In May of 2004, a grave Donald Rumsfeld stood before the TV cameras and condemned the pictures of abuse emerging from the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad."The images that we've seen that include U.S. forces are deeply disturbing, both because of the fundamental unacceptability of what they depicted and because the actions by U.S. military personnel in those photos do not in any way represent the values of our country or of the armed forces," Rumsfeld told the world.
Over the next few days, Rumsfeld would further condemn the abuse as "totally unacceptable and un-American," then as "blatantly sadistic, cruel and inhuman." He also made a promise that the guilty would be punished, a promise seemingly kept when seven enlisted personnel were later sentenced to prison.
Today, though, it is hard to fully describe the hypocrisy and cynicism of Rumsfeld's performance. As he stood there telling the world he was shocked, shocked at what transpired at Abu Ghraib, he did so knowing that he himself had authorized more serious acts of torture on a much larger scale.
He himself had approved acts that he called unacceptable and un-American. He himself had ordered treatment that was, in his words, sadistic, cruel and inhuman.
In fact, Major Gen. Anthony Taguba, the Army officer appointed by Rumsfeld to investigate the scandal at Abu Ghraib, now believes that in light of ongoing disclosures, "there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account."
That is not a charge to be made lightly, but as the facts become clear, it becomes harder and harder to reach a contrary conclusion.
For example, it is telling that the initiative for torture does not seem to have come from interrogators frustrated at not getting information through legal means. To the contrary, the idea seems to have initiated very early in the top levels of government, from men such as Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, who then drove sometimes reluctant subordinates to accept the practice. In the process, they ignored protests from interrogation experts at the FBI and elsewhere who insisted that less extreme approaches would be more fruitful and extract more accurate information. They also squelched objections that the practice was immoral and counter to American values and law.
The narrative that is emerging suggests that to Rumsfeld and others, torture was not something they felt forced to do, but rather something they wanted to do against those they blamed for Sept. 11. And while an instinct for such vengeance may be natural, it is an instinct that civilized nations refuse to sanction, as Rumsfeld acknowledged by condemning the abuse exposed at Abu Ghraib.
According to reports in The New York Times, the torture techniques implemented with high-level approval at Guantanamo and elsewhere had been borrowed from techniques used by communist China against captured Americans during the Korean War. Back then, we accurately condemned those techniques as torture and stressed that they produced false confessions. And when we used the same techniques, they produced the same results.
Back in the summer of 2002, you may recall, the federal government issued a series of odd security alerts, warning that terrorists were first going to target malls, then banks, then apartment buildings. Each warning produced a flurry of panic, but none ever panned out. That's because they were products of the ongoing torture of an al-Qaida member of already questionable sanity who was telling interrogators whatever they wanted to hear, just as our captured servicemen had.
Four years ago, Rumsfeld advised the country to be patient, assuring them that justice would be done to those who had broken our laws regarding torture.
"These things are complicated; they take some time," he said. "The system works."
Well, he better hope not.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor of the AJC. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.
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