Monday, January 24, 2005

When Pictures Obscure 1,000 Words

I generally try to maintain an even keel on this site. I have tried (sometimes in vain) to resist the temptation to take short cuts with the facts, and view the world through the "tinted lens" of partisanship - as a colleague so eloquently put it. I even dedicated an entire post to the defense of the dialectic. In pursuit of the dialectic, this site aspires to air both sides of a given debate and remain solicitous of dissenting opinions (not always achieving this paradigm, but moving in that direction). TIA operates under the assumption that it is better to foster dialogue and cooperation in such rabidly polarized times, because most Americans mean well, they just have different means to achieve their ends.

But lately I feel as though I am losing my ability to remain so magnanimous to the political opposition - and it's not for lack of patience. The source of my crisis of faith has to do with the issue of torture, and how the discussion of that practice has manifested in the American body politic over the past three years.

When the first pictures out of Abu Ghraib emerged, I remember feeling repulsed and angered, and I believe that this was a similar reaction for most Americans. When the more horrific details began flowing in, because the pictures from Abu Ghraib were only really a sanitized and limited depiction of the widespread scourge, I was curious to see how this issue would be handled by the political powers that be. In the subsequent hearings on the matter, I recall feeling reassured at the seemingly sincere and candid words of Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), himself an active Air Force reservist, when he said that he would not allow some low level soldiers to become scapegoats for the larger problem. He and other GOP lawmakers like John Warner (R-VA) and John McCain (R-AZ) appeared sober and determined in their desire to apportion blame to the appropriate parties. I believed that Graham, and the Republican Party, would not let those seven soldiers dangle in the wind - becoming the poster children for a policy gone awry.

And I thought that surely the
conservatives in this country would see past partisan divides to insure that the reputation and ideals of America emerge intact from this ordeal. Even the Bush administration, notorious for circling the wagons, must see that the practitioners and architects of this policy must be punished in some way - or at the very least not rewarded.

Today I am left wondering what happened to Senator Graham's pledge? Where has Senator Warner's steely gaze been fixed as of late? What of the American people so willing to explain away the complexities of this issue by clinging to the delusional theory that seven soldiers are to blame for the entire scandal? What has the President done to address the perpetrators and the planners?

The answers to all of these questions is one long litany of disappointments. President Bush either promoted or retained every person involved in this debacle, and the lone dissenting voice, Colin Powell, has "retired" under pressure. Rumsfeld retained his post, Gonzales got promoted to Attorney General, Jay Bybee (the author of
the most outrageous legal opinion re: torture) was promoted to a spot on the US Court of Appeals, Generals Sanchez and Abizaid retained their posts, etc. Conservative pundits, journalists, and bloggers have done slightly better, but even then, the number willing to condemn torture and provide an accurate appraisal of the parameters and quality of the problem are so few that they are noticeable by their uniqueness. Far more ubiquitous are the apologists with their series of excuses and explanations ranging from advocacy for torture, to denial that the events that transpired were actually torture or that any, other than the seven, are to blame.

As for the American people, as
Frank Rich put it in his most recent column, the story has fallen out of favor with the 24-hour television media coverage, and so it has fallen off the radars of many Americans. There was a brief revival during the confirmation hearings of the torture-justifying Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, but even then we were warned by right-leaning voices like Glenn Reynolds to table the discussion because it was the wrong time and the wrong venue to raise such concerns. Glenn: I'm waiting for you to let us all know when it would be appropriate to broach the subject again - but I'm not holding my breath.

More disturbing still, it seems that the forces of revisionism in real-time have been encroaching on the story, creeping in like a cancer in order to distort the perception and understanding of this sordid episode. Today I want to look at some of the most common expressions of this real-time revisionism and compare them to what is in the public record courtesy of the US Army's own reports and investigations.

This Was Not Torture, Just Abuse

When Rush Limbaugh first made the absurd statement that the prisoner torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib was like frat hazing or initiation rites for the Skull and Bones, I thought that even the dittoheads must have done a double take. Reality, I naively believed, would deal a blow to the radio bloviatrix. Instead, I have seen this meme make a comeback. On
more respectable venues it has morphed into a quasi-critique of "liberals" for their penchant to assign the term "torture" to all manner of activity, including the use of loud music and the placing of panties on the heads of prisoners. I am willing to concede that the term could be diluted by overuse, but is that really the burning issue in need of closer attention at this juncture with so many other questions left unanswered? I'm sorry, but I expect better from my right-of-center compatriots.

Another popular counter-argument is that Saddam was worse. This is without a doubt the truth. Abu Ghraib was far more vile a place when Saddam was in charge. But ultimately, I am left wondering what significance this has for the current discussion. Since when has Saddam Hussein become a moral reference point for American policy and morality? In truth, there is a wide gulf in between the actions of Saddam Hussein and what is acceptable under the American paradigm. I refuse to let us become simply better than Saddam. I love my country and I hold it to higher standards, and I still believe that most Americans agree that we can go above and beyond merely "better than Saddam." Those seem like red herrings and side issues that can be dealt with without much hand-wringing.

Worse than these examples, though, is their counterpart that
no torture really occurred anyway. The group that promotes this theory is willfully ignorant of the vast amount of corroborated data encompassed in a series of government studies and reports on the subject. In a twist of irony, the photos from Abu Ghraib may have played a role in this. As Andrew Sullivan recently noted, the pictures themselves may have distorted public perception because they created the impression that nothing more nefarious than what was shown in the pictures occurred, and no other personnel than the ones in the pictures were involved.

With the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, the photographs, which have become iconic, created the context and the meaning of what took place. We think we know the contours of that story: a few soldiers on the night shift violated established military rules and subjected prisoners to humiliating abuse and terror. Chaos in the line of command, an overstretched military, a bewildering insurgency: all contributed to incidents that were alien to the values of the United States and its military. The scandal was an aberration. It was appalling. Responsibility was taken. Reports were issued. Hearings continue.

But the photographs lied. They told us a shard of the truth. In retrospect, they deflected us away from what was really going on, and what is still going on.
So for those Americans, both conservative and liberal alike, who might have gotten a false impression from the Abu Ghraib photographs, let's take a look at some (not all mind you) of the events that took place, and then I invite someone - anyone - to make the claim that this was the equivalent of frat hazing, and that our biggest concern should be overuse of the term "torture." From Andrew Sullivan's review of The Abu Ghraib Investigations by Steven Strasser, and Torture and Truth by Mark Danner (both compiled from official government reports):

According to the I.C.R.C., one prisoner "alleged that he had been hooded and cuffed with flexicuffs, threatened to be tortured and killed, urinated on, kicked in the head, lower back and groin, force-fed a baseball which was tied into the mouth using a scarf and deprived of sleep for four consecutive days. Interrogators would allegedly take turns ill-treating him. When he said he would complain to the I.C.R.C. he was allegedly beaten more. An I.C.R.C. medical examination revealed hematoma in the lower back, blood in urine, sensory loss in the right hand due to tight handcuffing with flexicuffs, and a broken rib"...

A detainee "had been hooded, handcuffed in the back, and made to lie face down, on a hot surface during transportation. This had caused severe skin burns that required three months' hospitalization. ...He had to undergo several skin grafts, the amputation of his right index finger, and suffered... extensive burns over the abdomen, anterior aspects of the outer extremities, the palm of his right hand and the sole of his left foot"...

And another, in a detainee's own words: "They threw pepper on my face and the beating started. This went on for a half hour. And then he started beating me with the chair until the chair was broken. After that they started choking me. At that time I thought I was going to die, but it's a miracle I lived. And then they started beating me again. They concentrated on beating me in my heart until they got tired from beating me. They took a little break and then they started kicking me very hard with their feet until I passed out"...
From the FBI memos:

[A] supervising special agent described abuses such as "strangulation, beatings, placement of lit cigarettes into the detainees' ear openings and unauthorized interrogations"....In other instances, a female prisoner "indicated she was hit with a stick," according to a memo from last May, and in July, Army criminal investigators were reviewing "the alleged rape of a juvenile male detainee at Abu Ghraib prison."
Here's another case from the Army's investigation into Abu Ghraib, led by Lt. Gen. Anthony R. Jones and Maj. Gen. George R. Fay:

"On another occasion DETAINEE-07 was forced to lie down while M.P.'s jumped onto his back and legs. He was beaten with a broom and a chemical light was broken and poured over his body.. ..During this abuse a police stick was used to sodomize DETAINEE-07 and two female M.P.'s were hitting him, throwing a ball at his penis, and taking photographs."

"An 18 November 2003 photograph depicts a detainee dressed in a shirt or blanket lying on the floor with a banana inserted into his anus. This as well as several others show the same detainee covered in feces, with his hands encased in sandbags, or tied in foam and between two stretchers."
As Sullivan notes in his article, "The Schlesinger panel has officially conceded...that American soldiers have tortured five inmates to death. Twenty-three other deaths that occurred during American custody had not been fully investigated by the time the panel issued its report in August."

Here's an excerpt from one article in the
Army Times that discusses some of the findings of the Schlesinger Panel and other investigations into deaths of detainees:

Six prisoners died from "blunt force trauma" or excessive force on the part of captors or prison guards, including two within a week of one another at the same prison. Two prisoners at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, died of complications Dec. 3 and Dec. 10, 2002, after being struck forcefully on their legs by guards or interrogators, military records show. One death certificate said the leg beating "complicat(ed) coronary artery disease," and the other certificate said the beating led to a "pulmonary embolism," or a heart blockage that is often caused by a blood clot.

At least four prisoners died in Iraq from strangulation, asphyxia, smothering or "compromised respiration," including Abid Mowhosh, a major general who headed Iraq's air defenses, whose death certificate says he died from "asphyxia due to smothering and chest compression."
Sullivan comments on the nature of the evidence:

These are not allegations made by antiwar journalists. They are incidents reported within the confines of the United States government....Some of the techniques were simply brutal, like persistent vicious beatings to unconsciousness. Others were more inventive. In April 2004, according to internal Defense Department documents recently procured by the A.C.L.U., three marines in Mahmudiya used an electric transformer, forcing a detainee to "dance" as the electricity coursed through him. We also now know that in Guantánamo, burning cigarettes were placed in the ears of detainees.
Alright then, let's see what we have in summary from the government's own investigations: persistent vicious beatings, severe burns, electrical shocks, strangulation, asphixyation, sodomy, sexual abuse, possibly rape, and at least five deaths resulting from the beatings administered, with 23 or more to be investigated. Now I never pledged a fraternity in college, but I know a lot of people that did. They assured me that these are not typical of any fraternity they frequented or patronized. I believe them. Does anyone want to argue that these incidents are not torture but just garden variety abuse or the equivalent of frat hazing? If you want, I would be willing to publish your argument. If not, please stop saying there wasn't any torture. That is either a lie, or a misinformed opinion. Enough is enough.

It Was Only Seven Soldiers, And They Are Being Court Martialed

This position is slightly better than those who deny any torture occurred. For this group, they are willing to acknowledge (in most cases) that some acts were probably defined as torture (the deadly beatings and sodomy are sort of hard to explain away), but they cling to the belief that all guilty parties are being punished. In fact, they point to this as a testament to how abhorrent torture really is to all Americans, even and especially the administration.

On any type of scrutiny, this argument falls apart completely. For one, the geographic scope of the abuses extended well beyond Abu Ghraib. Sullivan:

What's notable about the incidents of torture and abuse is first, their common features, and second, their geographical reach. No one has any reason to believe any longer that these incidents were restricted to one prison near Baghdad. They were everywhere: from Guantánamo Bay to Afghanistan, Baghdad, Basra, Ramadi and Tikrit and, for all we know, in any number of hidden jails affecting "ghost detainees" kept from the purview of the Red Cross.
In addition, these acts were perpetrated by all manner of military apparatus, not to mention private contractors and other intelligence agencies:

They were committed by the Marines, the Army, the Military Police, Navy Seals, reservists, Special Forces and on and on.
And the tactics and methods showed an unsettling similarity in form and substance:

The use of hooding was ubiquitous; the same goes for forced nudity, sexual humiliation and brutal beatings; there are examples of rape and electric shocks. Many of the abuses seem specifically tailored to humiliate Arabs and Muslims, where horror at being exposed in public is a deep cultural artifact.
So let me get this straight: these seven Army reservists standing trial were allowed to change uniforms and branches between Army, Marines, Navy Seal, etc., even switching back and forth between the military and the private sector? I didn't know that was possible. And wearing these various uniforms, they were present at all those prisons in Iraq, whisked away to handle the detention and interrogation at multiple facilities in Afghanistan, then their passports were stamped and it was off to Guantanamo, and finally to the various locations holding ghost detainees. I don't suppose it matters that the abuse at Abu Ghraib was first chronicled many months before Graner's group even arrived at that prison. No, because every act of torture and abuse was the work of Charles Graner and his team of seven space/time continuum defying reservists, and they are being punished accordingly. America is showing the world how we deal with torturers.

It Goes No Higher Than Graner In The Chain Of Command

Whether or not the responsibility goes all the way up to the White House is debatable. Clearly the tone was set at the top in a
series of memos that authorized the use of torture and the suspension of the Geneva Conventions and other treaties and laws the US was party to. These legal opinions argued the legality of torture - the most offensive being Bybee's which set up the preposterous test for what constitutes torture and what are acceptable defenses. It is also true that various expanded interrogation techniques were officially sanctioned, and then revoked, in a series of confusing orders and modifications. In fact, Alberto Gonzales is still arguing that certain groups of detainees and interrogators fall outside the purview of the Geneva Conventions and other US laws curtailing the use of agressive interrogation techniques, torture, and cruel and inhumane treatment.

What is not debatable, however, is that these seven soldiers were not the only ones involved, and no one of higher rank was implicated. The abuse that I documented above, occurring at that number of locales and venues, was the product of more than seven soldiers, and of higher rank than Graner's. Any claim otherwise is metaphysically impossible. In this sense, Senator Graham has let us all down, because we have accepted the scapegoating and so the lambs are being sacrificed to salve our collective consciences.

It is also not debatable that the dubious legal analysis and classifications emanating from the White House created a lack of certainty regarding the status of detainees and the methods deemed acceptable for interrogations.

Whether random bad apples had picked up these techniques from hearsay or whether these practices represented methods authorized by commanders grappling with ambiguous directions from Washington is hard to pin down from the official reports. But it is surely significant that very few abuses occurred in what the Red Cross calls "regular internment facilities." Almost all took place within prisons designed to collect intelligence, including, of course, Saddam Hussein's previous torture palace at Abu Ghraib and even the former Baathist secret police office in Basra.

An e-mail message recovered by Danner from a captain in military intelligence in August 2003 reveals the officer's desire to distinguish between genuine prisoners of war and "unlawful combatants." The president, of course, had endorsed that distinction in theory, although not in practice - even in Guantánamo, let alone Iraq. Somehow Bush's nuances never made it down the chain to this captain. In the message, he asked for advice from other intelligence officers on which illegal techniques work best: a "wish list" for interrogators. Then he wrote: "The gloves are coming off gentlemen regarding these detainees, Col. Boltz has made it clear that we want these individuals broken."

One sergeant who witnessed the torture thought Military Intelligence approved of all of it: "The M.I. staffs, to my understanding, have been giving Graner" - one of the chief torturers at Abu Ghraib - "compliments on the way he has been handling the M.I. holds [prisoners held by military intelligence]. Example being statements like 'Good job, they're breaking down real fast'; 'They answer every question'; 'They're giving out good information, finally'; and 'Keep up the good work' - stuff like that." At Guantánamo Bay, newly released documents show that some of the torturers felt they were acting on the basis of memos sent from Washington.

Al-Qaeda Deserves To Be Tortured, They Are Not A Party To The Geneva Conventions

I have seen this justification on more than one occasion to explain away the torture being perpetrated in Iraq. The problem is, Iraqi civilians are not al-Qaeda. President Bush is fond of saying that Iraq is the central front in the "war on terror" but that does not mean that Iraqi citizens should be viewed as al-Qaeda operatives, one and all, in terms of distinguishing between what legal standard applies to their treatment. In fact, according to Army Intelligence and the ICRC, 70-90% of all detainees at Abu Ghraib were deemed innocent of all transgressions and released - their initial detention being the product of wide-netted sweeps and/or informants settling scores with their neighbors.

In such a context, it is not enough to say that torturing al-Qaeda is right and productive (a controversial claim in its own right), and therefore that it is acceptable to subject any and all Iraqi civilians to such treatment. Of course, even at GITMO, there are innocent Afghanis who were caught in the net by similarly flawed procedures, so allowing torture at that facility is also problematic even using the "al-Qaeda" justification. The presumption of innocence is not a luxury in the American legal system, nor is it "quaint." I'm not saying, necessarily, that we should afford every detainee the full cadre of rights guaranteed to every US citizen, but I do think we should rule out torture - especially in contexts in which so many innocents are being detained.


For many of you, this post might not have contained any new information. For that, I apologize. Nevertheless, I hope that some of my right-leaning readers will reconsider their stances on the torture scandal if they find themselves in the uncomfortable position of defending torture, minimizing it, or rationalizing its practice. Our nation is exemplary in its capacity to enforce the rule of law and punish wrongdoers. That is what sets us apart from dictators and despots, and that is what infuses our message of liberty, freedom, and democracy with force and purpose. But that only works if we as a nation hold all the parties accountable. For now, we have settled on seven patsies designated as the fall-guys for an epidemic that involves dozens if not hundreds. The reaction from the White House has been even more perplexing: promoting and retaining each and every high level official that is in any way connected to this legal debasement.

If Bush wants to back up the grandiose rhetoric which permeated his inaugural address, his own house would be a good place to start. That right-leaning Americans do not see this, and are not clamoring for justice, is inexcusable. Listening to people I respect dissemble in plain view of the facts is a source of profound disappointment. Enough is enough.

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