May 12, 2004
By The Plaid Adder
I 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. Pay attention."
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 them.
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 to make.
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 him.
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 prisoners."
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 prisoners.
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 forces."
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 amazing statement:
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 in Guantanamo:
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.
The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an equally demented online audience since 1996. More of the same can be found at the Adder's Lair.