By William Fisher
This Tuesday, April 28, will mark five years since Americans got their first look at the sickening photographs from Abu Ghraib on “60 Minutes.”
And a month after that, on May 28, the Department of Justice, acting under a court order, will release several thousand never-before-seen-in-public photographs of U.S. prisoner abuse from Afghanistan and from elsewhere in Iraq.
The recent “torture memos” -- which will inform our reaction to these new photos in a way not possible at the time of the Abu Ghraib scandal -- were also released as the result of what President Obama called an unwinnable lawsuit – by the same plaintiff, the American Civil Liberties Union, and under the same law, the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
We don’t yet know what we’ll see in these new images. Some members of Congress, who viewed them in a classified setting, have said they are far worse than the Abu Ghraib images.
So on May 28 we will get to see these new photos. We will again be outraged. There will be cries for investigations. Politicians will make statements. Doubtless, they will hold hearings.
But the question is “what comes next?”
To help answer that question, it might be instructive to remember what happened after Abu Ghraib.
In what has to be one of the most iconic – and absurd – statements made since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Army Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros told the press back in 2005 that humane treatment of detainees "is and always has been the Department of Defense standard."
Ballesteros was commenting on the so-called “Church Report,” one of more than a dozen major reviews, assessments or investigations related to the detention and treatment of war-on-terror detainees.
And Ballesteros added: "None of them found that there was a governmental policy directing, encouraging or condoning abuse."
And that has pretty much been the history of all these investigations of abuse.
They are full of sentences like, “Clearly abuses occurred at the prison at Abu Ghraib. There is no single, simple explanation for why this abuse at Abu Ghraib happened. The primary causes are misconduct (ranging from inhumane to sadistic) by a small group of morally corrupt soldiers and civilians, a lack of discipline on the part of the leaders and soldiers… and a failure or lack of leadership….”
Or try this one: “The abuses at Abu Ghraib primarily fall into two categories: a) intentional violent or sexual abuse and, b) abusive actions taken based on misinterpretations or confusion regarding law or policy.”
Or this: “Senior level officers did not commit the abuse at Abu Ghraib (but) they did bear responsibility for lack of oversight of the facility, failing to respond in a timely manner to the reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross and for issuing policy memos that failed to provide clear, consistent guidance for execution at the tactical level.”
Or this “No policy, directive or doctrine directly or indirectly caused violent or sexual abuse. In these cases, soldiers knew they were violating the approved techniques and procedures.”
Or this, from the investigation led by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger:
“The events of October through December 2003 on the night shift of Tier 1 at Abu Ghraib prison were acts of brutality and purposeless sadism. We now know these abuses occurred at the hands of both military police and military intelligence personnel. The pictured abuses, unacceptable even in wartime, were not part of authorized interrogations nor were they even directed at intelligence targets. They represent deviant behavior and a failure of military leadership and discipline. Department of Defense reform efforts are underway and the Panel commends these efforts.”
In not a single one of these reports was the name of any high-ranking Pentagon official ever uttered.
President Bush described the perpetrators in the Abu Ghraib photos as “a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values.” He meant grunts like Lynddie England and Charles Graner – the folks who got blamed for carrying out what we now know was U.S. policy
Why could the reports of these mostly honorable officers and public servants have all gotten it so wrong?
For starters, the scope of each of these investigative assignments was determined by the Pentagon. Thus, the officer heading up the first investigation was ordered to find out what happened within the 800th Military Police (MP) Brigade in our military prisons in Iraq– and only in Iraq.
That’s how Major General Antonio Taguba came to conclude:
“I find that the 800th MP Brigade was not adequately trained for a mission that included operating a prison or penal institution at Abu Ghraib Prison Complex… I also concur that units of the800th MP Brigade did not receive corrections-specific training during their mobilization period. MP units did not receive pinpoint assignments prior to mobilization and during the post mobilization training, and thus could not train for specific missions. The training that was accomplished at the mobilization sites were developed and implemented at the company level with little or no direction or supervision at the Battalion and Brigade levels, and consisted primarily of common tasks and law enforcement training.”
But even given this limitation, Gen.Taguba concluded that the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib went far beyond the actions of a few sadistic military police officers -- the administration's chosen culprits. His report said 27 military intelligence soldiers and civilian contractors committed criminal offenses, and that military officials hid prisoners from the Red Cross.
And it’s worth noting that for his candor, Gen. Taguba was forced into retirement by civilian Pentagon officials because he had been ''overzealous.'' ''They always shoot the messenger,'' Taguba said.
Then, there’s the limitation that investigators can only probe down from their rank, not up the chain of command to their superiors. A Brigadier General (one star) cannot investigate a Lieutenant General (two stars); a Lieutenant General cannot investigate a Major General (three stars). And a Major General cannot investigate a General (four stars).
It was precisely for that reason that Maj. Gen. George R. Fay, one of the Abu Ghraib investigators, told his superiors that he could not complete his inquiry without interviewing more senior-ranking officers, including Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the ground commander in Iraq.
Then there’s the pride factor.Most of the folks who carried out these investigations were career officers. They were proud of the military. One can see that pride in the conclusion of the 2004 report conducted by General Fay:
“Leaders and Soldiers throughout Operation Iraqi Freedom were confronted with a complex and dangerous operational environment. Although a clear breakdown in discipline and leadership, the events at Abu Ghraib should not blind us from the noble conduct of the vast majority of our Soldiers. We are a values based profession in which the clear majority of our Soldiers and leaders take great pride. A clear vote of confidence should be extended by the senior leadership to the leaders and soldiers who continue to perform extraordinarily in supporting our Nation’s wartime mission. Many of our soldiers have paid the ultimate sacrifice to preserve the freedoms and liberties that America and our Army represent throughout the world.”
So we saw the photos and learned nothing.
But the principal reason we learned nothing is that the Bush Administration wanted us to learn nothing. And a largely compliant media forgot to ask the right questions soon enough.
Remember that it was an ordinary soldier who was troubled enough by what he saw at Abu Ghraib to photograph it and put it on a CD that he turned over to his superiors. And remember that it was the military itself that announced, in 2003, that an investigation by the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Command was underway into alleged prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
But also remember that, back then, Donald Rumsfeld was a rock star, the darling of the press. Most of the journalists who attended his briefings were acting like stenographers.
What they didn’t know was that, by the time we got to see the Abu Ghraib photos in 2003, Jay Bybee and John Yoo had already used their contorted legal logic to write their so-called “torture memos” justifying “enhanced interrogation” techniques. By the time the Abu Ghraib photos surfaced on television, the Bush policy was already in place and being implemented. It would be five years before most of the American public began to get a glimmer of what that policy was.
Which brings me back to the new photos we’re going to see this Tuesday.
According to ACLU attorney Amrit Singh, "These photographs provide visual proof that prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel was not aberrational but widespread, reaching far beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib."
She says, "Their disclosure is critical for helping the public understand the scope and scale of prisoner abuse as well as for holding senior officials accountable for authorizing or permitting such abuse."
She is spot on. There is only one purpose in releasing these new photos -- to hold senior officials accountable for the policies that produced the behavior that produced the photos.
So who would these officials be? Well, for openers, such names as Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Tenet and Rice spring to mind. They – not the lawyers who wrote the memos -- were “The Iraq Group” – the engines that powered the policies.
It is a near-certainty that we will never see any of these people in jail or even on trial. But what we have a right to know is who did what to whom and why.
Left to his own inclination and temperament, President Obama is not going to make that happen – unless we force him to make it happen. Unless the public pressure for an independent commission of inquiry becomes strong enough to shape the White House’s perception of political reality.
That should be the next item on our “to do” list.
Yes, we can!