The Torture Question
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who's to blame for abu ghraib?

That is the lingering question, despite 12 investigations to date that have been conducted by the Defense Department. Was it just a few lower-level bad apples who were responsible for Abu Ghraib or does accountability go far higher up the chain of command? Here are the views of Mark Danner, author of Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror; Michael Ratner, a human rights lawyer and president of the Center for Constitutional Rights; Gen. Janis Karpinski, former commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade; Gen. Jack Keane, former U.S. Army chief of staff; Dana Priest, Washington Post reporter; and former CIA agent Michael Scheuer.

Danner

Author, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror

Mark Danner

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… [T]here's a thoroughgoing attempt to essentially blame everything that's done, all of the abuse, on the lowest-level actors present, which is the military police, and to shield from any notion that [military intelligence] participated or even knew about these procedures. Now, why is that?

Well, when you start to say that military interrogators, military intelligence, are in the room when the abuse is taking place, you are connecting that kind of abuse to policy. When you connect it to policy, you're connecting it to policy-makers. When you connect it to policy-makers, you're connecting it to power. And what is critical in all of these reports is a concern to break that chain. …

So the theory behind the damage limitation -- and we've seen this damage limitation now for over a year; it's been very effective -- is to create a particular story and a story that Americans can live with, because this is an awful, shameful topic. They don't want to think about Americans abusing or torturing prisoners. Now, the story Americans can live with is this: that in a war zone, these young military policemen, at night, unsupervised, dealing with recalcitrant and annoying prisoners whose language they didn't know, began abusing them. And it's a terrible thing, but the reason it happens is because there wasn't anybody there to watch over what they were doing. The people in authority and responsibility did not know this was going on. It was happening at the night shift -- "animal house on the night shift," as James Schlesinger said. Therefore, though we should condemn this, though those people should be punished, it had nothing to do with the larger American military project; it had nothing to do with the larger American government.

That is the story that the administration has with great discipline, admirable discipline, told to the American people since the Abu Ghraib photographs were made public in April of 2004. And even though the reports themselves, if you read them, undermine this story on almost all points, the story in large part has been accepted by the majority of the American people. Why? Because it seems plausible, because it's something they want to believe, and because none of them will sit down and read the reports.

When I said to Gen. [Paul] Kern, "What were your conclusions in the Fay-Jones [report]?," and he said, "We have investigated; we had all the papers, thousands of pages, and we came to a really hard conclusion, which is failure of command," what does he mean by that? What are the implications? It sounds pretty tough.

Yes. Not only Gen. Kern has mentioned failure of command, but the Schlesinger report has some very critical things to say about commanders as well within the body of the report. What is particularly interesting is most of these people -- none of the commanders have been reprimanded with the exception, the single exception, and that's Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who was busted down to colonel. But none of the people in actual positions of responsibility -- I'm talking about [Lt. Gen.] Ricardo Sanchez; ... I'm talking about Col. Mark Warren, people who actually were in positions of responsibilities -- have in fact not been punished. So we have several times people using the phrase "failure of command," but the interesting question is, how can there be a failure of command if none of the commanders failed? ...

ratner

Human rights lawyer; president Center for Constitutional Rights

Michael Ratner

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You're seeing essentially a system which has become a closed system. There's no accountability. And someone would ask me, "Why is there no accountability?" Well, look what's controlling. There's three or four ways in which you can get accountability in this country.

One way is through the military chain of command, and looking up the chain of command and not down the chain of command to the lower-level soldiers. None of these reports have looked up the chain of command to Rumsfeld and the people in his office; they've all looked down the chain of command. And Rumsfeld controls that system of military justice. He's not going to investigate himself.

Civilian system of justice -- that's done by the attorney general of the United States. Who is the attorney general of the United States? Alberto Gonzales, who actually authorized some of what we've been talking about, some of these torture techniques. So you have essentially a hermetic system, closed in terms of any real accountability. So that's shocking to me.

Then the third way you can sometimes do things is a real serious congressional investigation. Of course, the Republicans dominate Congress right now. It's not like the majority of them want to have a real investigation of the key officials in the Republican administration. After all, they just confirmed Alberto Gonzales as attorney general; Rumsfeld's gotten another four years. They're thinking of giving some of the people involved in this additional promotions, and so Congress itself does not have the ability to really get an investigation going that's going to be hard-hitting. Yes, there's some Republican senators who want it; yes, there's Democrats who want it. But in fact there's no way to go.

So what's really been shocking to me is that [it's] not just a scandal, because it's much more than a scandal. This is conduct that violates the basic tenets of our society, authorized at the highest levels of our administration, and there is simply no way right now in this country to have a serious investigation of that conduct. ...

One of the findings, many times one of the findings of the 12 or so reports about what happened in Iraq at Abu Ghraib, all say failure of command... Thus far, the people who have been removed of command and disciplined, are Pappas, the colonel, and Janis Karpinski, who's the National Guard general. And of course, many people lower than that, noncommissioned officers. [Why hasn't anyone of a higher rank been held accountable?]

Well, I think that, you know, the Bush administration, wants to at least give up some people, lower level soldiers and some other, you know, less important people to at least make it appear as if there's a real investigation going on here and we're really disciplining the right people. And these are why this was caused. As soon as you go higher than that, you're talking about serious officials in the U.S. administration who authorized this stuff. And obviously, they don't want that to happen.

So what do you see happen? First, Gen. Miller after he did what he did at Guantanamo and Gitmo-izes Iraq, he is then sent to be in charge of all the prisons in Iraq after this. So instead of actually reprimanding him or demoting him, they actually give him a promotion, essentially. So what does that tell you? Either, A, they like his job, they like the fact that he was using interrogation techniques that were severe and inhumane, or they want to make sure that this guy is not going to talk and they want to protect not just him, but protect others up the chain of command.

Let's take a look at Gen. Sanchez, a three-star general sitting over there in Iraq in charge of everything, supposedly authorized the use of dogs and some other techniques. You know, there's a big debate going on now about giving that guy a fourth star. So what are they doing with him but promoting him. So you go up the chain of command a little higher. You give Rumsfeld another four years as secretary of defense, the guy who did the Rumsfeld techniques of interrogation. Or you go to Alberto Gonzales, president's counsel promoted to the attorney general of the United States.

So not only is there an attempt to cabin or keep very small the people they look at, the low level soldiers, recruits, a few officers… Karpinski and Pappas are not standing trial as lower level soldiers are. They're just reprimanded or they're not going to get promoted or whatever else is going to happen. They're not standing trial. So you get those people being looked at. But the people who actually put this policy in place have gotten promotions.

karpinski

Former commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade

Gen. Janis Karpinski

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[Was what happened at Abu Ghraib "midnight shift at the animal house"?]

Well, I think that that was the spin that was put on what happened to cause these photographs to be taken. I believe that they were told -- they were instructed by some of the other people in those photographs, or by people outside of the window of the photographs. I don't know who it would have been, but there's some likely possibilities.

People that were under tremendous pressure to get more actionable intelligence, then through the chain of command might give instructions to do whatever you need to do to get that information. It's open to interpretation: What do you mean by "do whatever we need to do"?

Now, you have some contractors, some civilians who are not under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, who have been sent there specifically to do interrogation work with great liberties to get more actionable intelligence, some of them sent specifically, identified and sent specifically by Gen. Miller because of their success in other locations.

So they have inflated egos perhaps, and now they're facing the night shift of these prisoners with suspected more information than what they're sharing. And all the gloves come off. "Do whatever we need to do." …

But I can tell you that these soldiers, these MPs -- Lynndie England was not even an MP, nor was one of the other soldiers. She was a mechanic. OK, they were brought over there specifically to work with these, setting up these photographs and everything. Lynndie England might have been over there for a variety of reasons, but they were brought over there specifically that night. And I know, with no doubt, that these soldiers didn't wake up that morning and say: "Hey, let's go screw with some prisoners tonight. Let's take some pictures. Let's violate everything we know to be decent and correct and fair." Lynndie England surely did not show up in Iraq with a dog collar and a dog leash.

So those items either came from previous experience at other locations with interrogations, or other people with bizarre ideas brought those pieces of equipment independent of any instructions. But somebody who understood what humiliation is to an Arab person designed these techniques. And military police personnel do not study the Arab mind. But my guess is that interrogators should or do; at least they know more, maybe from previous experience or otherwise. But somebody instructed this group of people on the night shift to do these things, and if they made them believe that it would take them out of Abu Ghraib or out of Iraq a day, even one day sooner than what the plan was, that would be incentive enough to get them to do it. I can't tell you specifically, because even though I've been held accountable for all of those soldiers' behavior, I never had the chance to speak to any one of them from when those pictures first surfaced. ...

keane

Chief of staff, U.S. Army, 1999-2003

Gen. Jack Keane

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Twelve commissions, reports, have come forward. … Are you satisfied that we've gotten to the bottom of this?

Oh, I think so, yeah, sure, I definitely do. Look, 37 years of experience here talking: When we have problems like this, it is when there's a group activity and numbers of people are involved in it; not an individual act, but when you have group activity and you know that that activity has been repetitious, invariably there's a huge leadership and discipline failure that's permitting that to happen. Because people are not doing what they should be [doing]. One, they don't have the right standards, they're not holding people accountable; and they're not providing the right kind of oversight. This stuff was always happening at night in the wee hours of the morning, by and large. Leaders were not doing their jobs by supervising, oversight, and making certain that things were in as good a shape at 2:00 in the morning as they are at 2:00 in the afternoon. That's the reality of it. And whenever we've had problems with people doing things in groups that are violating our standards in the military, it is invariably a leadership issue at its heart.

And yesterday, when the Schmidt Report says these same kind of things happened at Gitmo under Gen. Miller, leashes, [treating] people like dogs, the whole thing, how does that square with what you've just said?

Well, in my own mind, I don't believe for a minute that there was any of this Abu Ghraib activity taking place under Miller's leadership in Guantanamo Bay where you sort of have the renegade group of people, you know, abusing prisoners at 2:00 in the morning and sort of running wild of the place, what that gave you can indication of. If there was abuse of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, one, it would be isolated and it wouldn't be a systemic problem, an individual guard doing something. If people find out about it, they're going to do something about it.

Secondly, if there were interrogation techniques that were being used against a prisoner that may give Americans some concern, that probably was thought about. People put their minds on it. That's completely different than this renegade behavior that was taking place. And then what should happen is after we look at this thing, put a spotlight on it and see if that behavior is in concert with what we believe our values to be and how we treat prisoners and how we get information out of them. And as I understand, this recent allegation has to do with interrogation techniques and what kind of stress was allowed in terms of introducing it to a particular prisoner. And a lot of people had put their minds on it. That's completely different than a lack of leadership and discipline and an organiz[ation] that is not operating in accordance with proper standards. …

Do you think the Army guys who were charged with all this, both [those who worked at] detention facilities and interrogation, were given clear directions from the civilian authorities? …

Yeah, well, I think there's probably some room for some of our people, you know, to have been confused about -- I'm talking at the lowest level now -- that are actually handling detainees. Because there were a number of changes that took place, as I understand it, and so I think it's understandable that maybe at certain times they would be confused about what technique is permissible and what is not. Is a dog permissible or is a dog not? Or what levels of stress is permissible or not? Because we were involved as an institution about that, particularly in Iraq. So that's understandable. But that doesn't have anything to do with this behavior that we dealt with in Abu Ghraib. I mean, that behavior is off the charts, by anybody's definition. And nobody would tolerate that kind of thing.

priest

Reporter, Washington Post

Dana Priest

Can you connect what's happened at Gitmo, what's happened to the CIA and rendition, and Abu Ghraib? Or is Abu Ghraib really midnight shift at the animal house? …

… There are too many similarities, and the general mode of operation here was pushing responsibility down to a low level, giving them a lot of leeway in a system that was creating itself as it went along. And that's where the abuses happened.

It happens all along the way, and then it happens in some surprisingly similar ways. You know, we've just recently have the first evidence that the particular tactics that are so memorable in those awful photographs of Abu Ghraib -- the leash, the women's garments, the chaining people to beds or to the floor, having somebody on all fours acting like an animal -- those actually were used a year earlier in Guantanamo. Well, how did that get there? It may be through you know, not a direct chain, he said to her and she said to him, "Go chain him up and make him act like a dog." But it happened, and it's just not a coincidence. There was a lot of e-mailing going on between the interrogators at Abu Ghraib and the interrogators at Guantanamo and the commanders there and trying to figure out, you know, help, how can we do this better? So there's a lot of informal communication. And again, it's filling the void of some direct, stricter rules and procedures and training. And they were all being asked to kind of make it up as they go along.

I think also in Iraq, you have an additional confusion on the part of soldiers, officers. It sounds very bizarre to say this, but Iraq is a conventional battlefield in the legal sense, even though it's an unconventional war right now. No one at the top echelons of government treated it like they did the enemy combatants in Afghanistan. Everybody was covered, is covered by the Geneva Conventions, mainly because it's a sovereign state. And yet, the president and the White House and his supporters always called the insurgents in Iraq terrorists in the beginning, and they only now kind of switched their language and said foreign terrorists and the insurgents. So if you're a soldier down there and you know we're allowed to treat terrorists -- they don't abide by the rules of war and we're allowed to treat them differently, and my president's calling these guys in Iraq terrorists, well, OK, he's got his Geneva Conventions card but his commander is telling him to get some information out of these terrorists. Is that a clear situation for somebody trying to deal with that? I don't think so.

scheuer

Former CIA agent; author Imperial Hubris: Why The West is Losing the War on Terror

Michael Scheuer

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What caused Abu Ghraib?

What caused Abu Ghraib in my own mind is the lack of supervision, first of all. And shockingly in the military, no general officer has been faulted for what happened at Abu Ghraib.

The second thing is clear, that the people who were entrusted with jail and interrogation were not as well trained as they could be. But I think the bottom line is what we talked about earlier. This administration, like the Clinton administration, like the first Bush administration, is looking for the silver bullet. They're looking for the one piece of information that's going to stop this program or allow us to kill bin Laden and make it all go away.

And at base, that message is transmitted from the White House to [Pfc.] Lynndie England, the young lady who was charged [and in September convicted] on Abu Ghraib. And those people are fueled by the desire of the president and the leadership of the country to find that silver bullet. So I think those three things to me are great contributors to what happened at Abu Ghraib.

It's almost like a hunting license.

It is. And what's worse is that it's a hunting license, but it's wrapped in red, white and blue. What you're told you're doing is looking for that piece of information that'll protect the next 3,000 people who might be killed in New York or Los Angeles or wherever it is.

Some of it is done by people who maybe enjoy that kind of treatment of other human beings. But I think the unbridled passion for defending America is fueled by this request for "actionable" intelligence. …


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posted oct. 18, 2005

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