Like a bunch of kids caught with a baseball bat and a broken window, the Bush administration is scrambling for excuses to explain away the damnable photos of Iraqi prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. And like doting, overprotective parents, the US media is happy to go along with the Pentagon’s assurances that it was just a single group of misbehaving soldiers–not anyone higher up–who’s responsible.
With every new article on the subject, The New York Times and Washington Post run a little timeline of the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal which conveniently begins in mid-January of this year. This leaves the impression that the Pentagon has been hiding this problem for only a few weeks, during which intense internal investigations have been trying to find out who’s responsible for the “breakdown of discipline” at Abu Ghraib.
In fact, the abuse of Iraqi prisoners is part of a systemic problem, one that the top brass at the Pentagon and civilians in the Bush administration have been hiding for months, if not years.
A more realistic timeline would be as follows:
When George W. Bush took office, he appointed John Ashcroft Attorney General, placing him in charge of the FBI. Ashcroft’s priorities included reassigning agents working on domestic terrorism issues to the more prosaic work of busting prostitution rings. When September 11, 2001, happened, the Justice Department quickly shifted gears, focusing on imprisoning large numbers of Arab Americans and helping to draft legislation that would take away the constitutional rights of these same detainees.
In the midst of the war with Afghanistan, the Bush administration, the Pentagon, and Ashcroft’s Justice Department came up with the classification of “unlawful combatant” and declared that the Geneva Conventions and US law didn’t apply to prisoners of war and terrorism suspects at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo, prisons inside Afghanistan, and other, secret detention facilities at US military bases around the world.
At approximately the same time, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International began interviewing Afghan prisoners of war. They complained loudly and publicly that the US was using torture techniques banned by international law and condoning the use of torture techniques by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. The Red Cross, which is required by international law to visit prisoners of war to ensure their legal and humane treatment, began issuing reports to the US government–including the civilian leadership in the Bush administration–detailing the horrifying prison conditions in Afghanistan.
The public complaints made by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International involve many of the same techniques used at Abu Ghraib: stripping prisoners naked, forcing them to wear hoods, holding them in isolation for days on end, denying them food, forcing them into “stress positions,” etc.
On April 1, 2003, only 10 days after the start of the invasion of Iraq, the Red Cross issued a report to Coalition headquarters in Qatar complaining of the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners of war at the detention center in Umm Qasr–more than a year before the current abuse photos were made public. Red Cross officials made frequent complaints about prison conditions in Iraq and the mistreatment of detainees to Pentagon officials throughout 2003.
In September 2003 the Pentagon issued a one-page directive to military interrogators in Iraq. Entitled “Interrogation Rules of Engagement,” it gave permission to use techniques such as sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, and stress positions–techniques that the Number Two civilian at the Pentagon, Paul Wolfowitz, has admitted are tantamount to torture (and international law forbids them to be used on prisoners of war).
This directive came out of a visit by a team from the Guantanamo detention facility to Abu Ghraib in late August and early September. The team was dispatched by top brass at the Pentagon who were impatient with the lack of intelligence being gathered from Iraqi prisoners. The guerrilla insurgency was just beginning, and Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and others were desperate to put an end to it. They viewed accurate intelligence as the key to finding the leaders of the insurgency. Also, Saddam Hussein was still at large, and he was, from the very beginning, Enemy Number One. In fact, Donald Rumsfeld made a personal tour of Abu Ghraib on September 6, 2003, where he had the opportunity to personally push for more aggressive interrogations.
The head of the Guantanamo team was Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the man in charge at Guantanamo, where interrogation techniques included “water boarding.” This ancient form of torture involves binding a prisoner to a large board and then plunging his head under water until he begins to drown. Interrogation techniques at Guantanamo are so severe that senior FBI officials have ordered FBI agents at the base to stay out of interviews with “high-value” prisoners to avoid legal problems.
While inspecting the Abu Ghraib prison in October of 2003, Red Cross inspectors were told by a military intelligence officer that locking naked prisoners inside empty cells without beds, toilets, and other amenities for weeks on end was simply “part of the process.”
It was at about this time that the Abu Ghraib prison was place under the control of military intelligence and the CIA. All of the soldiers who’ve been charged in the prisoner abuse scandal have given the same testimony: military intelligence told them what to do. Notably, they don’t contradict each other, point fingers at each other, or show any inconsistencies on this point. The Red Cross seems to agree with them, as does Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who investigated some of the abuse allegations in January and February of 2004. In addition, Brigadier General Janice Karpinski, who was in charge of US-run prisons in Iraq, said that she fought against turning over Abu Ghraib to military intelligence, but was overruled by two people: Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of ground forces in Iraq, and Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, fresh from his dirty work at Guantanamo. And there’s the photographic evidence: several photos show the legs of sixteen or more US troops, not just the six or seven who’ve been charged in the scandal so far.
In October, the Pentagon, aware that something had to be done to appease the Red Cross and keep this information from leaking out, ordered an internal investigation. The man they put in charge was the head of military intelligence in Iraq. As expected, he issued a report that found no signs of abuse or torture among US-run facilities.
Fast-forward to January 2004. On January 13, Gen. John Abizaid, the head of US command in Iraq, became aware that photos existed of torture techniques used routinely at Abu Ghraib. He immediately called Donald Rumsfeld in Washington DC. The next day, the photo and video evidence was scooped up and locked away in a US military safe in Baghdad. Another internal investigation was ordered, this time by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, and he took his job seriously. His report and the leaked photos have formed the basis for press reports that blew the scandal wide open.
On January 15, The Red Cross met with Secretary of State Colin Powell about prisoner abuse in Iraq. Powell appeared to already know about it and claimed that he had brought up the issue several times in meetings with high officials at the Pentagon (including, presumably, the highest official, Donald Rumsfeld). This is a strong indication that there were debates at the cabinet level in George Bush’s government over the use of and approval of torture techniques. Donald Rumsfeld later claimed that he didn’t know a thing about Iraqi prisoner abuse until Abizaid’s phone call on January 14th–a startling admission of incompetence, if not an outright lie.
The rest of the timeline is familiar news, although the slaying of US businessman Nicholas Berg has driven some of the more recent revelations from the headlines. For example, in the past week, numerous Coalition soldiers–some American and some not, including an Italian general and two Danish medics–have come forward to verify that torture, beatings, rape, and murder have occurred regularly at other detention facilities in Iraq, not just at Abu Ghraib.
Unfortunately, the only assurances we have that these abuses will stop comes from two of the major perpetrators: Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who has been promoted to a new position as head of all US military affairs in Iraq, and Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who took over running all the prison facilities in Iraq (ostensibly to ensure that the torture can go on in secret, and that nobody will take any more incriminating photos).