When Did Bush Know About Abu Ghraib?

When Did Bush Know About Abu Ghraib?

A close reading of L. Paul Bremer’s memoir shows the President knew details about torture far earlier than he has acknowledged.


Seymour Hersh is at it again. The investigative reporter who breaks stories like they’re rotten two-by-fours has a major scoop in the latest issue of The New Yorker. He wraps the piece around exclusive access to Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, the author of the internal report that investigated abuse at Abu Ghraib.

Exploring the line of culpability, Hersh investigates who in Washington learned what about the torture in the Iraqi prison, and when. His inquiry is typically exhaustive, but one piece of the puzzle is still missing. While the article makes clear that President Bush failed to act effectively after learning of the abuse, the article expresses uncertainty about when exactly the Commander in Chief was informed of the problems at Abu Ghraib. “Whether the President was told about Abu Ghraib in January (when e-mails informed the Pentagon of the seriousness of the abuses and of the existence of photographs) or in March (when Taguba filed his report), Bush made no known effort to forcefully address the treatment of prisoners before the scandal became public, or to reevaluate the training of military police and interrogators, or the practices of the task forces that he had authorized,” reports Hersh.

In fact, there is evidence suggesting that Bush was informed of the mistreatment well in advance of Taguba’s report in March. According to former Special Envoy to Iraq L. Paul Bremer III, Bush was told of the abuse on January 16, 2004, at a meeting in the White House at which Bremer was present. The detailed account from Bremer, which is related in his memoir, My Year in Iraq, contradicts that of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who told Congress that until the media’s story broke “the President didn’t know, and you didn’t know, and I didn’t know.”

In the brief and so-far-overlooked passage of Bremer’s memoir, the words “Abu Ghraib” never make an appearance, though it’s clear what he’s referring to. Here’s the relevant part, which Bremer says on an earlier page is taking part on January 16:

I made my way across the alley from the West Wing to the third floor of the Executive Office Building, where Vice President Cheney provided me an office. Dan Senor greeted me with the news that he’d just learned that a “terrible story” was about to break in Baghdad.

“Apparently some MPs guarding detainees forced them to engage in homosexual acts,” he said somberly. “They made one of them crawl around on the ground with a dog’s leash around his neck. There may also have been women involved, whether our women MPs or women detainees isn’t clear.” One MP had reported this despicable activity to his commander.

“We’ve got to get out in front of this story ASAP by authorizing Kimmitt to announce that we’ve ordered an urgent investigation,” Dan said. Army Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt and Dan shared the daily Coalition press briefing duties in Baghdad. It was far better that Kimmitt carry this story to the press rather than the other way around.

“Do it,” I said. “Right away. And make sure our statement condemns all inappropriate behavior and says people will be investigated and punished.” General Kimmitt later called a press conference, announcing that Lieutenant General Sanchez had ordered an investigation into “reported incidents of detainee abuse.” Kimmitt added, “The investigation will be conducted in a thorough and professional manner.”

Bremer is clearly portraying himself as demanding a swift and forceful response. The reference to the now-infamous “dog’s leash” hints at the existence of photos by this time. After a section break, Bremer brings Bush into the story:

That afternoon in an Oval Office meeting on Iraq, the issue of the MP’s alleged mistreatment of detainees came up.

The president leaned forward in his chair, his face solemn.

General Pete Pace gave a brief description of the story, stating that we did not have all the details.

Bush shook his head in anger. “I hope they find every last guilty person,” he said, looking at the group. “We’ve got to punish them as soon as possible. I want them out of Iraq and in jail, ASAP.” Again, he shook his head. “I want everybody to take a very hard press line on this.”

The rest of the passage drifts into a conversation between Bremer and Bush about how exhausted Bremer is. And that’s the last we hear of it or the investigation in the memoir until 60 Minutes II airs the photos in late April 2004, more than three months after the meeting Bremer relates.

Tara McKelvey, a senior editor at The American Prospect, is author of Monstering: Inside America’s Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War . Bremer’s account, she said, fits squarely into the known record of when the Pentagon first learned of the allegations.

But the memoir is “disingenuous” in its account of the vigor of Bremer and Bush’s response, she noted.

“Maybe the President did say that and got all riled up, but there was no real full-force investigation,” she said. “The [US Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID)] operates separately from the Army…and they solve crimes, but unless they’re really given the resources or really pushed ahead on something, they’re not going to do it. So until the photos were released, there was a CID investigation, but it wasn’t the full-force thing that you saw after the pictures were released.”

McKelvey added that even after the photos became public, only a handful of low-level soldiers were prosecuted–certainly not “every last guilty person.”

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