[ME UPDATED TOO!]
This BBC article, with barely restrained glee, reports that U.S. troops operating Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, have been abusing the inmates. The U.S. Army has preferred courts martial charges against six soldiers, and has suspended the commanding general of the installation.
In spite of the big 60 Minutes II splash, this has the potential to turn into a good thing.
[No, I don’t mean to say that prisoner abuse is a good thing in and of itself. Rather, the manner in which the U.S. handles this situation could turn it into a positive.]
First off, few Iraqis (other than the ones who hate us already) will be upset that some Baathists and extremists were getting mildly mistreated. (And yes, in a land where people were fed feet first into a plastic shredder, getting a German Shepard sicc’ed on you briefly, or getting punched in the back is mild mistreatment). It is still wrong, meriting charges of conspiracy, dereliction of duty, cruelty, maltreatment, assault and indecent acts with another, at least in the opinion of the convening officer, but it should be kept in perspective. This is akin to straightforward police abuse, and it should be treated that way. [So don’t make more out of it than it is.]
Second, among the many Iraqis who don’t dislike us, and who have built up some trust for us, this gives us a chance to reinforce the trust by making an example of those found guilty of the abuse. The Army should hold the courts martial in Baghdad, open them to the press and public, and post a summary of the results each day in every town in the country. Show them how a court system – even the somewhat cramped military justice system – works openly and fairly in a free country.
There are some obstacles to justice here, of course.
Due to political events at home, the Army has every incentive to minimize the damage, to try and hide this. It should not do so. When you have a boil, the best thing to do is to lance it, and expose it to fresh air. Let the poison and infectious offal drain out. Who cares what bystanders say? You should worry about your own health when you have have an infection. This approach makes sense politically too, if our generals can see beyond the Beltway. The U.S. military has a reputation for dealing with problems in a pretty straightforward manner, and hence has an extremely high reputation for integrity. Hence the generals and civilians preparing themselves for prison terms as a result of misbehavior in the contracting process. They should keep it up here under the most difficult of circumstances, and the military reputation for integrity will be further bolstered. This country (and this world) needs government institutions that strive to be beyond reproach.
The soldiers themselves are also claiming they were improperly trained. This may be true, to some extent. Many National Guard and Reserve units in the past received only cursory training. However, some of their claims ring very false. The Beeb cites a Sergeant Frederick, who is a full-time prison officer when home in Virginia, as saying “We had no training whatsoever.” Um, no offense Sergeant, but you covered the Geneva Conventions in basic training, should have received a yearly refresher during drill, and almost certainly received one during the P.O.M. phase of deployment. (No, P.O.M. doesn’t refer to Prisoners of Mother England. It means “Prepare for Overseas Movement,” a period of intense administrative preparation when troops receive vaccinations, fill out wills, get Geneva Conventions briefings, and so forth. According to the Article, the military police at the prison had not been trained on the Geneva Conventions – but this surely refers to in-country training; nobody gets out of Basic without having a couple hours of instruction on POW handling, and what to do if you are a POW.
One other thing, Sergeant Frederick: I suppose the great state of Virginia permits you to sic dogs on prisoners, and to duct tape electrodes to the nuts of your prisoners down in Richmond? His claim of ignorance also rings false, because corrections officer is a military specialty within the ranks of the military police. The military prison at Leavenworth is manned by such corrections officers, and certain military police units are staffed almost entirely by corrections officers. Although corrections officers from various prisons have earned well deserved “bad cop” labels, they cannot pretend to be ignorant of basic standards of decency in how one should treat any type of prisoner.
The objections raised by these military police officers ring false to me professionally as well. As an attorney who has had the distinct honor of serving in a police review capacity, I know that most police of any type have a pretty good idea of what is right, and what is wrong. Most cops are good, albeit with a sense of rough justice that might seem a little rough to civilians. But unless they are absolutely corrupt, they always know what they can do, and understand what they should not do. This situation, with cops pleading that they had no idea of right and wrong under these circumstances, smells like garden-variety bad cops to me.
One other objection is kind of curious – that the prison guards were doing this at the behest of the interrogators.
Now it’s possible that some duress was being employed to assist in interrogation. You see, the Geneva convention prohibits torture. But it doesn’t really say anything about thinly veiled threats of torture, lying to people (“if you fall off the box you will be electrocuted”) mild discomfort, and head games. Perhaps interrogators were using these techniques. If so, they should have kept much tighter control of these military police – and if the military police crossed the line at interrogator direction, then the interrogators should be on trial here as well. Some of the techniques obliquely mentioned – threats, hoods, mild physical duress (making somebody stand up and not move, for instance) are mean, but they aren’t torture and they aren’t forbidden. Other stuff – the dogs, wires on the crotch – are pretty marginal and probably illegal, depending on the exact facts of the situation.
Yet that excuse – “the interrogators told us to do it” – doesn’t smell quite right either, because of all the photos and videos of the abuse. Army and Marine interrogators (most interrogators in the NATO militaries, actually) receive extensive instruction in the Geneva Convention because they are expected to walk the fine line when applying pressure to get answers. They know full well that they are subject to a war crimes trial if they cross the line, so they tend to take great care in how they handle prisoners – very tough, and close to the line, but never over it.
As a result, when you find allegations of serious prisoner abuse, it is usually related to people who have nothing to do with military interrogators – staff officers, supply clerks, and other REMFs. One of the prohibitions with which the military interrogators would be quite familiar, is the prohibition on exploiting prisoners. (I presume military interrogators were running this cage, as I seem to recall Chief Wiggles making reference to that a while back). That prohibition is commonly read to prohibit most photography of prisoners. You can take a snapshot of a group cage with a couple dozen prisoners out in the field, or take a photo for admin tracking purposes, or maybe a photo to prove a person is still alive (e.g. Saddam) – but individual photos of prisoners, especially prisoners undergoing the demeaning and dehumanizing process of interrogation, are streng verboten.
It sounds more like isolated abuse by the military police, especially when you consider that fewer than 20 prisoners were involved, and the incidents occurred last November and December. Moreover, the Army hasn’t seen fit to bring charges against any interrogators.
One other thing that’s sort of baffling here, is the relative dearth of press coverage in the U.S. All the sources Drudge cites, other than a two-day-old Sixty Minutes feature, are British.
So I’m really skeptical about all the excuse making. As they put it in Army-ese, this isn’t a problem, it’s an opportunity to excell. Let’s see how Generals Kimmit and Abizaid handle it.
[One other thing. The leftosphere is naturally getting all crazy because intel contractors have been in theater. “Mercenaries!” “CACI = Halliburton!” “Bad example for the dark-skinned natives!” You name it, they’re rolling out the anti-corporate crap. Here’s the thing. Most intel contractors are retired military intel, with several years’ experience minimum, maybe 20 or 25 years is more normal. If contractors were doing interrogation work at Abu Ghraib… first off, I’d be a little surprised. Second, the contractors are probably smarter than the average enlisted bear. You don’t get to 20 or 25 years in the intel field without knowing at least most of the rules. And in fields where knowledge and experience matter – like most technical and human intelligence fields – those contractors are a most valuable resource. Especially the contractors who speak Arabic. If they screwed up, they should and will no doubt be punished. But it’s a little too soon for the Leftosphere to be doing its Fallujah Happy Dance.
And, FWIW, it appears from this CBS story that the commanding general of Abu Ghraib may have something to answer for as well. She insisted nothing was wrong when a CBS news crew showed up to probe the facility last October – just a month before the suspected abuses occured. No offense meant, Ma’am, but if you aren’t smart enough to keep your ducks in a row when the 60 minutes film crew is camped out in your front yard, you probably don’t belong in a command position. ]