By William Fisher
With one exception, the prisoner abuse issue has disappeared from the public radar, buried in a bumper crop of other news including the Democrats’ convention, the report of the 9/11 Commission, the President’s endorsement of some of its recommendations, and the raising of the terror threat level.
The exception was the July 22 testimony of the Army’s Inspector General, Lt. Gen. Paul Mikolashek, who told a hurriedly convened meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee that he found “no systemic problems”.
As of today, the Department of Defense has launched six investigations or reviews into the treatment of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, none is designed to probe the role of senior officers or the civilian leadership in the Pentagon or relevant policies that they may have developed.
In addition, the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, has appointed a commission headed by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, to review Department of Defense detention operations and to advise the Secretary of Defense on the “cause of the problems and what should be done to fix them.”
As reported by Jim Lobe of Foreign Policy in Focus, the panel’s unpaid executive director, James Blackwell, has done Pentagon consulting as an employee of Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego, the seventh-largest recipient of defense contract awards in fiscal 2002, with $2.1 billion. Lobe says this raises the question of whether Blackwell could challenge the Pentagon. Further, Pentagon sources have told Human Rights Watch that “those working on the outstanding investigations are under tremendous pressure not to implicate top officials.” Finally, the organization also claims that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is in frequent contact with the panel, thus raising “additional questions about its independence”.
One of the more troubling aspects of the current investigations is that none of them include the Central Intelligence Agency. Yet mistreatment of prisoners would be nothing new to this agency: The CIA has a long history of prisoner abuse, and there are many suggestions of CIA involvement in interrogation abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as well-documented evidence that the agency has systematically engaged in ‘rendering’, i.e. secretly taking detainees to countries known to use torture techniques in their prisons, and leaving them there for interrogation.
Earlier CIA history provides little more encouragement. The National Security Archive recently published two previously classified CIA interrogation-training manuals from 1960s and the 1980s, counseling "Coercive Techniques" such as those used to mistreat detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Also published was a secret 1992 report written for then Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, warning that US Army intelligence manuals incorporated the earlier work of the CIA for training Latin American military officers in interrogation and counterintelligence techniques and contained "offensive and objectionable material" that "undermines U.S. credibility, and could result in significant embarrassment."
One of the manuals includes a detailed section on "The Coercive Counterintelligence Interrogation of Resistant Sources," with concrete assessments on employing "Threats and Fear," "Pain," and "Debility." The language of the 1983 "Exploitation" manual draws heavily on the earlier manual, as well as on Army Intelligence field manuals from the mid 1960s to combat counterinsurgency in Vietnam. Recommendations on prisoner interrogation include the threat of violence and deprivation, but note that no threat should be made unless the questioner "has approval to carry out the threat." The interrogator "is able to manipulate the subject's environment," the 1983 manual states, "to create unpleasant or intolerable situations, to disrupt patterns of time, space, and sensory perception."
After Congress began investigating reports of Central American atrocities in the mid-1980s, the CIA's "Human Resource Exploitation" manual was hand edited to alter passages that appeared to advocate coercion and stress techniques. In1991, the Army’s Southern Command evaluated the manuals for use in expanding military support programs in Colombia. In March 1992, Secretary Cheney received an investigative report on "Improper Material in Spanish-Language Intelligence Training Manuals." Classified SECRET, the report noted that five of the seven manuals "contained language and statements in violation of legal, regulatory or policy prohibitions" and recommended they be recalled. The memo is stamped: "SECDEF HAS SEEN." A declassified memorandum of conversation with the Southern Command officer responsible for assembling the Latin American manuals states that the manuals had been forwarded to DOD headquarters for clearance "and came back approved but UNCHANGED."
Underlying the avalanche of verbiage surrounding the prisoner abuse scandal is the core question: Can the US Armed Forces credibly investigate themselves? Have they ever?
John Stuart Blackton, a retired senior US Foreign Service officer and a veteran of Army service in Southeast Asia, writing in the Washington Post, takes us back to Vietnam War days, and an earlier White House under Lyndon Johnson. “In that war”, he writes, “the decision was made to employ the full powers of the commander in chief to buttress and reinforce the Geneva Conventions and the criminal sanctions under the US Code that followed from these conventions.”
But, he says, “Far more attention was paid in Vietnam than in Iraq to ensuring an environment in which every American combatant understood the basic rules of the Geneva Conventions. These principles were part of universal military training, reinforced by the chain of command in the field and largely, although certainly not universally, adhered to by the troops. “
A request from the International Red Cross in December 1964 to the U.S. and Vietnamese governments led in 1965 to “a joint US-Vietnamese military committee to work out details on the application of the Geneva Conventions in Vietnam.”
Blackton adds: “Every draftee and volunteer was given, during basic training, mandatory instruction in the principles of the conventions. Soldiers were tested on that training, and the results were recorded in their personnel jackets…Every soldier also received a plastic pocket card bearing the signature of our commander in chief, Lyndon Baines Johnson. It was headed ‘The Enemy in Your Hands’ and summarized the conventions in simple, clear language. Item No. 3, ‘MISTREATMENT OF ANY CAPTIVE IS A CRIMINAL OFFENSE. EVERY SOLDIER IS PERSONALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ENEMY IN HIS HANDS’ was followed by this unambiguous guidance: "It is both dishonorable and foolish to mistreat a captive. It is also a punishable offense. Not even a beaten enemy will surrender if he knows his captors will torture or kill him. He will resist and make his capture more costly. Fair treatment of captives encourages the enemy to surrender."
There can be no doubt that there were American abuses in Vietnam, both in combat and in the handling of prisoners. The ‘My Lai Massacre’ is, of course, the best remembered of that era. It happened in combat on March 16, 1968, when a US Army company, under the command of Lt. William Calley, attacked the small hamlet of My Lai, which they were told was an enemy stronghold. A post-battle report said the mission was a complete success by body count standards: 128 Vietnamese killed. One detail stood out, however. Only three rifles and 10 hand grenades were seized from what should have been a significant enemy encampment.
Cover-up of the massacre began immediately. Reports on the My Lai operation said it was a stunning victory against a Viet Cong stronghold. Stars and Stripes, the army newspaper, applauded the courage of the American soldiers who had risked their lives. General William Westmoreland, US commander in Viet Nam, sent a personal congratulatory note to the responsible company. An initial investigation into the incident was swift and definitive: My Lai was a combat operation in which twenty civilians had accidentally been killed.
But too many soldiers knew what had really happened. Thanks to one of them, the news eventually reached Congressman Morris Udall, the Defense Department, and President Nixon. General Westmoreland ordered an immediate inquiry. The Army’s investigations uncovered the horror of My Lai, as well as the killing of hundreds of civilians by other army units at My Khe and Co Luy. Details of the investigations were leaked to the press. An interview with Lt. Calley by then freelance reporter Seymour Hersh – whose reporting for The New Yorker broke the Abu Ghraib story -- put My Lai on the front pages of American newspapers.
The Army’s investigation found that the My Lai massacre resulted from faulty leadership, that there was a massive cover-up, and that most American soldiers were poorly trained in the rules of war. Twenty-five officers and enlisted men, including Lt. Calley and his superior officer, Capt. Medina, were eventually charged with crimes, but only six cases were ever tried, notwithstanding that in some cases, the defendants admitted killing civilians. In the end, only one soldier, Lt. William Calley, was found guilty of the murder of more than 100 Vietnamese civilians.
So the question of whether the Defense Department is capable of investigating itself remains a mixed picture. Judging from the investigations that are unclassified, it appears that they work best when they are demanded by Congress or when abuses are uncovered and reported by the press. But based on what we have learned from the Defense Department thus far, it appears that not even the media and Congressional firestorm over Abu Ghraib and similar prisoner abuses may be enough.
This is the view of Reed Brody, special counsel to Human Rights Watch. He notes that “It has now been three months since the appearance of the first pictures of US soldiers humiliating and torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Shortly after the photos came out, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told foreign leaders: ‘Watch America. Watch how we deal with this. Watch how America will do the right thing.’ But America is not doing the right thing. The photos were followed by revelations that the use of illegal, coercive interrogation methods on detainees had been approved at the highest levels of government, and by evidence that abuse of detainees was widespread in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet only a few low-ranking soldiers have been called to account, and the administration is sticking to its line that the Abu Ghraib crimes were the work of a few ‘bad apples’."
Given the checkered history of Defense Department investigations of itself, there is a compelling case for a truly independent, bipartisan approach by a body much like the 9/11 Commission. This will surely be resisted by President Bush, who initially resisted the idea of the 9/11 Commission, and by virtually everyone at the Pentagon and the CIA. But such a commission may be the only way the American people – and the world – will learn the full extent of the abuses and be able to demand action to keep them from happening again.