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have until now tried to avoid writing about the same topic
two weeks in a row. But Abu Ghraib is something I haven't
been able to get away from. All week long there has been this
voice in the back of my head as I read about the newest disclosure
or photo or hearing scheduled in Congress, talking me out
of my desire to just shut the whole thing off: "This is history.
Now more than ever, for some reason, I have the sense of
living through a time that will be returned to over and over
by later generations. Maybe it's because other turning points
in recent American history have been marked by televised Congressional
hearings - the Watergate hearings, the McCarthy hearings before
But for whatever reason, these days I get up and go to bed
with a strange awareness that what we are living through right
now is not just the present but the future. I can already
see the lens being turned back in our direction by the people
who come after us. They will come back here because they know
that it was here, now, that the turning point came. They will
want to understand why we chose the future we chose. They
will wish, probably, that they could go back in time and ask
us: why did it happen this way? Why did history turn down
this path, and not that?
But if they could, we wouldn't be able to answer. We are
having enough trouble trying to understand how we got here.
Where we go is anyone's guess.
To go back to the image I ended with last
time: after listening to the Abu Ghraib hearings, it seems
to me like we are about waist-deep in the black river and
sinking fast. We can turn around and wade to shore, or we
can dive in once and for all. What we are not going to be
able to do is stand there forever, up to our ankles in mud
and slime, fighting the pull of the current. We have reached
the point at which it will be decided. Either we get out,
or we go down.
Of all the frightening things I've heard over the past two
weeks, what scared me most was Senator Inhofe's performance
on Tuesday morning. All the way through I've been frustrated
by the approach most of the senators have taken to this hearing;
it is one of my rules that you don't ask a question unless
you really want to know the answer, and it seems that in Washington
the purpose of asking a question is generally to manipulate
the witness into confirming some prearranged point you want
But nothing could be worse than watching a United States
senator get up in front of his colleagues, Major General Taguba,
and the world, and use up his alloted time by delivering a
long, loud, unrepentant justification of what was done to
the prisoners at Abu Ghraib. According to him, apparently,
as long as someone is suspected of having harmed the
coalition forces, it is perfectly acceptable to strip him
naked, put a bag over his head, and set the attack dogs on
This is acceptable, according to Senator Inhofe, because
it's not as bad as what Saddam Hussein used to do. He went
so far as to say that he had no doubt every prisoner in Abu
Ghraib woke up every morning "thanking Allah" that the Americans
were running the prison and not Saddam Hussein, because we
haven't - so far as anyone knows - resorted to doing things
like putting an electric drill through a prisoner's hand,
or cutting off body parts.
So this is where public discourse in this country is now.
It's all right for us to torture people, as long as we don't
torture them quite as depravedly as Saddam Hussein did.
This is one of the questions the future will have for us.
At what point was it decided that all we need to be is slightly
better than pure evil?
I don't have the whole answer; I doubt anyone does. But
I have spent some quality time with the executive summary
of Major General Taguba's 6000-page report on conditions at
the Abu Ghraib prison. And what I want to talk about now is
something that does not seem to be getting much play in the
press, and which might help us explain to gentlemen like Senator
Inhofe - who apparently are so thoroughly convinced of American
supremacy that they no longer have either a basic sense of
human decency or an ounce of compassion for anyone who wasn't
smart enough to be born in our great country where everything
good is gathered - why torture is not a good idea.
A fair amount of Taguba's report has already made it into
the media; but most of the discussion so far has involved
the findings in Part One, which is the part pertaining to
prison abuse. Part One is certainly disturbing enough. But
to understand why Part One is as disturbing as it is, you
have to look beyond that to Part Two, which deals with "detainee
escapes and accountability lapses" at Abu Ghraib.
I thought at first that "accountability lapses" simply meant
the failure to hold the soldiers accountable for their actions.
Actually, in the language of military bureaucratese, "accountability
lapse," in this context, means "failure to keep track of the
The Abu Ghraib prison complex was holding a lot of different
people, and many of them had had nothing to do with attacks
on coalition forces. Taguba points out that although the "security
internees" and the "Iraqi criminals" were kept in separate
compounds, the fact that they shared the same facility "invite[d]
confusion about handling, processing, and treatment" of the
This confusion could only have been exacerbated by what Taguba
found to be a serious lack of interest in keeping accurate
and up-to-date records of which prisoners were being housed
in what section. Prisoners would be moved from one area to
another and the change would go unrecorded for days; the results,
Taguba concludes, were "gross differences in the detainee
manifest and the actual occupants of an individual compound,
and significant confusion of the MP soldiers."
So, in other words, when the MPs went into a cell to drag
out its naked occupant to face a pair of snarling guard dogs
in the corridor, they wouldn't even necessarily know who he
was or why he had been arrested. Which of course meant that
they couldn't possibly have any idea what kind of "'intelligence"
he might have, or whether he had really been responsible for
endangering the lives of their comrades.
And if that naked occupant eventually decided that the only
way to save his life and his genitals was to escape from the
complex, there was no guarantee that anyone would know he
had gone. According to Taguba, in addition to the twenty-seven
documented instances of prisoners escaping there were "several
more unreported cases of escape that were probably 'written
off' as administrative errors or otherwise undocumented."
Karpinski herself admitted to 32 escapes, five of which were
apparently never recorded.
So not only did the soldiers at Abu Ghraib not know who
they were holding, they didn't know who they weren't holding.
Even when the prison authorities could definitively say
who they had and where they were being held, those prisoners
were not necessarily still under suspicion. Part of the reason
Abu Ghraib was overcrowded, according to Karpinski, was that
she did not have the authority to release prisoners who had
been brought in for "crimes against the coalition," even after
it had been determined that they were "of no intelligence
value and no longer pose[d] a significant threat to coalition
The release of prisoners accused of "crimes agains the coalition"
had to be approved by Major General Barbara Fast, who "routinely
deined the board's recommendations to release detainees in
this category who were no longer deemed a threat." So, a significant
number of the prisoners held in the compound where all the
torturing was done would have been people who had been "no
longer deemed a threat" by Karpinski and her soldiers, but
which Major General Fast had decided to hang onto anyway,
just to be on the safe side.
So, to review: the same soldiers who were so zealous about
"enabling" these interrogations by thinking up grotesque forms
of humiliation and abuse were also strangely disinterested
in "enabling" the intelligence-gathering process by doing
any of those little boring routine tasks that might have actually
made it possible for the civilian contractors to know with
some certainty who they were interrogating. The same military
intelligence officers who were so concerned to get information
from these prisoners were strangely uninterested in processing
Karpinski's release requests so that they could be reasonably
sure their civilian henchmen were working over people who
had some "intelligence value."
If "actionable intelligence" was what these people really
cared about, shouldn't they have made more of an effort to
keep track of the people they were holding? If what really
mattered to the people running this prison was getting information
that would be of some use to their comrades in the field,
wouldn't it have been more useful to update the change sheets
regularly so they knew who was in what cell than it was to
wire up some random prisoner's genitals and stand him on a
box with a bag over his head?
It baffles me that nobody is asking these questions. Instead,
we have senators carefully leading the witnesses through lines
of questioning designed to suggest that this abuse, regrettable
though it might be, was acceptable because it was helping
"save lives" by generating "actionable intelligence." Under
the conditions Taguba describes in Part Two, I don't see how
any amount of torment and humiliation was going to produce
reliable information. More to the point, it has been demonstrated
over and over throughout human history that even when you
do know who you're torturing, torture does not generate
accurate information; it merely induces the victim to confirm
everything that the torturer wants to believe. That might
make the torturers - and the civilians who are drooling over
their shoulders and egging them on - feel good; but it's not
going to "save lives."
Taguba's team, at least, was aware that the actions of the
Abu Ghraib torturers were indefensible not only ethically
but practically. Early in the report, Taguba takes issue with
Miller's recommendation that the MPs should "be actively engaged
in setting the conditions for successful exploitation of the
internees" - in other words, that the MPs should be "softening
up" the prisoners to make the interrogators' job easier -
and instead supports Ryder's conclusion that "the OEF template
whereby military police actively set the favorable conditions
for subsequent interviews runs counter to the smooth operation
of a detention facility."
For an indication of how "smooth" the operation
of this particular detention facility was, we can turn to
section 34 of part two, in which Taguba lists the "riots,
escapes, and shootings" that were documented at Abu Ghraib
during the period under investigation. Indeed, it seems there
was hardly a dull moment during those long winter evenings:
three escapes in a single week in November, a major prison
riot in the same week that Bush flew into Baghdad to pretend
to serve turkey to the troops, more disturbances and shootings
in December, four escapes in January. And this is only the
stuff that's been documented.
By "OEF," Taguba is referring to Operation Enduring Freedom,
which if we can all cast our minds back that far you will
remember is the code name for the Afghanistan campaign (it
used to be Operation Infinite Justice, but we had to change
that after someone with a clue let Bush know that the arrogance
inherent in this title was offensive to the Muslim world).
And that tells us that to understand what really happened
at Abu Ghraib, we have to go back to Guantanamo.
The prisoner "accountability" problems Taguba describes
at Abu Ghraib would have shocked me more if I hadn't been
so badly shocked almost a year ago by an item I happened to
notice in the New
Zealand Herald in August 2003. It leads off with this
The US government said today it had neither an exact
count nor all the names of hundreds of people captured in
Afghanistan over a year ago and now detained at the Guantanamo
Bay Naval Base in Cuba.
This admission came out during the course of a legal action
brought by Belaid Ghelebi against the U.S. government in an
attempt to get legal representation for his brother Faled
Ghelebi, who he believed was being held at Guantanamo. The
U.S. Government either couldn't or wouldn't confirm that they
were actually holding Ghelebi. "We think we have him," said
the government's lawyers, "but we're not sure."
I wasn't not the only person in the country, at least, who
was simply flabbergasted to hear that even after a year the
U.S. government still did not know exactly who they had down
A panel of appeals court judges hearing the case on Monday
expressed shock about the apparent lack of record keeping
on a group of hundreds of people, possibly including some
children, who have been in custody for 577 days.
"It strikes me as astonishing that the government
says they have no idea whether this gentleman is or is not
being held," one said. "Don't you even keep records?"
Government lawyers responded that while they had attempted
to keep records, they were incomplete because some of those
who were arrested had not co-operated with authorities.
They said that translating the names from Arabic to English
had created further problems with spelling.
It just seems like a pretty basic question to me: If you
can't even figure out who you're talking to, how are you going
to make any sense of what he tells you?
You wait and wait, and nobody asks these questions. The
closest anyone came was Hillary Clinton - who, no doubt partly
because she of all people knows exactly how badly all the
men around her would like to pin this whole debacle on a single
female officer, is apparently one of the few senators on that
committee who still sees an obvious connection between Major
General Miller's review of the detention facilities in Iraq
in August-September 2003 and the apparent adoption, in the
months that followed, of the same tactics Miller had deployed
in Guantanamo. Miller has never been held accountable for
the "lapses in accountability" that are clearly as big a problem
in Guantanamo as they are at Abu Ghraib.
Nobody will ever tell us anything about what's going on
down in Guantanamo, of course. But my guess is that the "successful
exploitation of internees" looks about the same there as it
does in Abu Ghraib. And someday, the future is going to hold
us all accountable for that, too.
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