a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

About those photos — Part II

Posted by Thomas Nephew on May 21st, 2009

Obama image, with slogan 'But We Won't'

In the previous post, I took up some of Aziz Poonawalla’s defense of Obama’s decision to resist the release of photos showing past detainee abuse — principally the notion that the risks posed by the release were particularly great, or outweighed the benefits. As noted there, my original comment didn’t fully address the arguments Aziz made in his second post, “release the prisoner abuse photos – but not right now“;  I attempt to do so here.

OK, just release them later
When exactly? Aziz (emphasis his own):

These photos will need to be released someday, and there will indeed need to be a full accounting and formal congressional invetigation, backed by force of law, regarding American policy towards detainees during the Bush Administration. However, with the resurgent Taliban in Pakistan (incidentally increasing its nuclear stockpile), the utter helplessness of Mayor Karzai against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the increasing power of Al Shabab in Somalia, total transparency can wait.

It is not altogether unfair to reply to this, “That is, never.”  It is quite fair to reply, “that’s not what Obama said”:

…the individuals who were involved have been identified, and appropriate actions have been taken. It’s therefore my belief that the publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals.

End of story.  However generous Aziz’s timetable for the release of the photos may be, there’s no discernible timetable whatsoever in Obama’s remarks.  The photos, so Obama would have us believe, are at most Appendix C material in some dusty military history book thirty years from now.  He has no plans to release them.  Ever. But Obama’s critical argument — and one that Aziz repeatedly echoes — is that only a “small number of individuals” were involved.  Aziz formulates the distinction as criminality versus official, explict policy:

…we must draw a clean and clear distinction between what happened at Abu Ghraib and the official, explicitly sanctioned policy of waterboarding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The former were criminal actions that were not sanctioned by any military or government official, though of course the sheer sadistic brutality of the abuse gave rise to typical conspiracy theories.  […] To attempt to force the issue now, by drawing a false equivalence between torture policy and criminal abuse, is to undermine the very real war going on, one in which ordinary muslims are still the primary victims, at the hands of those who do far worse than anything we have done.

Abu Ghraib was the fruit of the Bush/Cheney torture tree
But that equivalence is not false.   The connections between what happened in Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan, and the torture, humiliation, and abuse at Guantanamo are manifold, direct and undeniable.  Officers like Major General Geoffrey Miller and Captain Carolyn Wood who oversaw the torture and abuse at Guantanamo and Bagram, respectively, were in leadership roles for Iraqi detainee operations (including Abu Ghraib) before the abuses there took place, and relied on guidance from the highest levels of the Pentagon to authorize their deeds.  As early as 2004, Miller confirmed the use of abusive techniques including

hooding, sleep deprivation, time disorientation and depriving prisoners not only of dignity, but of fundamental human needs, such as warmth, water and food. The US commander in charge of military jails in Iraq, Major General Geoffrey Miller, has confirmed that a battery of 50-odd special “coercive techniques” can be used against enemy detainees. The general, who previously ran the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, said his main role was to extract as much intelligence as possible.

As a summary (by Brian Knowlton of the New York Times) of a Senate Armed Services Report declassified in April puts it:

The Senate report documented how some of the techniques used by the military at prisons in Afghanistan and at the naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as well as in Iraq — stripping detainees, placing them in “stress positions” or depriving them of sleep — originated in a military program known as Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape, or SERE, intended to train American troops to resist abusive enemy interrogations. According to the Senate investigation, a military behavioral scientist and a colleague who had witnessed SERE training proposed its use at Guantánamo in October 2002, as pressure was rising “to get ‘tougher’ with detainee interrogations.” Officers there sought authorization, and Mr. Rumsfeld approved 15 interrogation techniques. The report showed that Mr. Rumsfeld’s authorization was cited by a United States military special-operations lawyer in Afghanistan as “an analogy and basis for use of these techniques,” and that, in February 2003, a special-operations unit in Iraq obtained a copy of the policy from Afghanistan “that included aggressive techniques, changed the letterhead, and adopted the policy verbatim.”

From that Senate report — INQUIRY INTO THE TREATMENT OF DETAINEES IN U.S. CUSTODY — completed in November of 2008, and declassified in April:

The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of “a few bad apples” acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority. […] Conclusion 19: The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at GTMO. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.

While it’s understandable that individual Americans can’t keep track of a confusing and depressing blizzard of evidence without a scorecard — I know I barely can, and often barely want to — it is frankly deeply disingenuous and wrong of President Obama to perpetuate the “bad apple” canard about detainee abuse.*

McChrystal Clear
My friend Aziz may be on to something with the Afghanistan war connection, though.  As Nell Lancaster summarizes, General Stanley McChrystal, the former Joint Special Operations Commander and newly installed commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan

…led a network of torture and assassination squads in Iraq until last year …. Many members of McChrystal’s dirty-war task forces are still in the field in both countries, and probably Pakistan. They were told by Army JAGs that the abuse and torture of prisoners was legal, given a directive that said they were allowed to use torture techniques forbidden to regular soldiers, assured repeatedly that they’d be protected by higher-ups from being held responsible for their actions, and when a little investigative heat was applied, managed to scuttle it by the convenient destruction of computer files.

The connection is “Camp NAMA,” (reputedly the acronym for ‘Nasty Ass Military Area’) a no holds barred Iraqi detention area operated by Special Forces under McChrystal’s former command.  Abuse there was so routine that soldiers recall filling out forms detailing which methods — dogs, hot and cold, what have you — they would use.  McChrystal’s contribution to oversight, as reported by Esquire’s John Richardson in August 2006:

It was a point of pride that the Red Cross would never be allowed in the door, Jeff says. This is important because it defied the Geneva Conventions, which require that the Red Cross have access to military prisons. “Once, somebody brought it up with the colonel. ‘Will they ever be allowed in here?’ And he said absolutely not. He had this directly from General McChrystal and the Pentagon that there’s no way that the Red Cross could get in — they won’t have access and they never will. This facility was completely closed off to anybody investigating, even Army investigators.”

“Not hard at all”
It’s hard not to want to think the best of President Obama — he’s good looking, he’s smart, he’s cool.  And what else have we got?  As a friend of mine put it recently, “being disappointed — even if it’s often — is so much better than being outraged all the time.” But as I argued with Aziz,

Obama is not an infallible miracle-working paragon, he’s a American politician (however well spoken and photogenic) who is bending with winds he shouldn’t be bending with. Maybe this isn’t it for you, but you should think about some lines in the sand you believe Obama shouldn’t cross — and get used to expecting that he will. I don’t think he thinks in “line in the sand”, “this I will not do” terms, and I think that’s his failing. He swore an oath to faithfully execute the laws of the land and to uphold the Constitution. Withholding these photos is part of a pattern of trying to wiggle out of those obligations.

Allowing Obama to make and then break promises is the real problem.  Another friend of mine was puzzled recently by the seeming lack of enthusiasm for Obama’s nuclear weapons initiatives among arms control experts.  I suggested that maybe it’s because they don’t fully believe he’ll follow through with them. Andrew Sullivan — a rock solid opponent of torture (and one who, like me, came to question the wisdom of an Iraq war he once supported) — was, as is well known, a deeply committed and enthusiastic Obama supporter in last year’s primary and general election seasons.  After initial shock at Obama’s decision to oppose releasing the photos, Sullivan regrouped and outlined, in several posts, how Obama might be “rope a doping” his own supporters in a complex bid to blunt suspicions and distrust on the right.  Sullivan:

The pro-torture right will say this call is obvious. It isn’t. It’s very hard. When you have inherited a policy of war crimes, and you are still fighting a war, balancing accountability with responsibility is tough. I think, having made our point, we should cut the man some slack on this.

Perhaps so.  But perhaps not.  Yesterday, Michael Gerson relayed this vignette in the Washington Post:

When Gen. Ray Odierno argued that the release of military abuse photos would put American troops at risk, Obama quickly backed down. By one account, Odierno told the president, “Thanks. That must have been a hard decision.” Obama replied: “No, it wasn’t at all.”

Neither is this: as citizens, we should not be in the business of making excuses for a president to break his word.  Presidents don’t need our help for that.  The best that I can say for Obama — and it’s still quite a bit — is that I believe he’s fully aware of the arguments, and acknowledges their force.  Our job is to make those arguments, and make them stick — not to make excuses.

CROSSPOSTED by Aziz to his “City of Brass” blog.

* Just as it was disingenuous and wrong to perpetuate the “hundreds of militants” at Guantanamo canard in his Super Bowl interview with Matt Lauer, as Nell Lancaster pointed out in a recent comment here and at the time in an “Obsidian Wings” comment thread.  Not to mention politically short-sighted, as this week’s events illustrate.
EDIT, 5/23: consistently refer to Aziz on first-name basis.
UPDATE, 5/26: “Conclusion 19” also figures in Andrew Sullivan’s rebuttal today of a key part of Cheney’s 5/21 speech.
UPDATE, 6/4 (belated): In his 5/29 post “rape at Abu Ghraib? Obama vs Taguba,” Aziz, believing in good faith that additional photos depicting rape were at stake in Obama’s decision, wrote “either Taguba is lying or Obama is lying” and perhaps temporarily declared our debate “moot.” However, it now appears that the rape/sexual abuse photos involved may indeed not have been among those re-suppressed by Obama’s decision (i.e., neither Taguba nor Obama was lying, though there was an element of misdirection to Obama’s statements).  The rape/abuse photos are similarly unavailable for public review, but may not have been among those slated for release under the FOIA release sought by the ACLU.

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