(First of two columns)
IN AUGUST 2003, when he was commander of the military base at Guantanamo Bay, Major General Geoffrey Miller visited Baghdad with some advice for US interrogators at Abu Ghraib prison. As Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the military police commander in Iraq, later recalled it, Miller's bottom line was blunt: Abu Ghraib should be "Gitmo-ized" -- Iraqi detainees should be exposed to the same aggressive techniques being used to extract information from prisoners in Guantanamo.
"You have to have full control," Karpinski quoted Miller as saying. There can be "no mistake about who's in charge. You have to treat these detainees like dogs."
Whether or not Miller actually spoke those words, it is clear that harsh techniques authorized for a time in Guantanamo -- forced nudity, hooding, shackling men in "stress positions," the use of dogs -- were taken up in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they sometimes degenerated into outright viciousness and even torture. Did the injunction to "treat these detainees like dogs" give rise to a prison culture that winked at barbarism? Should Miller be held responsible for what Abu Ghraib became?
The latest Pentagon report on the abuse of captives, delivered to Congress last week by Vice Admiral Albert Church III, doesn't point a finger of blame at Miller or any other high-ranking official. It concludes that while detainees in Iraq, Guantanamo, and elsewhere were brutalized by military or CIA interrogators, there was no formal policy authorizing such abuse. (On occasion it was even condemned -- in December 2002, for example, some Navy officials denounced the Guantanamo techniques as "unlawful and unworthy of the military services.")
But surely, Church was asked at a congressional hearing, someone should be held accountable for the scores of abuses that even the government admits to? "Not in my charter," the admiral replied.
So the buck stops nowhere. And fresh revelations of horror keep seeping out.
Afghanistan, 2002: A detainee in the "Salt Pit" -- a secret, CIA-funded prison north of Kabul -- is stripped naked, dragged across a concrete floor, then chained in a cell and left overnight. By morning, he has frozen to death. According to The Washington Post, which sourced the story to four US government officials, the dead man was buried in an unmarked grave and his family was never notified. And what had the Afghan done to merit such lethal handling? "He was probably associated with people who were associated with al-Qaeda," a US official told the Post.
Iraq, 2003: Manadel al-Jamadi, arrested after a terrorist bombing in Baghdad, is brought in handcuffs to a shower room in Abu Ghraib. Shackles are connected from his cuffs to a barred window, hoisting his arms painfully behind his back -- a position so unnatural, Sergeant Jeffrey Frost later tells investigators, that he is surprised the man's arms "didn't pop out of their sockets." Frost and other guards are summoned when an interrogator complains that al-Jamadi isn't cooperating. They find him slumped forward, motionless. When they remove the chains and attempt to stand him on his feet, blood gushes from his mouth. His ribs are broken from the pressure to his chest. He is dead.
Then there is the government's use of "extraordinary rendition," a euphemism for sending terror suspects to be interrogated by other countries -- including some where respect for human rights is nonexistent, and interrogation can involve beatings, electric shock, and other forms of torture. The CIA says it always gets an assurance in advance that a prisoner will be treated humanely. But of what value are such assurances when they come from places like Syria and Saudi Arabia?
Of course the United States must hunt down terrorists and find out what they know. Better intelligence means more lives saved, more atrocities prevented, and a more likely victory in the war against radical Islamist fascism. Those are crucial ends, and they justify tough means. But they don't justify means that betray core American values. Interrogation techniques that flirt with torture -- to say nothing of those that end in death -- cross the moral line that separates us from the enemy we are trying to defeat.
The Bush administration and the military insist that any abuse of detainees is a violation of policy and that abusers are being punished. (So far 109 soldiers have been sanctioned, 32 of them in courts-martial.) If so, why does it refuse to allow a genuinely independent commission to investigate the matter without fear or favor? Why do Republican leaders on Capitol Hill refuse to launch a proper congressional investigation? And why do my fellow conservatives -- those who support the war for all the right reasons -- continue to keep silent about a scandal that should have them up in arms?
Next: Why not torture terrorists?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
-- ## --