Someone's lying — big-time — and neither Congress nor the media have begun to scratch the surface. Clearly we now know enough to stipulate that the several low-ranking alleged sadists charged in the Iraq torture scandal did not control the wing of the prison in which they openly and proudly did the devil's work.
That power was in the hands of high-ranking U.S. military intelligence officers who established abusive conditions that were condemned by the Red Cross in a complaint to U.S. authorities well before the horrid incidents that recently shocked the nation.
The Red Cross complaint — and a follow-up report that was made available to the administration in February and obtained by the Wall Street Journal this week — raises the sobering possibility that these low-level members of the military police in Iraq may be right in claiming that they were just following orders of their superiors.
According to the report, the organization's delegates visited Abu Ghraib in October 2003 and witnessed "the practice of keeping persons deprived of their liberty completely naked in totally empty concrete cells and in total darkness" for days.
"Upon witnessing such cases, the [Red Cross] interrupted its visits and requested an explanation from the authorities. The military intelligence officer in charge of interrogation explained that this practice was 'part of the process.' " The report said that what Red Cross representatives saw "went beyond exceptional cases" and was "in some cases tantamount to torture."
The Red Cross complained directly to the authorities at that time, two months before the now-infamous photographs were taken.
The White House and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have for months stubbornly ignored and kept from the public the conclusions of both the Red Cross report and the even more damning internal report done by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba for the Pentagon in March.
The Taguba report clearly stated that the MPs had been instructed to "set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses" and were using sexual humiliation, attack dogs and beatings to break prisoners.
It would appear that the Pentagon still doesn't want to admit the seriousness of the problem, having now assigned Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller to run Abu Ghraib despite the fact that it was Miller who last summer officially reported on conditions in Abu Ghraib and seems to have enabled, if not authorized, the torture that ensued in the autumn.
According to Taguba's report, Miller "stated that detention operations must act as an enabler for interrogation" and "it is essential that the guard force be actively engaged in setting the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees."
That would seem to support the contention of the accused MPs that they were just doing their duty. The Washington Post quotes an e-mail from Spc. Sabrina Harman in which she wrote: "If the prisoner was cooperating, then the prisoner was allowed to keep his jumpsuit, mattress, and was allowed cigarettes on request or even hot food. But if the prisoner didn't give what they wanted, it was all taken away until [military intelligence] decided. The job of the MP was to keep them awake, make it hell so they would talk."
On Monday, President Bush reiterated his unyielding support for Rumsfeld, even as the influential Army Times newspaper called for heads to roll "even if that means relieving top leaders from duty in a time of war." The abuses of Iraqi prisoners in Baghdad are "a failure that ran straight to the top," argued the newspaper.
And all of this does flow from the top. With the occupation itself built on a web of lies — that invading Iraq was part of the war on terror, that Iraq had threatening weapons of mass destruction, that anybody who resisted the occupation was a "terrorist" or "thug" — it can only be assumed that those interrogators dealing with the nearly 50,000 Iraqi detainees in the last year were under enormous pressure to produce statements that fit these phony "facts."
"I'd like to know who was the one that was giving instructions to the military intelligence personnel to turn up the heat," Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the nominal head of Abu Ghraib during the time in question, said in an interview on NBC. Unfortunately, that question needs to be addressed to the president of the United States.
The big lie that the United States is merely a selfless battler against terrorists, with no other agendas, opens the door for brutality against any who dare resist. Bush has exercised an arrogance unmatched by any U.S. president in a century and brandished God's will as his carte blanche. His unilateral, preemptive "nation-building" — and the settling of old scores in the name of fighting terror — grants license to treat anybody, including U.S. citizens, in a barbaric manner that cavalierly sweeps aside all standards of due process.
Robert Scheer writes a weekly column for The Times and is coauthor of "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq" (Seven Stories Press/Akashic Books, 2003).
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times