Torturing Prisoners: Who Is Responsible for Abu Ghraib?

Article excerpt

A question has to be answered about the torture of prisoners in Iraq that goes beyond the electoral consequences of this affair for George W. Bush. It has to do with the manner in which the socalled war against terror has been conducted, the values and attitudes that have characterized the conduct of that war, and certain aspects of doctrine and indoctrination within U.S. military forces. To what extent have the policies of the Bush administration contributed to a state of mind and morale in the military that opened the way to this torture, abuse, and, in some cases, apparent murder of prisoners?

The Bush administration, even before 9/11, displayed hostility to international law and treaty obligations that it held would limit national sovereignty or obstruct U.S. national interests. In the Afghanistan war, it summarily shipped prisoners outside of the country, notably to Guantanamo, without serious examination of their cases, and in disregard of Geneva norms concerning prisoners taken in war.

U.S. Army regulations on dealing with prisoners of war were bypassed because these people were, by presidential definition, "enemy combatants," not prisoners of war. Ordinary American common-law norms of justice, requiring timely presentation of charges, legal representation, and impartial adjudication, were ignored--and continue to be ignored. While administration disregard for international, military, and constitutional law was widely acknowledged at the time, there was little protest in the American press, and no effective challenge from Democratic Party leaders. There is bipartisan responsibility for what has happened.

Some Afghan and other "war against terror" prisoners were transferred to third countries. Reporters were informed--with a smile and a wink--that this was because they could be tortured there. Again there was negligible reaction in U.S. press and political circles.

In Afghanistan, and subsequently in Iraq, an obvious reason for the involvement of civilian "contract employees" in intelligence and interrogations has been that they are not subject to military discipline, and responsibility for them and for what they do can be "plausibly denied" by U.S. officials. All this is consistent with the belief of some neoconservatives that history is made through violence, and that in the national cause, a governing elite has the right to withhold information from the public in order to achieve goals that the leaders alone are in a position to understand.

This lies behind the administration's pressure for violent action to "change regimes" and intimidate so-called rogue nations, constantly described (however implausibly) by the president and vice president as threatening mass-destruction attacks on the United States and jeopardizing national survival. …