Taguba on torture: another frozen scandal

Bush in Abu GhraibBy Robert Silvey

Major General Antonio Taguba, who directed the first investigation of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, has now retired from the US Army and spoken at length with Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker. His story of torture in Iraq and coverup in Washington is newly shocking.

Since the release in March 2004 of the Taguba Report, and of those now-iconic photos of cavalier mistreatment in May 2004, the scandal of Abu Ghraib has been locked in a deep freeze of inaction. At the time, Taguba found that “numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees” and there was “systematic and illegal abuse.” But only a few low-ranking enlisted soldiers were charged with crimes. Then, under a barrage of lies from George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and their underlings, the scandal disappeared from the mainstream media’s attention. Nothing, it seemed, could be done, so it was better that we all turn our attention to other matters.

This story follows the path of many other Bush-administration scandals, as Mark Danner notes. Finally, he says, it seems that:

[T]he accumulated frozen scandals of this administration slowly crack open to reveal their queasy secrets. And yet the problem, of course, is that they are not secrets at all: One of the most painful principles of our age is that scandals are doomed to be revealed—and to remain stinking there before us, unexcised, unpunished, unfinished.

But Taguba is not willing to let that happen with Abu Ghraib; he now has more to say. What is the proper word for the treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib? His official report said “abuse.” But in a May 2004 meeting with Rumsfeld, attended by Paul Wolfowitz, Stephen Cambone, and several top generals, Taguba now says that he corrected the record: “I described a naked detainee lying on the wet floor, handcuffed, with an interrogator shoving things up his rectum, and said, ‘That’s not abuse. That’s torture.’ There was quiet.” The top brass was silently considering how to keep that fact quiet.

The next day, Rumsfeld testified to Congress that he was shocked, shocked, to learn of what had happened. He said, “It breaks our hearts that in fact someone didn’t say, ‘Wait, look, this is terrible. We need to do something.'” In fact, Taguba says, his report had said exactly that, and furthermore, the photos had been sent to the Pentagon four months earlier. Rumsfeld knew about them and had every opportunity to see them. If he chose not to look until the night before, as he testified, he had certainly read a description and knew precisely what was in them. He was lying. One lieutenant general put the matter more starkly for himself: “I don’t want to get involved by looking, because what do you do with that information, once you know what they show?” Remain quiet, apparently.

And what about those few bad apples we heard about so often? Taguba, after 35 years’ experience in the US Army, knows how it works. The privates do what the sergeants want them to, the sergeants look to the lieutenants, the lieutenants to the captains, and so up to the secretary of defense, who takes his orders from the president (or perhaps, in Rumsfeld’s case, from the vice president). That is the meaning of a military chain of command, and a soldier at any level who deviates from that chain places himself in serious jeopardy. As Taguba told Hersh:

From what I knew, troops just don’t take it upon themselves to initiate what they did without any form of knowledge of the higher-ups. These M.P. troops were not that creative. Somebody was giving them guidance.

The bad apples, the real bad apples, according to Taguba, were Rumsfeld and his cronies:

He and his aides have abused their offices and have no idea of the values and high standards that are expected of them. And they’ve dragged a lot of officers with them.

The extent of the rot became clear when Taguba was confronted by one of those officers, General John Abizaid, head of Central Command, in early 2004. “You and your report will be investigated,” he threatened. Taguba told Hersh, “I’d been in the Army thirty-two years by then, and it was the first time that I thought I was in the Mafia.”

The damage to the morale and cohesion of American soldiers is hard to gauge. From their first day in the army—even, for General Abizaid and many of his fellow careerists, from their first day at West Point—the sense of honor and duty is inculcated into every soldier, along with the clear distinction between lawful orders (which must be obeyed) and unlawful orders (which must be disobeyed).

The orders (and veiled suggestions) to torture detainees were unlawful—and Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cambone, Abizaid, and their cohorts should be investigated and tried for their part in the scandal. The first witness should be the courageous General Taguba:

There was no doubt in my mind that this stuff [the explicit images] was gravitating upward. It was standard operating procedure to assume that this had to go higher. The President had to be aware of this.

From the moment a soldier enlists, we inculcate loyalty, duty, honor, integrity, and selfless service. And yet when we get to the senior-officer level we forget those values. I know that my peers in the Army will be mad at me for speaking out, but the fact is that we violated the laws of land warfare in Abu Ghraib. We violated the tenets of the Geneva Convention. We violated our own principles and we violated the core of our military values. The stress of combat is not an excuse, and I believe, even today, that those civilian and military leaders responsible should be held accountable.

Unfreeze the scandal. Impeach Cheney and Bush. Then prosecute the whole Mafia family.

3 replies »

  1. When does RICO kick in? Impeachment hearings today; war crimes tribunals tomorrow……

  2. Given the frame of mind of our Democratic “leadership” right now I have to wonder if you could get impeachment talk started if Bush staged a military coup and declared himself Dictator for Life. There’s also a real corruption fatigue that has set in. We’ve just gotten so used to ever-increasing levels of scandal that it’s hard to keep mustering outrage, especially when you know it’s not going to result in anything.

    Maybe this has been the strategy all along…