Headline in the Democrat and Chronicle on May 3: "Abuse of Iraqis Called Isolated."
Statement by President Bush May 5: "The abuse does not represent the America that I know."
Statement by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on May 7: "It was inconsistent with the values of our nation."
Many Americans, no doubt, accepted the pro-Bush slant of headlines like that on the D&C's front page last week. And many, no doubt, embrace the statements by the president and Rumsfeld. Certainly this is not the America we want to know. And we want to believe that the abuse of Iraqi prisoners is "isolated."
But "isolated" is a relative term, and a dangerous one. No doubt the vast majority of US military personnel --- and the vast majority of civilians risking their lives in the employ of private contractors in Iraq --- do not practice or condone the abuse of prisoners. But according to the International Red Cross and other agencies, the abuse --- torture, physical punishments, threats, deprivation, and humiliation --- is not an aberration. It is not limited to the Abu Ghraib prison. It has taken place during searches and capture and in prisons throughout Iraq. It has taken place in Afghanistan.
And it is a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions and other international laws.
The news over the past week and a half has been the revelations about Abu Ghraib. But the real news is that the photographs from Abu Ghraib simply reinforce what human-rights groups and many news media have been saying for more than a year. The real news is that high-level administration and military officials had been told about the abuses --- and did little.
The real news is that the United States Secretary of Defense, in effect, shrugged his shoulders at reports of horrendous abuses and violations of international law, until, to use his own words, he saw the photographs.
The real news is that the atrocities of Abu Ghraib are both the symptom of and the predictable consequence of an administration that sees no need to respect international law.
The atrocities have further sullied the image of the United States among our traditional allies.
They have further damaged our attempt to win over Iraqi public opinion.
They have fueled the hostility of Arabs and Muslims around the world. ("A more insulting, inflammatory message to the world's Muslims and Arabs --- and a more effective recruiting tool for groups like Al Qaeda --- can scarcely be imagined," notes The Nation.)
Equally as serious, the Bush administration's initial attitude toward the reports --- and its attitude toward the Geneva Conventions and other regulations --- have undermined the strength of international law. And they have put in danger captured US troops and civilians --- in this conflict, and in conflicts far into the future. If the world's strongest superpower sees no need to treat prisoners humanely, neither will any states, rogue groups, or terrorists in any part of the world.
The president brags that he does not read newspapers. But other members of the administration, presumably, do.
As the organization Human Rights Watch notes, US journalists have been writing about the abuses for nearly a year and a half. Among the items in a lengthy "Timetable" on the Human Rights Watch website (http.hrw.org) are the following:
• In December, 2002, the Washington Post wrote about the mistreatment of prisoners --- and the apparent killing of three --- at a CIA detention center in Afghanistan. The Post quoted one official as saying: "If you don't violate someone's human rights some of the time, you probably aren't doing your job."
"According to one official who has been directly involved in rendering captives into foreign hands," said the Post, "the understanding is, 'We don't kick the [expletive] out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the [expletive] out of them."
"Bush administration officials," wrote the Post journalists, "said the CIA, in practice, is using a narrow definition of what counts as 'knowing' that a suspect has been tortured. 'If we're not there in the room, who is to say?' said one official conversant with recent reports of renditions."
• After publication of the Post reports, Human Rights Watch wrote President Bush asking for an investigation, and leaders of international human-rights groups wrote both Bush and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz asking the administration to state publicly that the US would not tolerate torture. The leaders also insisted that there be "clear written guidance applicable to everyone engaged in the interrogation and rendition of prisoners."
• US media, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, continued to publish reports of mistreatment and torture during the winter of 2003. On February 6, 2003, a Newsday article quoted a former US intelligence official as saying: "Better intelligence... has come from a senior Al Qaeda detainee who had been held in the US base at Guantanamo, Cuba, and was rendered to Egypt after refusing to cooperate. They promptly tore his fingernails out and he started to tell things."
• In early June 2003, Senator Patrick Leahy wrote National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice expressing concern about the news reports and asking that the Bush administration issue a statement that the US will not tolerate abuse. Later that month, Senator Arlen Specter wrote Rice asking about the news reports, says Human Rights Watch, and asked "how the administration ensures that torture does not occur when it sends detainees to countries that are known to practice torture."
In addition, the human-rights agencies were gathering their own information and issuing their own reports. Human Rights Watch says it wrote Rumsfeld in January of this year regarding reports that US forces "detained innocent, close relatives of wanted suspects in order to compel the suspects to surrender, which amounts to hostage-taking, classified as a war crime under the Geneva Conventions." It says it wrote Rumsfeld again in February, asking the Bush administration "to clarify the status of the detainees and to make public the numbers of detainees being held."
Amnesty International says it has received "frequent reports of torture or other ill-treatment by Coalition Forces during the past year."
In a National Public Radio interview earlier this week, an Amnesty International official said AI representatives had met "with senior administration officials" about the reports.
"Our extensive research in Iraq suggests that this is not an isolated incident," AI said in a press statement last week. "It is not enough for the USA to react only once images have hit the television screens."
"Virtually none of the allegations of torture or ill-treatment has been adequately investigated by the authorities," said AI.
Particularly damning is the report by the International Committee of the Red Cross --- a report the ICRC says it gave to Coalition Forces in February 2004.
The report deals with "the treatment by the Coalition Forces of prisoners of war and other protected persons" in Iraq "during arrest, internment, and interrogation." The Wall Street Journal published excerpts of the report --- which had been released without the ICRC's consent --- on May 7 and put the full document on its website on May 10. At a news conference on May 8, ICRC official Pierre Krähenbühl expressed concern over the release of the report, since the Red Cross depends on confidentiality to insure access to prisoners. But it made clear that it stood by the report.
At the press conference, Krähenbühl described the abuse as "a broader pattern and a system, as opposed to individual acts."
And, he said, "It is important to understand that this report represents the summary of concerns that were regularly brought to the attention of the CF throughout 2003."
"Orally and in writing," said Krähenbühl, "the ICRC has repeatedly made its concerns known to the Coalition Forces and requested corrective measures prior to the submission of this particular report." And, he said, the ICRC has cited, in "oral and written interventions," the laws of the Geneva Conventions.
An ICRC official told National Public Radio earlier this week that it had presented the findings of its report to Paul Wolfowitz and Secretary of State Colin Powell in January of this year, and to Paul Bremer, head of the US occupation in Iraq, in late February.
The Red Cross report cites "serious violations of International Humanitarian Law... documented and sometimes observed while visiting prisoners of war, civilian internees, and other protected persons" --- "protected persons" referring to people protected by the provisions of the Geneva Conventions.
The violations, said the Red Cross, include:
• "Brutality against protected persons upon capture and initial custody, sometimes causing death or serious injury;
• "Absence of notification of arrest of persons deprived of their liberty to their families;
• "Physical or psychological coercion during interrogation to secure information;
• "Prolonged solitary confinement in cells devoid of daylight;
• "Excessive and disproportionate use of force against persons deprived of their liberty resulting in death or injury during their period of internment."
"Ill treatment during capture was frequent," says the report. And that treatment occurred "in Baghdad, Basrah, Ramadi, and Tikrit, indicating a consistent pattern with respect to times and places of brutal behavior during arrest," says the report. "The repetition of such behavior by Coalition Forces appeared to go beyond the reasonable, legitimate, and proportional use of force required to apprehend suspects or restrain persons resisting arrest or capture, and seemed to reflect a usual modus operandi by certain CF battle-group units."
The report cites a common pattern of arrests, in which Coalition Forces broke down doors, entered homes, destroyed or confiscated property, harshly treated residents (sometimes striking them with rifles), and then hooded and bound some occupants and took them away. "Sometimes they arrested all adult males present in a house, including elderly, handicapped, or sick people," says the report.
"Certain CF military intelligence officers told the ICRC that in their estimate between 70 percent and 90 percent of the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake," says the Red Cross report. "They also attributed the brutality of some arrests to the lack of proper supervision of battle-group units."
Without question, military troops and private contractors called into service in Iraq have worked under great duress. The US did not send enough troops or enough resources to Iraq, and it did not sufficiently train those troops to perform the difficult, varied jobs they've had to do since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
In a lengthy article published May 9, the New York Times outlined "a picture of US troops ill prepared and overwhelmed." Many of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib were members of the Army Reserves and National Guard --- "insurance agents, checkout clerks, sales people" --- and few had been trained to guard prisoners, said the Times.
"You're a person who works at McDonald's one day; the next day you're standing in front of hundreds of prisoners, and half are saying they're sick and half are saying they're hungry," one soldier told the Times.
"We never learned how to deal with a riot, what to do when we were being assaulted," said another.
Many of the troops thought their tour would end last May, with the end of formal combat, but their stays were extended. And at Abu Ghraib, the military converted Saddam Hussein's prison into a prison of its own and began packing the complex with captives. Soldiers told the Times of working 16-hour days, in incredible heat, under enormous stress. Inside, the prison was horribly overcrowded. Outside, there was danger. Abu Ghraib "was in the middle of a hostile-fire zone," the Times was told, "mortared every night, practically."
Secretary Rumsfeld has insisted that the troops in Iraq have been trained in the Geneva Conventions. But Army Reservist Sabrina D. Harman, who has been charged with abuses at Abu Ghraib, disagrees. "The Geneva Convention was never posted, and none of us remember taking a class to review it," she told the Washington Post last week. "The first time reading it was two months after being charged. I read the entire thing highlighting everything the prison is in violation of."
"There's a lot," she said.
The problems and abuses at Abu Ghraib are the result of poor planning, poor training, and insufficient resources. And Abu Ghraib is the end product of an administration's making decisions grounded in ideology, not facts. The Bush administration was hell bent on war against Iraq, convinced that the United States' power would make the war quick and easy and the aftermath a parade showered by flowers.
The same administration that waged war based on false information --- ignoring the warnings from its own terrorism experts and the cautions coming from its own State Department --- has continued, throughout the occupation, to ignore the warnings and the factual reports of human-rights groups and its own troops.
Secretary Rumsfeld has clung so blindly to his own vision that even after the media began to publicize the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, he said last week that he had not yet read an official Army report on the Abu Ghraib abuses --- a report that had been completed in March.
There are calls now for President Bush to fire Rumsfeld. So far, he is refusing to do so. "You are doing a superb job," he told Rumsfeld in a public appearance at the Pentagon on Monday. If in the end Bush does get rid of Rumsfeld, it will no doubt be because the secretary has become a political liability. The president already has all the information he needs to fire Rumsfeld for cause.
In the end, firing Rumsfeld might send an important message to the Iraqis and to the rest of the world, but it will not correct the problem. Dick Cheney will still be in office. Paul Wolfowitz will still be in office.
The nation will still be led by a man who believes that the United States knows how the rest of the world should be governed, and that God put him in the White House.
And the president, presumably, will continue to lead in the polls.
The US and world law
The Geneva Conventions of 1949 are a set of international laws that govern the treatment of people captured during armed conflicts. The United States ratified the laws, and it is subject to them.
American war-movie fans may be most familiar with Convention Three, which protects Prisoners of War, including military personnel. Among those protections is that POW's are required to give only their name, date of birth, rank, and serial number. Conventions One and Two protect captured medical and the wounded or sick. Convention Four protects captured civilians.
In total, the Conventions protect every person involved in armed conflict. Regardless of whether the prisoners are soldiers or civilians, the Geneva Conventions require that they be treated humanely and not subjected to torture.
Convention Four, protecting non-military prisoners, prohibits --- "at any time and in any place whatsoever" --- the following: "A) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment, and torture; B) taking of hostages; C) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment; D) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples."
In addition, the Conventions require that the International Committee of the Red Cross must have access to all prisoners --- and that governments must follow the Red Cross's recommendations regarding what it has found in its talks with prisoners.
The International Committee of the Red Cross emphasized the extensive coverage of the Conventions, in a 1958 document called "Commentary: Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War":
"Every person in enemy hands must have some status under international law: he is either a prisoner of war and, as such, covered by the Third Convention, a civilian covered by the Fourth Convention, [or] a member of the medical personnel of the armed forces who is covered by the First Convention. There is no intermediate status; nobody in enemy hands can fall outside the law."
Other international laws signed by the United States also provide protection, notes the organization Human Rights Watch, "against torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment." Here's language from Article 2 of the International Convention Against Torture:
"No exceptional circumstance whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."
Violation of Article 2, says Human Rights Watch, "is a criminal offense of universal jurisdiction."
Rumsfeld has insisted that the Geneva Conventions don't apply to the US treatment of prisoners captured in Afghanistan and sent to Guantanamo Bay. Human Rights Watch and others have disagreed strongly. But even Rumsfeld agrees that the Conventions apply to prisoners in Iraq.