Only against this background can one properly appreciate the opening paragraph of former secretary Schlesinger’s report, five powerfully peculiar sentences, in which the bureaucratic priorities of this political containment effort have thoroughly corrupted the language:
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. However, we do know that some of the egregious abuses at Abu Ghraib which were not photographed did occur during interrogation sessions and that abuses during interrogation sessions occurred elsewhere.
Mr. Schlesinger and his fellow commissioners begin by defining all the events at Abu Ghraib as “acts of brutality and purposeless sadism,” though they admit, in the next sentence, that they in fact occurred “at the hands of both military police and military intelligence.” The next sentence abruptly and arbitrarily narrows the subject from “the events…on the night shift” to “the pictured abuses”—that is, those in the photographs—which the writers say were not “even directed at intelligence targets.” These “represent deviant behavior”—except for the fact, as they go on to concede in the fifth sentence (where perhaps counsel intervened), that “some of the egregious abuses…which were not photographed did occur during interrogation sessions.” It is a strange tangle of self-contradictory and oddly qualified sentences which seems designed to allow Mr. Schlesinger and others in the administration to contend that their report proved decisively that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were nothing more than the photographs—an argument that in fact the report that follows decisively disproves.
The “celebrity abuses”—those known through the photographs—are segregated firmly within the realm of “acts of brutality and purposeless sadism,” as Mr. Schlesinger calls them—”Animal House on the night shift”—and thereby sealed off entirely from the responsibility of policymakers. Even now seven hapless MPs are being prosecuted—two have already pleaded guilty—but only, in effect, for taking pictures; that is, only for those acts which can be said to have taken place outside the realm of interrogation or of acts “setting the conditions for interrogation.” On the other hand, acts of brutality that can’t be attributed entirely to sadistic military police, and which clearly involved military intelligence and the process of interrogation—those, that is, that risk implicating policymakers, who in the end are responsible for deciding what the interrogators can and cannot do—are ascribed in the reports to “misinterpretation/confusion” on the part of the intelligence people about what interrogation techniques could and could not be used at Abu Ghraib. These actions, after all, are where the political danger lies; for knowledge about “interrogation techniques” leads to knowledge about the official doctrine that allowed those techniques, doctrine leads to policy, and policy leads to power.
Nixon: Do you think we want to go this route now? Let it hang out?
Dean: Well, it isn’t really that.
Haldeman: It’s a limited hang-out.
Ehrlichman: It’s a modified, limited hang-out.
—The White House, March 22, 1973
The delicate bureaucratic construction now holding the Abu Ghraib scandal firmly in check rests ultimately on President Bush’s controversial decision, on February 7, 2002, to withhold protection of the Geneva Convention both from al-Qaeda and from Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. The decision rested on the argument, in the words of White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez, that “the war against terrorism is a new kind of war,” in fact, a “new paradigm [that] renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions….” In a prefiguring of later bureaucratic wars, lawyers in the State Department and many in the military services fought against this decision, arguing, prophetically, that it “would undermine the United States military culture, which is based on a strict adherence to the law of war.”
For torture, this decision was Original Sin: it made legally possible the adoption of the various “enhanced interrogation techniques” that have been used at CIA secret prisons and at the US military’s prison at Guantánamo Bay. As it turns out, however, for the administration, Bush’s decision was also Amazing Grace, because, by implying that the US military must adhere to wholly different rules when interrogating, say, Taliban prisoners in Guantánamo, who do not enjoy Geneva Convention protection, and Iraqi insurgents at Abu Ghraib, who do, it makes it possible to argue that American interrogators, when applying the same techniques at Abu Ghraib that they had earlier used in Afghanistan or at Guantánamo, were in fact taking part not in “violent/sexual abuse incidents,” like their sadistic military police colleagues, but instead in “misinterpretation/confusion incidents.”
A central figure in all this is Major General Geoffrey Miller, who when last we saw him, in late August 2003, was on his way from Guantánamo, where he commanded the detention facility, to Abu Ghraib, where he had been ordered “to review current Iraqi Theater ability to rapidly exploit internees for actionable intelligence.” General Miller’s report, which remains secret but was made available to me, recommends, among other things, that those in charge of Abu Ghraib should “dedicate and train a detention guard force subordinate to [the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center] that sets conditions for the successful interrogation and exploitation of internees/detainees. This action,” he adds, “is now in progress.” The MPs, in other words, should be working for the interrogators and spending significant time “softening up” prisoners, by keeping them awake, “making sure this one has a bad night,” etc.—doing, that is, precisely what the accused military police, no doubt self-servingly, claimed they were doing in at least some of those dreadful photographs.
Before he left Iraq, General Miller also “left behind a whole series of [Standard Operating Procedures] that could be used as a start point for [Abu Ghraib] interrogation operations.” After returning to Guantánamo, the general dispatched to Iraq a follow-up team who, according to General Fay, brought with it the secretary of defense’s letter of April 16, 2003, “outlining the techniques authorized for use with the GTMO detainees.” Various parts of the bureaucracy, both inside and outside the Department of Defense, had been fighting over these interrogation techniques since the previous December. On December 2, Secretary Rumsfeld had approved, among other techniques, yelling at detainees, use of stress positions, use of isolation, deprivation of light and auditory stimuli, use of hoods, use of twenty-hour interrogation, removal of clothing, use of mild physical contact, and “use of detainees’ individual phobias (such as fear of dogs) to induce stress.”
Six weeks later, reportedly after vigorous opposition from lawyers in the Department of the Navy, among others, Rumsfeld rescinded these instructions and convened a working group to recommend suitable methods for Guantánamo. Though the derivation of interrogation techniques eventually adopted for Iraq is almost Talmudic in its intricacy, and though the list of methods permitted changed at least three times during the critical fall of 2003, Fay makes it clear in his report that Lieutenant General Sanchez’s command in Iraq “relied heavily on the series of SOPs [standard operating procedures] which MG G. Miller provided to develop not only the structure, but also the interrogation policies for detainee operations.” Other sources include, according to a classified section of Fay’s report made available to me, the interrogation policy of the shadowy, elite unit Joint Task Force-121, which spent its time searching for “high value targets” in Iraq. “At some point,” Fay says, the leading military intelligence battalion at Abu Ghraib “came to possess the JTF-121 interrogation policy” and the first set of interrogation rules used by this unit “were derived almost verbatim from JTF-121 policy,” which
included the use of stress positions during fear-up harsh interrogation approaches, as well as presence of military working dogs, yelling, loud music, and light control. The memo also included sleep management and isolation approaches.
On September 14, Lieutenant General Sanchez signed a policy that included elements of the JTF-121 procedures and elements drawn from General Miller’s GTMO policy, including the use of dogs, stress positions, yelling, loud music, light control, and isolation, among other techniques.
The policy at Abu Ghraib would change at least twice more but what is critical here is Fay’s point, included in a still-secret section of the report, that “policies and practices developed and approved for use on Al Qaeda and Taliban detainees who were not afforded the protection of the Geneva Conventions, now applied to detainees who did fall under the Geneva Conventions’ protections.” Sanchez later tried to define, unilaterally, some of his detainees as “unlawful combatants”—and the e-mail I quoted earlier, sent in August 2003 by a captain in military intelligence, suggests that interrogators feeling the pressure to produce results were eager that this be done. But in fact, as Schlesinger points out, Sanchez had no authority to make such a determination.
This confusion over doctrine supposedly allowed some of the more gruesome practices that are so patiently set out in General Fay’s report, including sensory deprivation, routine nudity and humiliation, “exploiting the Arab fear of dogs,” and prolonged isolation of a particularly revolting kind:
DETAINEE-14 was detained in a totally darkened cell measuring about 2 meters long and less than a meter across, devoid of any window, latrine or water tap, or bedding. On the door the [Red Cross] delegates noticed the inscription “the Gollum,” and a picture of the said character from the film trilogy “Lord of the Rings.”
Detainee-14 was one of eight detainees to whom General Sanchez denied the Red Cross access.
The fact is that countless details in these reports give the lie to any supposed rigid division between the “violent/sexual acts incidents” and the “misinterpretation/confusion incidents,” not only because in many cases military police really were setting “the conditions for the successful interrogation and exploitation of internees/detainees,” as Major General Miller recommended they should, but because general practices, like the extensive use of nudity, “likely contributed,” as General Fay wrote in his report, to “an escalating ‘de-humanization’ of the detainees and set the stage for additional and more severe abuses to occur.”
There simply was no clear dividing line, no point where sadistic abuses became instances of “misinterpretation/confusion”—where, that is, an interrogator simply erred in applying a technique that while permitted in Afghanistan or Guantánamo, constituted a violation in Iraq of the Geneva Conventions. How isolated could the so-called “Animal House on the night shift” abuses of the military police have been from military intelligence when, as we learn in the Fay report, one of the most notorious images, that of “several naked detainees stackedin a ‘pyramid,’” served as a “screen saver” on one of the computers in the military intelligence office?
James Harding (Financial Times): Mr. President, I want to return to the question of torture. What we’ve learned from these memos this week is that the Department of Justice lawyers and the Pentagon lawyers have essentially worked out a way that US officials can torture detainees without running afoul of the law. So when you say you want the US to adhere to international and US laws, that’s not very comforting. This is a moral question: Is torture ever justified?
President Bush: Look, I’m going to say it one more time. …Maybe I can be more clear. The instructions went out to our people to adhere to law. That ought to comfort you. We’re a nation of law. We adhere to laws. We have laws on the books. You might look at these laws, and that might provide comfort for you. And those were the instructions…from me to the government.
—News conference, Sea Island, Georgia, June 10, 2004
As I write, four months have passed since a series of bizarre photographs were broadcast on American television and entered the consciousness of the world. Seven military police, those “few bad apples,” have been indicted and two have pled guilty. According to the military’s latest account, reported in The New York Times, thirteen service members have been discharged, and fifty-four have suffered some form of “lesser disciplinary action,” while fifty-seven others have been “referred to court-martial proceedings”—although it is impossible to know how many such “proceedings” will result in actual charges and trials, and it seems unlikely that any would before the election. What has been on trial, thus far, however is the acts depicted in the photographs and these acts, while no doubt constituting abuse, have been carefully insulated from any charge that they represent, or derived from, US policy—a policy that permits torture. Thus far, in the United States at least, there has been relatively little discussion about torture and whether the agents of the US government should be practicing it.
The twenty-seven military intelligence officers and soldiers implicated in General Fay’s report, meanwhile, have so far escaped indictment. A number of them have claimed the equivalent of Fifth Amendment protection and military prosecutors have so far declined to bring cases against them. Until they do, or offer grants of immunity for their testimony, it will be difficult to prosecute successfully the remaining military policemen, who include those men and women accused of the most serious photographed crimes. On the other hand, at least some of the military intelligence officers may be in a position to implicate officials above them. Such a threat, however implicit, might be a powerful lever to dissuade the administration from prosecution, at least before the election.
As for Major General Geoffrey Miller, the former commander of GTMO, he is now in command of Abu Ghraib. It is unclear precisely who ordered Major General Miller to make his “assessment visit” to Abu Ghraib late last summer, and if it is true, as seems likely and as many believe, that these orders originated at the top levels of the Pentagon—perhaps even from the office of the county’s leading “intelligence junkie,” Donald Rumsfeld—then no proof of this has emerged. Nor, at this point, would such proof, or anything short of evidence linking Rumsfeld to what was shown in the photographs, make a decisive difference. The fact that the legal trail at Abu Ghraib has been directed toward the abuses that appear in the photographs means that the question of policy—of whether the United States should be torturing prisoners, of what the political and moral costs of this will finally be, and of what responsibility those who ultimately direct that policy really bear—has hardly been seriously debated, whether in Congress or anywhere else. Only now, more than four months after the photographs were broadcast to the world, and after eight prominent retired generals and admirals wrote to President Bush publicly demanding a truly independent and far-reaching investigation, has there been some small sign that the administration, perhaps finally pressed by a reluctant Republican Senate, might be forced to go beyond the piecemeal and dilatory efforts it has so far grudgingly made.
If that does happen, it will have been long in coming—and again, almost certainly, and critically for the administration, no results could be known until after the election. So far, officials of the Bush administration, who counted on the fact that the public, and much of the press, could be persuaded to focus on the photographs—the garish signboards of the scandal and not the scandal itself—have been proved right. This makes Abu Ghraib a peculiarly contemporary kind of scandal, with most of its plotlines exposed to view—but with few willing to follow them and fewer still to do much about them. As with other controversies over the Iraq war, the revelations have been made, the behavior exposed, but the moral will to act, or even to debate what action might be warranted, seems mostly lacking.
Meantime the Hooded Man has taken his place among the symbols calling forth, in some parts of the world, a certain image of the United States and what it stands for. Sheik Bashir, who said of the occupying soldiers that “no one can punish them, whether in our country or their country,” has thus far been proved right. Only those at the lowest rung of the ladder have so far been punished and the matter of what was actually happening within the interrogation rooms of Abu Ghraib, not to mention in the secret detention centers of the CIA, has hardly been debated. The Iraqis know this, even if many Americans do not. Meanwhile the political damage to US interests in the world has been very great. As the military strategist Anthony Cordesman put it,
We need to understand that this image is going to be used for years to come. We are dealing with an ideological climate in which the extremists are the threat, not the moderates. And they are going to use these images for years to come, and they are going to couple them to images like Israeli treatment of the Palestinians and find ways of tying this to all their conspiracy theories and hostile images of the West. And the end result is that they will be tools for insurgents and extremists and terrorists.12
There is no weighing such ongoing damage against the intelligence that these techniques may have gained. How can such things as these be quantified? According to the Schlesinger report,
There were five cases of detainee deaths as a result of abuse by U.S. personnel during interrogations…. There are 23 cases of detainee deaths still under investigation….
The words are blunt, though a writer less fond of euphemism might have put the matter even more plainly: “American interrogators have tortured at least five prisoners to death.” And from what we know, Mr. Schlesinger’s figures, if anything, substantially understate the case.
It has become a cliché of the Global War on Terror—the GWOT, as these reports style it—that at a certain point, if the United States betrays its fundamental principles in the cause of fighting terror, then “the terrorists will have won.” The image of the Hooded Man, now known the world over, raises a stark question: Is it possible that that moment of defeat could come and go, and we will never know it?
—September 9, 2004
Anthony Cordesman, "Goal in Iraq Is to 'Get the Best Compromise You Can,'" interview with Bernard Gwertzman, Council on Foreign Relations, May 11, 2004.↩
Anthony Cordesman, "Goal in Iraq Is to 'Get the Best Compromise You Can,'" interview with Bernard Gwertzman, Council on Foreign Relations, May 11, 2004.↩