If the torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military personnel is revolting, almost as shocking is the reaction of American politicians to the scandal. Under political pressure, President Bush grudgingly apologized only after the apologies by his subordinates. His description of the abuses as abhorrent failed to dampen the furor. In interviews with networks broadcasting in the Middle East, the president probably further inflamed the Islamic world by using the arrogant and commanding phraseology, people in Iraq must understand and, the people of the Middle East must understand The New York Times characterized the presidents tone in the interviews by writing, In responding to the Muslim rage over the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Mr. Bush sometimes sounded as if he was chiding angry Arabs for not appreciating the United States good intentions.
At congressional hearings, Donald Rumsfeld, the embattled Secretary of Defense, repeatedly defended his failure to inform the Congress and the public about the abuse by claiming that he wanted to avoid violating defendants rights in the abuse cases. Since when has Rumsfeldwho has jailed Iraqis, Afghans and U.S. citizens indefinitely and without due processcared about defendants rights? Only when they are the rights of U.S. military personnel and it suits his interest for political survival.
As for the members of Congress holding the hearings, they seemed more concerned about the release of the photos than with the barbaric behavior depicted in them. Would the behavior have been more acceptable if no photos or videos had been taken of it? Hardly.
Representative Mac Thornberry, (R-Texas) was outraged that the person in the U.S. government who leaked the photos was exploiting them to harm American efforts to end repression in Iraq. Similarly, Rumsfeld noted that the disk containing the photosclassified secrethad been improperly leaked to the media. But Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists noted that the governments classification system was supposed to be used to safeguard national security information, not illegal activities. Contrary to the spin of the administration and its allies, whoever leaked the photos did the American public a service by exposing the flagrant disregard of U.S. military prison guards for American values.
Meanwhile Representative Phil Gingrey (R-Georgia) was trying his best to keep blame at the lowest level possible. He advocated prosecuting the lower level miscreants but giving only a slap on the wrist to their superiors.
During the hearings, members of Congress fell all over themselves to argue that this aberration didnt stain the valiant efforts of the U.S. military to bring democracy and prosperity to Iraq. Unfortunately, the abuse may not have been an aberration and even if it was, the Bush administrations culpability should not be lessened.
Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, the Armys own investigator, reported that the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was systemic. He charged that the Bush administration ignored complaints from the International Red Cross, which characterized the use of excessive coercion as standard operating procedure and the prison conditions as tantamount to torture. The Army is investigating the circumstances of many prisoners who died in U.S. custody in Iraq. Brig. Gen Janis Karpinski, the defrocked commandant of U.S. prisons in Iraq, claims that the euphemistic policy of setting favorable conditions for interrogations was made at a higher level. Suspiciously, it took a while after Saddam Husseins capture to declare him a prisoner of war, subject to the protection of the Geneva Convention. Was this period used to soften him up for interrogation?
Even if the torture and abuse shown in the photos are an aberration, the administration cannot escape blame. In any unnecessary invasion, the moral responsibility for any torture or abuse of prisoners, no matter how isolated, must accrue to those that set the war in motion.
The administration clearly tried to keep Congress and the public in the dark about the photos. General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted that General Abizaid, the Commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, reported the abuses and photos to Washington early on and characterized them as a big deal. Apparently so much so that Myers didnt tell Congress and actively attempted to keep them from the American people. The day of the CBS 60 Minutes II broadcast, Myers testified on Capitol Hill, but did not warn Congress about the impending release of the explosive photographs. Of course, Myers knew about their imminent disclosure because he had already attempted to delay the release of the photographs by pleading with CBS that televising the images would endanger U.S. troops. That rationale is unconvincing and comes from a man who should have worried more about the lives of U.S. troops at the time of the internal administration debates over going to war in the first place. In this instance, Myers concern about soldiers lives is about as believable as Rumsfelds defense of defendants rights.
All partiesthe Bush administration, the uniformed military and members of Congressappear to be behaving badly in this scandal.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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