Bush is trapped in Abu Ghraib.

Military analysis.
May 17 2004 6:22 PM

Locked in Abu Ghraib

The prison scandal keeps getting worse for the Bush administration.

Feeling the heat
Feeling the heat

The White House is about to get hit by the biggest tsunami since the Iran-Contra affair, maybe since Watergate. President George W. Bush is trapped inside the compound, immobilized by his own stay-the-course campaign strategy. Can he escape the massive tidal waves? Maybe. But at this point, it's not clear how.

If today's investigative shockers—Seymour Hersh's latest article in The New Yorker and a three-part piece in Newsweek—are true, it's hard to avoid concluding that responsibility for the Abu Ghraib atrocities goes straight to the top, both in the Pentagon and the White House, and that varying degrees of blame can be ascribed to officials up and down the chain of command.

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Both stories are worth reading in full. The gist is that last year, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put in place a secret operation that, in Hersh's words, "encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in an effort to generate more intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq."

This operation stemmed from an earlier supersecret program involving interrogation of suspected al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. A memo to President Bush from White House counsel Alberto Gonzales—excerpted in Newsweek—rationalized the program by noting that we need "to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American citizens." This new sort of war, he went on, renders the Geneva Conventions' limitations on interrogating enemy prisoners "obsolete" and "quaint."

This program, Hersh reports, was approved by the CIA, the National Security Agency, and the National Security Council. President Bush was "informed" of it. Hersh also notes that its harsh techniques yielded results; terrorists were rounded up as a result. So, last spring, after Saddam's regime fell in Iraq and Rumsfeld grew frustrated over the failure to find weapons of mass destruction or to learn anything about the insurgents who continued to resist the U.S.-led occupation, he put the same program in motion in Iraq.

That's when all hell broke loose, and conventional prisoners of war—whose wardens had up to that point been following Geneva rules—were suddenly treated like terrorists whose deadly secrets must immediately be squeezed out. Hence, the ensuing torture.

Read together, the magazine articles spell out an elaborate, all-inclusive chain of command in this scandal. Bush knew about it. Rumsfeld ordered it. His undersecretary of defense for intelligence, Steven Cambone, administered it. Cambone's deputy, Lt. Gen. William Boykin, instructed Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who had been executing the program involving al-Qaida suspects at Guantanamo, to go do the same at Abu Ghraib. Miller told Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who was in charge of the 800th Military Brigade, that the prison would now be dedicated to gathering intelligence. Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, also seems to have had a hand in this sequence, as did William Haynes, the Pentagon's general counsel. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, learned about the improper interrogations—from the International Committee of the Red Cross, if not from anyone else—but said or did nothing about it for two months, until it was clear that photographs were coming out. Meanwhile, those involved in the interrogations included officers from military intelligence, the CIA, and private contractors, as well as the mysterious figures from the Pentagon's secret operation.

That's a lot more people than the seven low-grade soldiers and reservists currently facing courts-martial.

So, what happens next?

First, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee have said they will keep their hearings going until they "get to the bottom of this." Republicans as well as Democrats are behaving in an unusually—and unexpectedly—aggressive fashion on the question of how high up the blame should go.

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