'Let me begin by stating the obvious," said Senator Jack Reed as he stared down at the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, sitting at the witness table. "For the next 50 years in the Islamic world and many other parts of the world, the image of the United States will be that of an American dragging a prostrate, naked Iraqi across the floor on a leash."
Senator Reed, a West Point graduate and former paratrooper, captured in one exchange what might be the "tipping point" in America's support for the war in Iraq. For the first time, the majority of Americans said in polls this week they do not believe the war is worth it.
The images from Abu Ghraib prison, like the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, are profoundly testing the faith of Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, in the prosecution of the war. Despite President Bush's ringing endorsement of Rumsfeld, the powerful conservative Republican movement has split and some of its leading commentators are demanding Rumsfeld's resignation as a way to stem the growing tide of opposition to the war.
The beheading of the American citizen Nicholas Berg by Islamic terrorists, allegedly in retaliation for the abuses, has done little to rally the country behind the war. Neither did Rumsfeld's hastily arranged seven-hour visit to Abu Ghraib jail and Baghdad boost the troops' morale. "You folks have helped liberate 25 million human beings," Rumsfeld told them. "You're showing the people of Iraq and indeed the people of the world ... the character of the country that we're from and the character of the men and women in the armed services."
But as Rumsfeld spoke, some at home were asking what indeed has become of the character of the country and the US military since the war on terror began. Congressmen filing out of a secure room on Capitol Hill this week after seeing new photos of the abuses at Abu Ghraib were sickened by scenes of torture and brutality perpetrated by US soldiers, including the savaging of prisoners by dogs and threats of sodomy. "It felt like you were descending into the one of the wings of hell," said one senator.
Most, like the President, went out of their way to insist the abuses at Abu Ghraib were the work of "a handful" of rogue soldiers. But others, such as Senator Ted Kennedy, called the abuses "a catastrophic crisis of credibility for our nation". The traumatic search to explain what led to Abu Ghraib is just beginning.
Americans are only now learning that Iraqi and Afghan detainees have died under questioning by CIA and military intelligence officers. Interrogation manuals and "matrixes" cleared by Pentagon lawyers allow techniques banned by the Geneva Convention and Rumsfeld personally approved "harsh" treatment of Guantanamo Bay detainees.
An extraordinary list of the "rules of engagement" for interrogations in Iraq, signed by the top US general there, Ricardo Sanchez, was handed to senators this week. While it states that the Geneva Convention applies under Sanchez's command, the rules included "stress positions", "presence of mil[itary] working dogs", isolation of prisoners for longer than 30 days, sensory deprivation that would allow prisoners to be hooded for three days and unexplained "approved approaches" such as "fear up harsh" and "fear up mild".
Under questioning from Reed, Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, agreed that some of the techniques in Sanchez's rules of engagement "sound to me like a violation of the Geneva Convention". But Wolfowitz also claimed he had not seen Sanchez's order until it was raised by the senators.
"Well, I would suggest, Mr Secretary, that you're not doing your job," Reed told Wolfowitz. "These were the orders issued to a joint intelligence operation in that prison, presented to us in a hearing yesterday by a representative of the Department of Defense as the standard procedures that could be followed."
The head of Human Rights Watch in America, Kenneth Roth, believes there is a direct link between the rampant abuses at Abu Ghraib and decisions made by the Pentagon and the White House after September 11 to circumvent the Geneva Convention for detainees captured in the war on terror. Back then, Bush made the decision that the Geneva Convention would not apply to any suspected al-Qaeda detainees.
"The Abu Ghraib outrages are not simply the product of a small group of sick and misguided soldiers," said Roth. "The sexual abuse of prisoners, despicable as it is, is a logical consequence of a system put into place after September 11, 2001, to ratchet up the pain, discomfort and humiliation of prisoners under interrogation."
This week, after being criminally charged with abuses at Abu Ghraib, the chubby-faced, pregnant and unapologetic Private Lynndie England spoke publicly for the first time about the infamous photograph of her holding the leash on a naked Iraqi prisoner. "I was instructed by persons in higher ranks to stand there and hold this leash," England told a local television station.
Her lawyers, trying to follow that instruction up the chain of command, have so far failed to find out who set it up. Some of England's officers claimed the abuses she took part in were the result of a late-night, perverted escapade by a few military guards.
But the abuses took place over several months so the Republican senator Susan Collins questioned this theory. "If a small group of guards on their own initiative decided to abuse their prisoners, I am very skeptical that they would have chosen bizarre sexual humiliations that were specifically designed to be particularly offensive to Muslim men."
General Keith Alexander, the Army's Deputy Chief of Staff, said there was some evidence that private contract interrogators attached to military intelligence at Abu Ghraib were involved. The original report by General Antonio Taguba, revealed earlier this month, blamed the abuses on "a total breakdown in the command structure" at the jail, slamming the guards' overall commander, General Janis Karpinski.
But he too pointed the finger at military intelligence officers working at Abu Ghraib and their private contract interrogators, saying they were either "directly or indirectly responsible" for the abuses.
But Taguba had no brief to investigate military intelligence. That investigation is now being carried out by army intelligence itself.
But buried in the evidence from military witnesses before the Senate Armed Services Committee this week are clear signs that the abuse and torture of detainees, from Guantanamo Bay to Iraq, is an issue that has split the US military and intelligence services for almost a year. That split went all the way up to the highest levels of the Pentagon, if not the White House.
General Karpinski, who was in charge of all the detention centers in Iraq, claims that she was deliberately sidestepped by military intelligence officers who won control over Abu Ghraib despite her objections. She says the abuses began after the Pentagon sent the former commander of Guantanamo Bay, General Geoff Miller, to Abu Ghraib in late August last year.
Miller's mission came shortly after the horrific suicide bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad. He was encouraged by Rumsfeld's senior intelligence aide, Stephen Cambone, to ensure there was "a flow of intelligence" from detainees picked up in Iraq.
Miller drew up a series of recommendations for General Sanchez and his chief intelligence officer in Baghdad, General Barbara Fast. They included using military guards to "set the conditions" for military intelligence officers at the jail. Following these recommendations, Sanchez issued his new rules of engagement for interrogations in October.
A military intelligence officer, Colonel Thomas Pappas, became a key figure in the running of the jail and its new interrogation center was also put under the control of military intelligence and private contract interrogators. CIA officers were also regular visitors.
It was at this time the worst of the Abu Ghraib abuses began.
THE surge in abuses was noted almost immediately by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which visited the prison in mid-October. According to a Red Cross report, "Punishment included being made to walk in the corridors handcuffed and naked, or with women's underwear on the head, or being handcuffed either dressed or naked to bed bars or the cell door." Prisoners headed for interrogation were stripped naked and left in empty, totally dark cells.
Red Cross delegates were so disturbed they broke off their visit and requested an explanation. "The military intelligence officer in charge of the interrogation explained that this practice was 'part of the process'," said the report.
The Red Cross wrote to Karpinski to complain, but soon after she was informed that Sanchez had placed Abu Ghraib formally under the command of Pappas from military intelligence. The abuses and the photographs continued at least until mid-December. It was only after a military guard literally pushed some of the photographs under the doors of military investigators in January that the army launched an investigation.
By the time the army acted, the Red Cross and every major human rights organization in America had been repeatedly writing to Bush and all his senior national security team about the abuse of detainees. Letters were sent to the National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, Rumsfeld and the CIA director, George Tenet, demanding investigations into allegations of serious human rights abuses of detainees in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and Iraq.
As well, lawyers in the Pentagon's own legal office, the Judge Advocate General Corps, were so concerned that the prohibitions on torture were being watered down that they privately approached the New York Bar Association's Committee on International Law asking for help. The officers told the association's Scott Horton last year they believed the Pentagon's general counsel was deliberately creating "an atmosphere of ambiguity" that would allow detainees to be abused.
In response, Horton and the Bar Association prepared a report on US obligations to the detainees. Released last week, it includes the numerous letters to Bush and his senior officials from human rights groups asking whether US military and CIA officers were abusing detainees. Both the Pentagon and the CIA wrote reassuring letters insisting they did not operate outside the conventions against torture.
The White House is hoping the political damage from the Abu Ghraib scandal has reached its zenith. But with further disclosures likely within weeks of abuses by CIA and military intelligence officers, support for Rumsfeld and the war he championed is likely to further evaporate.
Copyright © 2004. The Sydney Morning Herald