"As you have said, the war against terrorism is a new kind of war. The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians. … In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."
-- Alberto Gonzalez, chief White House counsel, in a memo to President Bush, Jan. 5, 2002
There has been little doubt from day one that the abuse of Iraqi prisoners was the work of more than just a few "bad apple" privates and sergeants at a prison in Iraq. We're beginning to get some insight into the train of events that allowed prisoner abuse to become more than an isolated occurrence. A reasonably full picture will take longer to emerge, but some things are becoming apparent:
-- President Bush knew of, and approved, the broad policy that ultimately led to the situation at Abu Ghraib. Gonzalez's memo, obtained by Newsweek, points to that. His motivation seens to have been one that would be hard to argue with: a desire to prevent further attacks on the scale of 9/11 by obtaining more timely intelligence from Al Qaida suspects. It seems likely that the policy included an OK for techniques that might be considered torture under the Geneva Conventions. (Newsweek says, however, that it is unlikely that Bush and other high officials knew specifically what was done to prisoners.
-- According to Seymour Hersh's article in the current issue of The New Yorker, when it became apparent that the post-war insurgency in Iraq was the work of more than a few "dead-enders," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorized the expansion of interrogation techniques initially intended for breaking Al-Qaida suspects to ordinary prisoners in Iraq. The proposal came from one of his deputies, Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence. The Pentagon released a "denial" that really didn't deny anything (Billmon dissects it here).
Hersh, let's recall, is the reporter who brought to light the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, in which more than 500 Vietnamese, many of them women and children, were killed. He has consistently been ahead of the pack on much of the policy and politics underlying the Iraq war, and the Pentagon's blustery response to his story indicates he's on target again.
-- Abu Ghraib appears to have become part of the broader U.S. system of squeezing prisoners for any useful intelligence they might have, not a deviation from it. The questionable techniques initially were intended for use on "illegal combatants" sent to the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay. The abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib seems to have accelerated after Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the Guantánamo commander, paid a visit and suggested the prison be "Gitmoized" to focus more on softening prisoners up for interrogation. Miller is now in charge of all U.S. prisons in Iraq.
Douglas Jehl of The New York Times reports today on another example of the scope of U.S. actions that may be incompatible with the Geneva Conventions: "About 100 high-ranking Iraqi prisoners held for months at a time in spartan conditions on the outskirts of Baghdad International Airport are being detained under a special chain of command, under conditions not subject to approval by the top American commander in Iraq, according to military officials. The unusual lines of authority in the detainees' handling are part of a tangled network of authority over prisoners in Iraq, in which the military police, military intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, various military commanders and the Pentagon itself have all played a role. Congressional investigators who are looking into the scandal over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners say those arrangements have made it difficult to determine where the final authority lies." These prisoners are being held for up to 23 hours a day in total isolation in small, windowless cells. (Free site registration may be required.)
The conditions under which Iraqi prisoners, not to mention those thought to be Al-Qaida members, are held appears to be a matter of little concern to many Americans, particularly in the wake of the horrible, videotaped death of Nick Berg. But what we do to others does matter.
One of the prime justifications for the war in Iraq was that Saddam Hussein was a monster and that we're not; that Saddam ran a despotism of singular cruelty and that we were going to bring Iraqis the fruits of freedom and democracy. At this point, this is virtually the only defensible justification for the war (weapons of mass destruction having proved chimerical and no significant links between Saddam and Al-Qaida having been demonstrated). If we actually do care about putting Iraqis on a path to a better existence than they had under Saddam, we need to act like it.
It also matters that we at least try to abide by the Geneva Conventions, which were established in large part to help protect our own troops.
Finally, it matters that we treat prisoners within the broad provisions of the Geneva Conventions if we hope to get any significant international assistance in managing the New Iraq -- which it increasingly looks like we're going to need.