Donald Rumsfeld got off easy.
Once again, members of the US Senate showed that grasping the big picture is not their strong suit. When the defense secretary made his much-anticipated appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee–as newspapers (including The New York Times) and Democrats called for his scalp–the members of this panel focused on what Rumsfeld knew when about the Abu Ghraib prison abuse inquiry and why he failed to brief Congress on the scandal to come before 60 Minutes published the shocking photos.
These are not unimportant points. Rumsfeld and his lieutenants do need to explain the investigative and corrective actions that did and did not occur, as well as the Pentagon’s failure to notify fully Congress and George W. Bush that it had a mess–perhaps a lethal PR nightmare–on its hands. (When NBC News reporter Jim Miklaszewski asked a Pentagon official about the soldiers alleged to have committed the abuse, the official replied, “You mean the six morons who lost the war?”)
But the question is not only how Rumsfeld and the Pentagon responded to the accusations confirmed by the Taguba report, which was completed on March 20; it is, why didn’t the Pentagon take steps to prevent the abuses documented in that report when it had ample warning about abusive practices there and in other military facilities? The horrific acts that have triggered the current controversy transpired between October and December of last year. But before these acts became the subject of an inquiry–which was prompted by the report of a courageous whistleblower in January–there were indications that prisoners were being abused at detention facilities throughout Iraq. Between March and November 2003, the International Committee of the Red Cross inspected these facilities and found numerous violations. A confidential report the ICRC prepared–which was disclosed in today’s Wall Street Journal— noted that Red Cross inspectors had uncovered “excessive and disproportionate use of force against persons deprived of their liberty resulting in death or injury.” The report cited the use of “physical or psychological coercion during interrogation to secure information” which “in some cases was tantamount to torture.” It noted that prisoners were beaten, paraded naked with women’s underwear over their heads, photographed in humiliating positions. The ICRC maintains that it began telling U.S. officials about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners–in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere–shortly after the beginning of the war.
Why didn’t Rumsfeld’s Pentagon respond to these warnings? That’s what the senators should have demanded to know. But they didn’t. The ICRC reports were not the only sign that the Bush administration needed to pay close attention to the treatment of Iraqi prisoners and detainees. A year ago, the Sun newspaper in England disclosed the existence of photographs showing British soldiers abusing Iraqi POWs. In one shot, it appeared that an Iraqi prisoner was being forced to engage in oral sex. In another, a man stripped to his waist was tied to a fork-lift and suspended high in the air; a soldier driving the fork-lift was laughing. A third picture showed two naked Iraqi men in what seemed to be a coercive sexual position. These photos involved British soldiers, but they should have sounded alarm bells for the U.S. military. And in October and November 2003, Maj. Gen. Donald Ryder, provost marshal of the Army, investigated conditions at the prisons in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib and found that the guards had not been trained adequately.
The Pentagon ought to have responded to these warnings. Given that a secondary reason for the war was to bring democracy and human rights to Iraq–after taking care of the supposed threat posed by weapons of mass destruction that, it turns out, did not exist–the U.S. military had an obligation to go above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that the conduct of U.S. troops were in keeping with the values the Bush administration claimed as justification for the war. Rumsfeld deserves criticism more for ignoring this responsibility than for his handling (or non-handling) of the Taguba report. Before the Senate committee, he said that no one in the U.S. military condoned or permitted “these things” to take place. Perhaps–though there are reports that military intelligence officers did ask the troops in the prisons to “soften up” detainees for interrogations. But Rumsfeld cannot say that he and others made sure that “these things” would not happen.
His dereliction of duty in this regard is part of his overall failure–and that of the entire administration–to plan and prepare adequately for the war and the occupation. The abuse scandal has revealed that American troops were not adequately prepped for running prisons. In an interview with the British Guardian, Torin Nelson, a private contractor who worked at Abu Ghraib, maintained that “cooks and truck drivers” were put to work as interrogators at the prison. He claimed that “many of the detainees at the prison are actually innocent of any acts against the coalition and are being held until the bureaucracy there can go through their cases and verify their need to be released.” He depicted a detention system that overall has been a disaster.
Pundits and citizens have expressed shock at the photos of abuse. But, sadly, such excesses come with the territory. There are prison scandals in the United States on a regular basis–and they involve people who supposedly are fully trained. Troops serving as guards at Abu Ghraib were trained as military police, who know how to arrest and detain people, not how to function as prison guards. And if abuse routinely happens in civilian prisons, it is not surprising that such awful acts would occur in prisons in a war zone.
The Bush administration claimed it could bring democracy, human rights and freedom to Iraq via invasion and occupation. But that means it has to advance these values as it engages in military and security actions that are often hard to control and tough to mount with respect for human rights and due process. War breeds brutality. (At the end of the first Persian Gulf War, a family friend in the military told me she knew of “body parts boxes” that had to be set up for departing GIs who were coming home. Before entering aircraft that would return them to the United States, U.S. soldiers had to rid themselves of trophies–ears, fingers, etc.–that had been removed from the corpses of enemy soldiers.) War is a blunt instrument; using it to export democracy and human rights is a tall order. The prison scandal demonstrates further that the Bush administration and the Pentagon marched off to war without thinking through the consequences and the challenges. Rumsfeld deserves to be grilled–if not hung out to dry–for that. And so does his boss.
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