June 18, 2007

Holding Torturers Accountable

Seymour Hersh's new article in The New Yorker, entitled "The General's Report," is required reading. In it, Mr. Hersh extensively interviews Major General Antonio Taguba, the man tasked with investigating the torture, murder and abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison by American personnel, and the author of what has become know as the Taguba Report, the definitive account of that investigation. This article is imporant for three reasons:

First, it serves to further confirm that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was well aware of what was going on at the prison significantly before he claimed - under oath - to have been:

Rumsfeld was particularly concerned about how the classified report had become public. "General," he asked, "who do you think leaked the report?" Taguba responded that perhaps a senior military leader who knew about the investigation had done so. "It was just my speculation," he recalled. "Rumsfeld didn’t say anything." (I did not meet Taguba until mid-2006 and obtained his report elsewhere.) Rumsfeld also complained about not being given the information he needed. "Here I am," Taguba recalled Rumsfeld saying, "just a Secretary of Defense, and we have not seen a copy of your report. I have not seen the photographs, and I have to testify to Congress tomorrow and talk about this." As Rumsfeld spoke, Taguba said, "He’s looking at me. It was a statement."

Second, it lays to rest the notion that any sort of thorough investigation up the chain of command from the low-level personnel who actually abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib ever took place:

Taguba filed his report in March. In it he found "Numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees ... systemic and illegal abuse." ... “From what I knew, troops just don’t take it upon themselves to initiate what they did without any form of knowledge of the higher-ups,” Taguba told me. His orders were clear, however: he was to investigate only the military police at Abu Ghraib, and not those above them in the chain of command. “These M.P. troops were not that creative,” he said. “Somebody was giving them guidance, but I was legally prevented from further investigation into higher authority. I was limited to a box.”

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it strongly associates President Bush - who thus far has remained largely untainted by this scandal by placing blame on underlings - with one of the most sordid episodes from an administration rife with sordid episodes:

Whether the President was told about Abu Ghraib in January (when e-mails informed the Pentagon of the seriousness of the abuses and of the existence of photographs) or in March (when Taguba filed his report), Bush made no known effort to forcefully address the treatment of prisoners before the scandal became public, or to reĆ«valuate the training of military police and interrogators, or the practices of the task forces that he had authorized. Instead, Bush acquiesced in the prosecution of a few lower-level soldiers. The President’s failure to act decisively resonated through the military chain of command: aggressive prosecution of crimes against detainees was not conducive to a successful career.

Given the tide of utterly corrupt activities that has washed forth from the Bush White House, it is tempting to dismiss all of this as old news, or simply assimilate it as confirmation of long-held suspicions. However, the Abu Ghraib scandal was one of the first major stumbling blocks for the presidency of George W. Bush, and it is arguably one - along with the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay - that has inflicted some of the most significant and lasting damage to the global reputation and world standing of the United States.
As such, an understanding of the events that took place both at abu Ghraib and what was done - or more appropriately, not done - after the scandal came to light, is important. Every credible indication to date has been that the top levels of our government are complicit in torture. Those torturers, and the men and women who enabled them to traumatize and maim and kill human beings in their charge must be held accountable if America is ever to stand for what it stood before the current president claimed the highest office in the land.

Seymour Hersh's article is here, and Dan Froomkin at The Washington Post provides an excellent analysis with some supplementary information here.

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