Who Is Responsible?

It is becoming increasingly clear that the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison was not an isolated incident or merely the work of poorly trained and undisciplined Army reservists. Similar outrages, including the murder of prisoners, are emerging concerning other prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. Responsibility for setting the conditions that permitted these crimes to be committed lies higher up the chain of command. Despite claims by the Bush administration and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that the Geneva Conventions were applied to prisoners in Iraq, there is now evidence that efforts were made to circumvent the legal protections accorded prisoners. This should not be surprising. After all, the administration explicitly rejected the Geneva Conventions with regard to the interrogation of prisoners in Afghanistan, arguing that the treaties did not apply to nonuniformed terrorists. Was it likely that interrogation techniques would change once the “war on terrorism” got to Iraq?

Who is responsible for the egregious failures at Abu Ghraib? Certainly those directly involved must be punished. But the misguided effort to find excuses for evading the Geneva Conventions began at high levels of the administration almost immediately after 9/11. Newsweek has reported that Justice Department lawyers drew up a memo in early 2002 arguing that the U.S. military “did not have to comply with any international laws in the handling of detainees in the war on terrorism.” Despite the strenuous protests of the State Department over the self-defeating consequences of such actions, the president evidently embraced the conclusions of the memo. The administration strongly implied that in the war against terrorism a double standard existed: international law applied to the terrorists but not to the United States. To be sure, atrocities occur even in situations where the Geneva Conventions are recognized by all parties. Still, the conventions provide an invaluable check against any systematic persecution of prisoners. In explicitly placing Americans above the law, the administration greatly increased the probability that prisoners would be abused.

Moreover, it is President George W. Bush who has insisted repeatedly on conflating the “war on terrorism” with the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Words have consequences. If the occupation of Iraq is but one battle in the war against terrorism, then by the president’s own logic Iraqi resistance is by definition “terrorism.” Is it so surprising, then, that young soldiers, told they were sent to Iraq to “bring the war to the terrorists” would treat prisoners inhumanely? Having given orders that prisoners were to be “softened up” for interrogation, what did those in charge expect?

As early as last November, the International Red Cross protested the mistreatment of prisoners, “including deliberate physical violence,” at Abu Ghraib. Instead of recognizing the explosive nature of those charges, the Army contended that many Iraqi prisoners were not entitled to the full protections of the Geneva Conventions. We now know that 70 to 80 percent of those held had nothing to do with the insurgency. At what level of command had this dangerous policy been set? Scott Horton, former chairman of the Committee on International Human Rights of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, was approached last year by a group of military Judge Advocate General lawyers (JAGs) who were concerned about the administration’s attitude toward the Geneva Conventions. As reported by Slate, the military lawyers told Horton that when they approached Douglas Feith, the third highest-ranking civilian in the Defense Department, with their concerns, he was unmoved. “They said [Feith] had a dismissive, if not derisive, attitude toward the Geneva Conventions,” Horton said.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, has had similar conversations with outraged members of the military, who know that the failure to abide by international law in treating prisoners endangers Americans, especially American soldiers. “Some JAGs hate this and are horrified that the tolerance of mistreatment will come back and haunt us in the next war,” he told the New Yorker. “We’re giving the world a ready-made excuse to ignore the Geneva Conventions. Rumsfeld has lowered the bar.”

The pictures of American soldiers abusing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners have done enormous damage. Whatever hopes there might have been that the Arab and Muslim world would take the stated reasons for the war against Iraq at face value have disappeared. The task of winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis has become immeasurably harder, and the president’s new public-relations campaign seeking to emphasize Iraq’s “future” rather than the recent past, is unlikely to alter the situation on the ground. Some prominent supporters of the administration have called on Rumsfeld and other highly placed architects of the war to resign. Yet, despite universal acknowledgment of the catastrophe the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse represents, no high-ranking administration official or military officer has tendered his resignation. Many, like Rumsfeld and the generals in charge of the prisons, have said they “accept full responsibility,” but what accepting responsibility entails remains a mystery. Nor has President Bush fired anyone or demanded any resignations.

For an administration that likes to stress the importance of individual responsibility, this failure to hold people accountable can only further erode public confidence in the president’s judgment and in the conduct of the war. It is worth remembering how conservative supporters of the president and his policies exulted last year when a New York Times reporter was found to have plagiarized and invented a series of news stories. Those in charge of the Times newsroom, recognizing that only new leadership could restore the paper’s credibility, resigned. It is remarkable—and remarkably alarming—that the American people cannot expect the same sense of accountability from their government.

May 25, 2004

Published in the 2004-06-04 issue: 
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