six weeks later.
The documents show that the president was clearly warned of the dangers of
the policy he decided upon - Colin Powell's January 2002 memo is almost
heart-breakingly prescient and sane in this regard - but he pressed on
anyway. Rumsfeld's own revocation of the order suggests his own moral qualms
about what he had unleashed.
But Bush clearly leaned toward toughness. Here's the precise formulation he
used: ''As a matter of policy, the United States Armed Forces shall continue
to treat detainees humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent
with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of
Geneva.'' (My italics.)
Notice the qualifications. The president wants to stay not within the letter
of the law, but within its broad principles, and in the last resort,
''military necessity'' can overrule all of it. According to his legal
counsel at the time, Alberto R. Gonzales, the president's warmaking powers
gave him ultimate constitutional authority to ignore any relevant laws in
the conduct of the conflict. Sticking to the Geneva Convention was the
exclusive prerogative of one man, George W. Bush; and he could, if he
wished, make exceptions. As Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee argues
in another memo: ''Any effort to apply Section 2340A in a manner that
interferes with the president's direction of such core war matters as the
detention and interrogation of enemy combatants thus would be
unconstitutional.'' (Section 2340A refers to the United States law that
incorporates the international Convention Against Torture.)
The president's underlings got the mixed message. Bybee analyzed the
relevant statutes against torture to see exactly how far the military could
go in mistreating prisoners without blatant illegality. His answer was
surprisingly expansive. He argued that all the applicable statutes and
treaty obligations can be read in such a way as to define torture very
narrowly. Bybee asserted that the president was within his legal rights to
permit his military surrogates to inflict ''cruel, inhuman or degrading''
treatment on prisoners without violating strictures against torture. For an
act of abuse to be considered torture, the abuser must be inflicting pain
''of such a high level of intensity that the pain is difficult for the
subject to endure.'' If the abuser is doing this to get information and not
merely for sadistic enjoyment, then ''even if the defendant knows that
severe pain will result from his actions,'' he's not guilty of torture.
Threatening to kill a prisoner is not torture; ''the threat must indicate
that death is 'imminent.' '' Beating prisoners is not torture either. Bybee
argues that a case of kicking an inmate in the stomach with military boots
while the prisoner is in a kneeling position does not by itself rise to the
level of torture.
Bybee even suggests that full-fledged torture of inmates might be legal
because it could be construed as ''self-defense,'' on the grounds that ''the
threat of an impending terrorist attack threatens the lives of hundreds if
not thousands of American citizens.'' By that reasoning, torture could be
justified almost anywhere on the battlefield of the war on terror. Only the
president's discretion forbade it. These guidelines were formally repudiated
by the administration the week before Gonzales's appearance before the
Senate Judiciary Committee for confirmation as attorney general.
In this context, Rumsfeld's decision to take the gloves off in Guantánamo
for six weeks makes more sense. The use of dogs to intimidate prisoners and
the use of nudity for humiliation were now allowed. Although abuse was
specifically employed in only two cases before Rumsfeld rescinded the order,
practical precedents had been set; and the broader mixed message sent from
the White House clearly reached commanders in the field. Lt. Gen. Ricardo S.
Sanchez, in charge of the Iraq counterinsurgency, also sent out several
conflicting memos with regard to the treatment of prisoners - memos that
only added to the confusion as to what was permitted and what wasn't. When
the general in charge of Guantánamo was sent to Abu Ghraib to help
intelligence gathering, the ''migration'' of techniques (the term used in
the Pentagon's Schlesinger Report) from those reserved for extreme cases in
the leadership of Al Qaeda to thousands of Iraqi civilians, most of whom,
according to intelligence sources, were innocent of any crime at all, was
complete. Again, there is no evidence of anyone at a high level directly
mandating torture or abuse, except in two cases in Gitmo. But there is
growing evidence recently uncovered by the A.C.L.U. - not provided in
Danner's compilation - that authorities in the F.B.I. and elsewhere were
aware of abuses and did little to prevent or stop them. Then there were the
vast loopholes placed in the White House torture memos, the precedents at
Guantánamo, the winks and nods from Washington and the pressure of an Iraqi
insurgency that few knew how to restrain. It was a combustible mix.
What's notable about the incidents of torture and abuse is first, their
common features, and second, their geographical reach. No one has any reason
to believe any longer that these incidents were restricted to one prison
near Baghdad. They were everywhere: from Guantánamo Bay to Afghanistan,
Baghdad, Basra, Ramadi and Tikrit and, for all we know, in any number of
hidden jails affecting ''ghost detainees'' kept from the purview of the Red
Cross. They were committed by the Marines, the Army, the Military Police,
Navy Seals, reservists, Special Forces and on and on. The use of hooding was
ubiquitous; the same goes for forced nudity, sexual humiliation and brutal
beatings; there are examples of rape and electric shocks. Many of the abuses
seem specifically tailored to humiliate Arabs and Muslims, where horror at
being exposed in public is a deep cultural artifact.
Whether random bad apples had picked up these techniques from hearsay or
whether these practices represented methods authorized by commanders
grappling with ambiguous directions from Washington is hard to pin down from
the official reports. But it is surely significant that very few abuses
occurred in what the Red Cross calls ''regular internment facilities.''
Almost all took place within prisons designed to collect intelligence,
including, of course, Saddam Hussein's previous torture palace at Abu Ghraib
and even the former Baathist secret police office in Basra. (Who authorized
the use of these particular places for a war of liberation is another
mystery.) This tells us two things: that the vast majority of soldiers in
Iraq and elsewhere had nothing to do with these incidents; and that the
violence had a purpose. The report of the International Committee of the Red
Cross says: ''Several military intelligence officers confirmed to the
I.C.R.C. that it was part of the military intelligence process to hold a
person deprived of his liberty naked in a completely dark and empty cell for
a prolonged period to use inhumane and degrading treatment, including
physical and psychological coercion.''
An e-mail message recovered by Danner from a captain in military
intelligence in August 2003 reveals the officer's desire to distinguish
between genuine prisoners of war and ''unlawful combatants.'' The president,
of course, had endorsed that distinction in theory, although not in practice
- even in Guantánamo, let alone Iraq. Somehow Bush's nuances never made it
down the chain to this captain. In the message, he asked for advice from
other intelligence officers on which illegal techniques work best: a ''wish
list'' for interrogators. Then he wrote: ''The gloves are coming off
gentlemen regarding these detainees, Col. Boltz has made it clear that we
want these individuals broken.''
How do you break these people? According to the I.C.R.C., one prisoner
''alleged that he had been hooded and cuffed with flexicuffs, threatened to
be tortured and killed, urinated on, kicked in the head, lower back and
groin, force-fed a baseball which was tied into the mouth using a scarf and
deprived of sleep for four consecutive days. Interrogators would allegedly
take turns ill-treating him. When he said he would complain to the I.C.R.C.
he was allegedly beaten more. An I.C.R.C. medical examination revealed
hematoma in the lower back, blood in urine, sensory loss in the right hand
due to tight handcuffing with flexicuffs, and a broken rib.''
Even Bybee's very narrow definition of torture would apply in this case.
Here's another - not from Abu Ghraib:
A detainee ''had been hooded, handcuffed in the back, and made to lie face
down, on a hot surface during transportation. This had caused severe skin
burns that required three months' hospitalization. . . . He had to undergo
several skin grafts, the amputation of his right index finger, and suffered
. . . extensive burns over the abdomen, anterior aspects of the outer
extremities, the palm of his right hand and the sole of his left foot.''
And another, in a detainee's own words: ''They threw pepper on my face and
the beating started. This went on for a half hour. And then he started
beating me with the chair until the chair was broken. After that they
started choking me. At that time I thought I was going to die, but it's a
miracle I lived. And then they started beating me again. They concentrated
on beating me in my heart until they got tired from beating me. They took a
little break and then they started kicking me very hard with their feet
until I passed out.''
An incident uncovered by the A.C.L.U. and others was described in The
Washington Post on Dec. 22. A young soldier with no training in
interrogation techniques ''acknowledged forcing two men to their knees,
placing bullets in their mouths, ordering them to close their eyes, and
telling them they would be shot unless they answered questions about a
grenade incident. He then took the bullets, and a colleague pretended to
load them in the chamber of his M-16 rifle.''
These are not allegations made by antiwar journalists. They are incidents
reported within the confines of the United States government. The
Schlesinger panel has officially conceded, although the president has never
publicly acknowledged, that American soldiers have tortured five inmates to
death. Twenty-three other deaths that occurred during American custody had
not been fully investigated by the time the panel issued its report in
August. Some of the techniques were simply brutal, like persistent vicious
beatings to unconsciousness. Others were more inventive. In April 2004,
according to internal Defense Department documents recently procured by the
A.C.L.U., three marines in Mahmudiya used an electric transformer, forcing a
detainee to ''dance'' as the electricity coursed through him. We also now
know that in Guantánamo, burning cigarettes were placed in the ears of
Here's another case from the Army's investigation into Abu Ghraib, led by
Lt. Gen. Anthony R. Jones and Maj. Gen. George R. Fay:
''On another occasion DETAINEE-07 was forced to lie down while M.P.'s jumped
onto his back and legs. He was beaten with a broom and a chemical light was
broken and poured over his body. . . . During this abuse a police stick was
used to sodomize DETAINEE-07 and two female M.P.'s were hitting him,
throwing a ball at his penis, and taking photographs.''
Last December, documents obtained by the A.C.L.U. also cited an F.B.I. agent
at Guantánamo Bay who observed that ''on a couple of occasions, I entered
interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position
to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they had urinated or
defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18 to 24 hours or
more.'' In one case, he added, ''the detainee was almost unconscious on the
floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally
pulling his own hair out throughout the night.''
This kind of scene can also be found at Abu Ghraib: ''An 18 November 2003
photograph depicts a detainee dressed in a shirt or blanket lying on the
floor with a banana inserted into his anus. This as well as several others
show the same detainee covered in feces, with his hands encased in sandbags,
or tied in foam and between two stretchers.'' This, apparently, was a result
of self-inflicted mania, although where the mentally ill man procured a
banana is not elaborated upon.
Also notable in Abu Ghraib was the despicable use of religion to humiliate.
One Muslim inmate was allegedly forced to eat pork, had liquor forced down
his throat and told to thank Jesus that he was alive. He recounted in broken
''They stripped me naked, they asked me, 'Do you pray to Allah?' I said,
'Yes.' They said 'F - - - you' and 'F - - - him.' '' Later, this inmate
recounts: ''Someone else asked me, 'Do you believe in anything?' I said to
him, 'I believe in Allah.' So he said, 'But I believe in torture and I will
torture you.' ''
Whether we decide to call this kind of treatment ''abuse'' or some other
euphemism, there is no doubt what it was in the minds of the American
soldiers who perpetrated it. They believed in torture. And many believed it
was sanctioned from above. According to The Washington Post, one sergeant
who witnessed the torture thought Military Intelligence approved of all of
it: ''The M.I. staffs, to my understanding, have been giving Graner'' - one
of the chief torturers at Abu Ghraib - ''compliments on the way he has been
handling the M.I. holds [prisoners held by military intelligence]. Example
being statements like 'Good job, they're breaking down real fast'; 'They
answer every question'; 'They're giving out good information, finally'; and
'Keep up the good work' - stuff like that.'' At Guantánamo Bay, newly
released documents show that some of the torturers felt they were acting on
the basis of memos sent from Washington.
Was the torture effective? The only evidence in the documents Danner has
compiled that it was even the slightest bit helpful comes from the
Schlesinger report. It says ''much of the information in the recently
released 9/11 Commission's report, on the planning and execution of the
attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, came from interrogation of
detainees at Guantánamo and elsewhere.'' But the context makes plain that
this was intelligence procured without torture. It also claims that good
intelligence was received from the two sanctioned cases of expanded
interrogation techniques at Guantánamo. But everything else points to the
futility of the kind of brutal techniques used in Iraq and elsewhere.
Worse, there's plenty of evidence that this kind of treatment makes
gathering intelligence harder. In Abu Ghraib, according to the official
documents, up to 90 percent of the inmates were victims of random and crude
nighttime sweeps. If these thousands of Iraqis did not sympathize with the
insurgency before they came into American custody, they had good reason to
thereafter. Stories of torture, of sexual humiliation, of religious mockery
have become widespread in Iraq, and have been amplified by the enemy. If the
best intelligence comes from persuading the indigenous population to give up
information on insurgents, then the atrocities perpetrated by a tiny
minority of American troops actually help the insurgency, rather than
Who was responsible? There are various levels of accountability. But it
seems unmistakable from these documents that decisions made by the president
himself and the secretary of defense contributed to confusion, vagueness and
disarray, which, in turn, led directly to abuse and torture. The president
bears sole responsibility for ignoring Colin Powell's noble warnings. The
esoteric differences between legal ''abuse'' and illegal ''torture'' and the
distinction between ''prisoners of war'' and ''unlawful combatants'' were
and are so vague as to make the abuse of innocents almost inevitable.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the majority of the Supreme Court in
Hamdi v. Rumsfeld that ''the government has never provided any court with
the full criteria that it uses in classifying individuals'' as enemy
combatants. It is one thing to make a distinction in theory between
Geneva-protected combatants and unprotected Qaeda operatives. But in the
chaos of a situation like Iraq, how can you practically know the difference?
When one group is designated as unworthy of humane treatment, and that group
is impossible to distinguish from others, it is unsurprising that exceptions
quickly become rules. The best you can say is that in an administration with
a reputation for clear lines of command and clear rules of engagement, the
vagueness and incompetence are the most striking features.
Worse, the president has never acknowledged the scope or the real gravity of
what has taken place. His first instinct was to minimize the issue; later,
his main references to it were a couple of sentences claiming that the
abuses were the work of a handful of miscreants, rather than a consequence
of his own decisions. But the impact of these events on domestic morale, on
the morale of the vast majority of honorable soldiers in a very tough place
and on the reputation of the United States in the Middle East is
incalculable. The war on terror is both military and political. The
president's great contribution has been to recognize that a solution is
impossible without political reform in the Middle East. And yet the
prevalence of brutality and inhumanity among American interrogators has
robbed the United States of the high ground it desperately needs to maintain
in order to win. What better weapon for Al Qaeda than the news that an
inmate at Guantánamo was wrapped in the Israeli flag or that prisoners at
Abu Ghraib were raped? There is no escaping the fact that, whether he
intended to or not, this president handed Al Qaeda that weapon. Sometimes a
brazen declaration of toughness is actually a form of weakness. In a
propaganda war for the hearts and minds of Muslims everywhere, it's simply
And the damage done was intensified by President Bush's refusal to
discipline those who helped make this happen. A president who truly
recognized the moral and strategic calamity of this failure would have fired
everyone responsible. But the vice president's response to criticism of the
defense secretary in the wake of Abu Ghraib was to say, ''Get off his
back.'' In fact, those with real responsibility for the disaster were
rewarded. Rumsfeld was kept on for the second term, while the man who warned
against ignoring the Geneva Conventions, Colin Powell, was seemingly nudged
out. The man who wrote a legal opinion maximizing the kind of brutal
treatment that the United States could legally defend, Jay S. Bybee, was
subsequently rewarded with a nomination to a federal Court of Appeals.
General Sanchez and Gen. John P. Abizaid remain in their posts. Alberto R.
Gonzales, who wrote memos that validated the decision to grant Geneva status
to inmates solely at the president's discretion, is now nominated to the
highest law enforcement job in the country: attorney general. The man who
paved the way for the torture of prisoners is to be entrusted with
safeguarding the civil rights of Americans. It is astonishing he has been
nominated, and even more astonishing that he will almost certainly be
But in a democracy, the responsibility is also wider. Did those of us who
fought so passionately for a ruthless war against terrorists give an
unwitting green light to these abuses? Were we naïve in believing that
characterizing complex conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq as a single simple
war against ''evil'' might not filter down and lead to decisions that could
dehumanize the enemy and lead to abuse? Did our conviction of our own
rightness in this struggle make it hard for us to acknowledge when that good
cause had become endangered? I fear the answer to each of these questions is
American political polarization also contributed. Most of those who made the
most fuss about these incidents - like Mark Danner or Seymour Hersh - were
dedicated opponents of the war in the first place, and were eager to use
this scandal to promote their agendas. Advocates of the war, especially
those allied with the administration, kept relatively quiet, or attempted to
belittle what had gone on, or made facile arguments that such things always
occur in wartime. But it seems to me that those of us who are most committed
to the Iraq intervention should be the most vociferous in highlighting these
excrescences. Getting rid of this cancer within the system is essential to
winning this war.
I'm not saying that those who unwittingly made this torture possible are as
guilty as those who inflicted it. I am saying that when the results are this
horrifying, it's worth a thorough reassessment of rhetoric and war methods.
Perhaps the saddest evidence of our communal denial in this respect was the
election campaign. The fact that American soldiers were guilty of torturing
inmates to death barely came up. It went unmentioned in every one of the
three presidential debates. John F. Kerry, the ''heroic'' protester of
Vietnam, ducked the issue out of what? Fear? Ignorance? Or a belief that the
American public ultimately did not care, that the consequences of seeming to
criticize the conduct of troops would be more of an electoral liability than
holding a president accountable for enabling the torture of innocents? I
fear it was the last of these. Worse, I fear he may have been right.