The torture scandal shows no signs of abating. Almost every day, new allegations surface about mistreatment of detainees in US military and CIA custody. Last week Iraqi and Afghan plaintiffs filed suit against Donald Rumsfeld alleging that they suffered torture while in American custody in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Washington Post broke a major story about a death-by-torture in a secret CIA-run prison north of Kabul.
But while media coverage of the scandal isn't subsiding, neither is public furor escalating. The Defense Department and the CIA continue to quietly direct attention away from some of the more sensitive abuse cases--the 2003 killings of several "ghost" detainees by personnel in Iraq, for instance--by putting accused military personnel before nonjudicial punishment boards, closed to the public, and hiding CIA involvement behind classified-evidence shields. The Administration has shrugged off the Rumsfeld suit and the CIA scandal in typical fashion, cataloguing its past investigations and promising that all new allegations will be thoroughly investigated.
The strategy seems to be working. Most implicated troops are getting off without significant punishment (in two-thirds of known abuse cases, troops have received only administrative punishments like reprimands and demotions), and no CIA officers have been charged (though one CIA contractor, David Passaro, is awaiting trial in North Carolina for the killing of a detainee in Afghanistan in 2003). Few members of Congress are looking into the issue, save some dedicated Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Senate Armed Services Committee, which held hearing into the abuse charges last summer, has put further hearings on hold. Minority Democrats on that committee are powerless to push the issue, and Democrats generally are pulling their punches.
Senator John McCain could help move things forward. As a second-ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, and as a torture victim himself, he possesses unique influence to jump-start the hearings. He has also been a forceful and outspoken advocate on these issues in the past.
But there is a valid concern that pursuing further investigations will begin to look like a witch hunt against troops, and thus a dangerous political issue, especially for someone considering a run for the White House. (This is one reason John Kerry avoided the issue during his campaign.)
There is a way out of this trap. The solution lies with the veterans themselves. The issue of accountability for abuses could ultimately become a populist issue. Soldiers and veterans groups could complain that troops are being made into scapegoats, and that the Pentagon and CIA have sold them down the river.
Groups like Soldiers for the Truth and Veterans for Common Sense have already spoken out against higher-level impunity and are starting to ask tough questions. Why are the current investigations only focusing on lower-level troops like Charles Graner and Lynndie England? Why are the grunts paying for the crimes of the Pentagon top brass, the civilian hawks and the CIA spooks?
Some of the troops still being prosecuted for abuse are exploiting the argument further. Several Navy SEALs facing trial in California for killing an Iraqi detainee in November 2003 have made this case, and threatened to drag the CIA into court as part their legal defense. The government appears to have cut deals with some of the SEALs to keep them quiet. A similar situation is unfolding in a case at Fort Carson, Colorado. And David Passaro, the former CIA contractor on trial in North Carolina, recently invoked a "superior orders" defense. He says he is being made a patsy by the government.
These implicated personnel, however guilty they are, should be given an opportunity to make their allegations. And innocent whistleblowers should be given better protection to make complaints. (Many soldiers are currently afraid to talk about abuse allegations, fearing for their careers or that they might be prosecuted for failing to report abuse, something that has in fact occurred.)
The troops know the truth better than anyone. They understand that much of the alleged prison abuse was encouraged or condoned by military intelligence officials, CIA officers or civilian contractor interrogators--the very point the Administration denies. They know that more serious abuse, and even torture of high-level detainees, was authorized or condoned by higher-level officials. And they know that other freelance abuses, atrocities committed by various personnel on their own initiative, have gone unpunished--an omission that implicates the military and CIA.
Of course, lower-level troops who have committed abuse should not be let off. They should be held accountable. But real accountability for the scandal demands that responsible institutions also be put on trial, along with the people who run them. As rights groups uncover more facts about abuse, they will need to partner with veterans groups to make this point effectively.
And former soldiers will need to be more vocal about these issues. When veterans groups hold an antiwar rally in Fayetteville this March 19, on the two-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, they will need to move their rhetoric beyond "bringing the troops home" and start talking more about abuse issues.
Human rights and civil liberties groups cannot speak the truth alone. On the abuse issue, the factual and contextual disconnects between divergent Americans is simply too great to tackle. Veterans groups are in a unique position to re-establish the narrative about prison abuse so that the American public comes to understand the abuse issue not in terms of rotten apples but in terms of fruits from a poisonous tree.
John Sifton is an attorney and researcher at Human Rights Watch, where he focuses on Afghanistan, Iraq and military and counterterrorism issues. His writing on Afghanistan has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post and Salon.
© 2005 The Nation