The American military made a strange and ill-starred decision when it chose to incarcerate Iraqis in Abu Ghraib, the prison that had become a byword for torture under Saddam Hussein and a symbol of everything the invasion of Iraq was supposed to end. As United States officials have known for months, some of the American soldiers brought their own version of sadism to the site. Now that the rest of the world knows as well, the Bush administration will have to do more than denounce the scandal as the work of a few bad apples.
Last week, CBS News broadcast pictures of a handful of smirking soldiers, male and female, abusing and sexually humiliating Iraqi prisoners. While the news — and the pictures — rocketed around the globe, the military revealed that most of the guards in the pictures were already under arrest and that Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski of the Army Reserve, who ran the military prisons in Iraq, had been admonished and suspended from command in January. Now, months later, the military says it is investigating the allegations.
But it is far from clear that the American brass has done everything it needs to do. Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared on CBS yesterday to offer assurances that "we took very quick action to investigate that situation." But General Myers said he had not yet read a corrosive internal report on the military prison system written in February. "It's working its way to me," he told Bob Schieffer of CBS.
That report, prepared by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, was described by Seymour Hersh in this week's New Yorker. He quoted General Taguba as saying the military police and intelligence officials had committed "sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses," including sodomizing a prisoner "with a chemical light and perhaps a broomstick."
The theory that these horrific acts were committed by a few renegade soldiers has been undercut by charges that the men and women shown in the pictures were actually working at the direction of military intelligence officers. General Karpinski told The Times that military intelligence controlled the cellblock where the abuses occurred and seemed eager to portray herself and the guards under her command — all reservists — as scapegoats. "We're disposable," she said. "Why would they want the active-duty people to take the blame?" If intelligence officers were involved — as one of the guards under arrest has also alleged — it may be part of a pattern that goes far beyond a single prison. Mr. Hersh wrote that a second investigation, by Provost Marshal Donald Ryder, found indications that the military police had been working to soften up prisoners for interrogation by intelligence officials starting during the Afghan war.
Any investigation must move beyond military intelligence to deal with the role of civilian contractors, who have assumed many security duties in Iraq. And if all this were not devastating enough, the British Ministry of Defense opened an inquiry into charges of prisoner abuse by British troops in Basra. Over the weekend The Daily Mirror in London published photographs that seemed to show an Iraqi prisoner being beaten with rifle butts and urinated on. The Mirror reported that the man's limp body was eventually tossed from the back of a moving vehicle, his ultimate fate unknown.
Terrorists like Osama bin Laden have always intended to use their violence to prod the United States and its allies into demonstrating that their worst anti-American propaganda was true. Abu Ghraib was an enormous victory for them, and it is unlikely that any response by the Bush administration will wipe its stain from the minds of Arabs. The invasion of Iraq, which has already begun to seem like a bad dream in so many ways, cannot get much more nightmarish than this.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company