Torturing Prisoners: Setting the Tone at the Top

By Pfaff, William | Commonweal, September 10, 2004 | Go to article overview

Torturing Prisoners: Setting the Tone at the Top


Pfaff, William, Commonweal


The United States has suffered several defeats in the "war on terror," the latest and worst of them, conceded last month in two separate reports, being the "demoralization" and corruption of the U.S. Army in matters concerning the torture of prisoners. An independent inquiry headed by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger reported that the scale of abuses by soldiers and civilian contract interrogators at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison was much greater than previously admitted. Implicitly conceded: The whole story has not yet been told.

The Schlesinger report dealt with Abu Ghraib but had little to say about what has gone on at Guantanamo and in Afghanistan. Having been commissioned by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the panel did not ask what happens at the secret "holding facilities," which the CIA concededly operates in foreign locations. Aren't those facilities where they are (like the Guantanamo prison itself) so that things can be done that are illegal in American and international law?

The second report, the Army's own internal investigation, said that alleged cases of "abuse" now total 300, with 66 confirmed. (Could we not do away with military euphemisms and simply say "torture"?) Still, we are a long way from the "aberrations" committed by a few "hillbillies," which was the off-the-record description originally offered by some officials in Washington when the Abu Ghraib scandal became public. Although the Army report said there were "extenuating circumstances" for command failures, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the former senior commander in Iraq, is unlikely to get his fourth star, and the future assignments of his deputy, Maj. Gen. Walter Wojdakowski, are likely to be confined to the Aleutian Islands or Camp Swampy.

Some Military Intelligence commanders are under inquiry. Still, the only people yet on trial or up for trial are enlisted men and women and junior noncommissioned officers from a single half-trained West Virginia Army reserve unit of military police. The Army's report said grudgingly that while those soldiers' claims to be carrying out the wishes of superiors are "self-serving," they "do have some basis in fact."

So it seems. And who were the "civilian contractors" these soldiers say told them to "soften up" the prisoners? To whom did these contractors report? Where did they come from? What qualified them for this line of work, with authority over American soldiers? I think we should be told.

The Schlesinger panel did not accept the argument that high American officials should be punished. Yet, the decisions to withhold from prisoners the right to be dealt with under the Geneva Conventions, and to set aside international and U.

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Torturing Prisoners: Setting the Tone at the Top
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