a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew


Posted by Thomas Nephew on May 11th, 2007

Tara McKelvey — American Prospect senior editor and research fellow at the NYU School of Law’s Center on Law and Security — is the author of the newly published Monstering: Inside America’s Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War.

On Wednesday, Harper’s Magazine published Ken Silverstein’s online interview with McKelvey about what she learned. She says that regarding Abu Ghraib, “[t]he media only focused on the photographs. They missed the fact that the abuse was systematic and that the worst things were not even shown in the pictures.” On the question of who bears responsibility, McKelvey responds, “If there’s a smoking gun, it’s in the hands of John C. Yoo.” She also points out that the scope of abuse in Iraq and elsewhere was far greater than widely known:

Thousands of detainees have gone through U.S.-run facilities in Iraq, but thousands more—anyone held for less than fourteen days—were never registered or tracked. Human-rights reports and interviews I conducted show that some of the worst abuses took place at short-term facilities—a police station in Samarra, a school gymnasium, a trailer, and places like that, where individuals were held for up to two weeks.

Of course, much of this may not surprise people who’ve tried to keep up with this particular sad branch of the news. What promise to be very interesting are McKelvey’s interviews with actors in the story. This item from the Silverstein interview really struck me:

6. You got an exclusive print interview with Lynndie England. What was your impression of her?

Part of her defense was that she was a compliant personality but in fact, as I discovered, she’d been a whistleblower. She had worked at a chicken processing plant in Moorefield, West Virginia, and had walked off the job to protest lousy assembly line practices. Less than a year later, a PETA investigator went into the plant undercover and filmed incredibly horrific acts of animal abuse. It made it into the national media, which called it a “mini Abu Ghraib.” When she told me she’d quit her job over the conditions at the plant, I was surprised. She had stood up to what she thought was wrong. Lynndie England—and all of the people at Abu Ghraib—had the option to say “no” to the abuse. There was a combination of events that allowed the detainee abuses to happen, it wasn’t just administration policy or Lynndie’s psychopathic boyfriend, or any one thing. I was so shocked about the abuse when I first heard about it from Iraqis, and I wondered how such horrible things could happen. But by the time I’d finished the book and saw how everything had come together, the abuse seemed almost inevitable.

(Via Laura Rozen,”War and Piece.”)

So it turns out even “compliant” Lynndie England was no cipher. But from what I read above and elsewhere, I’d take a little issue with McKelvey — though of course I should read her account. To me, it looks like even Lynndie England was changed by Iraq and the detention/interrogation policies carried out there — bent and reshaped into someone who was readier to accept abuse of Iraqis in military detention than she once had been for chickens at a processing plant.

And it’s not just Lynndie. A recent survey indicates that only around half of soldiers and Marines in Iraq would report abuse or killing of innocent civilians by their comrades, 40% think torture is acceptable under some circumstances, and fully 10% have abused Iraqi civilians themselves.

So it’s good to see that General Petraeus has published an open letter reminding military personnel in Iraq that torture is illegal and that abuses should be reported. As law professor Marty Lederman (“Balkinization”) writes, it’s not perfect, but it is unambiguous about what Petraeus thinks should and should not happen in his chain of command. Something like this might have made a lot of difference prior to Abu Ghraib, as opposed to the “what’s a little abuse short of organ failure” Yoo, Rumsfeld — and Bush — policies.  Too late for that, though; I agree with McKelvey when she tells Silverstein:

This is not just a prison scandal. It’s a huge blow to America’s image and it’s something we’ll be dealing with for generations.

And guess who else agrees with her? In 2004, I excerpted this from a May 7 Washington Post article by Robin Wright:

…Karl Rove suggested this week that the consequences of the graphic photographs documenting the U.S. abuse of Iraqi detainees are so enormous that it will take decades for the United States to recover, according to a Bush adviser.

NOTES: survey via Pauline Jellinek (AP, via”Huffington Post”), and digby (“Hullabaloo”). “Petraeus has published”: Thomas Ricks, Washington Post, 5/11/07; “open letter”: direct link to Acrobat file at the Washington Post web site. I wrote about another McKelvey item on March 30, 2005, “Consider my conscience shocked,” pegged to consideration of legislation allowing interrogation methods that “shock the conscience,” a legal term of art. McKelvey then: “In other words, say human-rights experts, this is how we do business in Iraq and, possibly, in other countries down the road.”

2 Responses to “Monsterizing”

  1. Donna Says:

    “U.S. abuse of Iraqi detainees are so enormous that it will take decades for the United States to recover”
    So, he doen’t out and out condemn the abuses — it seems that it’s just the getting caught out that’s bad.
    that’s out boy!

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    You’re probably right about his attitude, given other comments he’s made, such as those to the NY Conservative Club: Has there been a more revealing moment this year than when Democratic Senator Richard Durbin, speaking on the Senate floor, compared what Americans had done to prisoners in our control at Guantanamo Bay with what was done by Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot – three of the most brutal and malevolent figures in the 20th century?” (Via Re Mr. Rove’s remarks, a June 2005 post of mine.)
    Even here, he still spoke of it as “what was done to prisoners in our control”, which wasn’t quite a proud, confident, ‘so what?’ description of what happened. (He might have said, e.g., “compared American interrogations of dangerous terrorists to…“) But similar to what you observed, seizing a chance to beat up on Durbin (and liberals) won out over whatever moral qualms he may have had about the misdeeds involved.
    PS: bought McKelvey’s book this weekend; may try my hand at a review.

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