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[The above clip is an excerpted bit from the Frontline examination of “The Torture Question.”  There are graphic images from photos taken at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, as well as some disturbing information presented in this documentary.  I wanted to warn everyone upfront before you clicked on the video.  More information on the documentary can be found here at the Frontline website. — CHS] 

For the Bush Administration, first and foremost, it has been consistently about maintaining a public level of plausible deniability for each and every scandal that has arisen during their tenure in office.  Over and over, the phrase we have heard is that an official could not look into particular charges because of “an ongoing criminal investigation.” 

What that has meant, for close to seven years now, is that when a substantial problem arises in any executive agency, that problem is left to fester — for days, months, even years — while members of the Bush Administration sit back and bide their time, and allow the problem to continue unabated under the cloak of plausible deniability — unless and until someone outside the Administration begins to ask the tough questions that need to be asked.

Seymour Hersh has a blistering example of that directly from former Gen. Antonio Taguba that everyone should read in full.  But I want to warn you up front, it is infuriating and utterly disgusting.  All the more so because the upper level officers and civilian leaders at the Pentagon have yet to be held to account for any of the their involvement in this mess, while enlisted soldiers who were likely following their illegal orders bide their time in military prisons.  I am beyond furious, all over again, after reading all of this.

Hersh was interviewed yesterday on CNN regarding the article, and Crooks and Liars has a clip of the interview.  Watch it for an overview of Hersh’s reporting, but do go and read the entire New Yorker article.  Every person in this nation ought to do so — it is that appalling.

From Hersh’s piece in the New Yorker:

…“Here . . . comes . . . that famous General Taguba—of the Taguba report!” Rumsfeld declared, in a mocking voice. The meeting was attended by Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld’s deputy; Stephen Cambone, the Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence; General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (J.C.S.); and General Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, along with Craddock and other officials. Taguba, describing the moment nearly three years later, said, sadly, “I thought they wanted to know. I assumed they wanted to know. I was ignorant of the setting.”In the meeting, the officials professed ignorance about Abu Ghraib. “Could you tell us what happened?” Wolfowitz asked. Someone else asked, “Is it abuse or torture?” At that point, Taguba recalled, “I described a naked detainee lying on the wet floor, handcuffed, with an interrogator shoving things up his rectum, and said, ‘That’s not abuse. That’s torture.’ There was quiet.”

Rumsfeld was particularly concerned about how the classified report had become public. “General,” he asked, “who do you think leaked the report?” Taguba responded that perhaps a senior military leader who knew about the investigation had done so. “It was just my speculation,” he recalled. “Rumsfeld didn’t say anything.” (I did not meet Taguba until mid-2006 and obtained his report elsewhere.) Rumsfeld also complained about not being given the information he needed. “Here I am,” Taguba recalled Rumsfeld saying, “just a Secretary of Defense, and we have not seen a copy of your report. I have not seen the photographs, and I have to testify to Congress tomorrow and talk about this.” As Rumsfeld spoke, Taguba said, “He’s looking at me. It was a statement.”

At best, Taguba said, “Rumsfeld was in denial.” Taguba had submitted more than a dozen copies of his report through several channels at the Pentagon and to the Central Command headquarters, in Tampa, Florida, which ran the war in Iraq. By the time he walked into Rumsfeld’s conference room, he had spent weeks briefing senior military leaders on the report, but he received no indication that any of them, with the exception of General Schoomaker, had actually read it. (Schoomaker later sent Taguba a note praising his honesty and leadership.) When Taguba urged one lieutenant general to look at the photographs, he rebuffed him, saying, “I don’t want to get involved by looking, because what do you do with that information, once you know what they show?”

Taguba also knew that senior officials in Rumsfeld’s office and elsewhere in the Pentagon had been given a graphic account of the pictures from Abu Ghraib, and told of their potential strategic significance, within days of the first complaint. On January 13, 2004, a military policeman named Joseph Darby gave the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division (C.I.D.) a CD full of images of abuse. Two days later, General Craddock and Vice-Admiral Timothy Keating, the director of the Joint Staff of the J.C.S., were e-mailed a summary of the abuses depicted on the CD. It said that approximately ten soldiers were shown, involved in acts that included:

Having male detainees pose nude while female guards pointed at their genitals; having female detainees exposing themselves to the guards; having detainees perform indecent acts with each other; and guards physically assaulting detainees by beating and dragging them with choker chains.

Taguba said, “You didn’t need to ‘see’ anything — just take the secure e-mail traffic at face value.”I learned from Taguba that the first wave of materials included descriptions of the sexual humiliation of a father with his son, who were both detainees. Several of these images, including one of an Iraqi woman detainee baring her breasts, have since surfaced; others have not. (Taguba’s report noted that photographs and videos were being held by the C.I.D. because of ongoing criminal investigations and their “extremely sensitive nature.”) Taguba said that he saw “a video of a male American soldier in uniform sodomizing a female detainee.” The video was not made public in any of the subsequent court proceedings, nor has there been any public government mention of it. Such images would have added an even more inflammatory element to the outcry over Abu Ghraib. “It’s bad enough that there were photographs of Arab men wearing women’s panties,” Taguba said.

On January 20th, the chief of staff at Central Command sent another e-mail to Admiral Keating, copied to General Craddock and Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the Army commander in Iraq. The chief of staff wrote, “Sir: update on alleged detainee abuse per our discussion. DID IT REALLY HAPPEN? Yes, currently have 4 confessions implicating perhaps 10 soldiers. DO PHOTOS EXIST? Yes. A CD with approx 100 photos and a video—CID has these in their possession.”

In subsequent testimony, General Myers, the J.C.S. chairman, acknowledged, without mentioning the e-mails, that in January information about the photographs had been given “to me and the Secretary up through the chain of command. . . . And the general nature of the photos, about nudity, some mock sexual acts and other abuse, was described.”

Nevertheless, Rumsfeld, in his appearances before the Senate and the House Armed Services Committees on May 7th, claimed to have had no idea of the extensive abuse. “It breaks our hearts that in fact someone didn’t say, ‘Wait, look, this is terrible. We need to do something,’ ” Rumsfeld told the congressmen. “I wish we had known more, sooner, and been able to tell you more sooner, but we didn’t.”

Rumsfeld told the legislators that, when stories about the Taguba report appeared, “it was not yet in the Pentagon, to my knowledge.” As for the photographs, Rumsfeld told the senators, “I say no one in the Pentagon had seen them”; at the House hearing, he said, “I didn’t see them until last night at 7:30.” Asked specifically when he had been made aware of the photographs, Rumsfeld said:

There were rumors of photographs in a criminal prosecution chain back sometime after January 13th . . . I don’t remember precisely when, but sometime in that period of January, February, March. . . . The legal part of it was proceeding along fine. What wasn’t proceeding along fine is the fact that the President didn’t know, and you didn’t know, and I didn’t know.

“And, as a result, somebody just sent a secret report to the press, and there they are,” Rumsfeld said….

According to the NYTimes, Rumsfeld’s public excuse for not looking at the information earlier was the following: 

Lawrence Di Rita, a former top aide to Mr. Rumsfeld, said Mr. Rumsfeld had not viewed the photographs because he had been advised by lawyers that doing so “could materially affect the ongoing criminal investigation.” He said Mr. Rumsfeld finally looked at the pictures the day before his Congressional testimony, the same day he was briefed by General Taguba.

Plausible deniability. If it sounds familiar, it is because it has been the constant refrain from Bush Administration officials — including AG Gonzales in the latest series of inquiries into Department of Justice improprieties. They are using what ought to be a solemn, ethical obligation as a shield for liability from wrongdoing, taking an obligation to not interfere with genuine fact-finding and twisting it into an excuse for not correcting an ongoing problem. This is not governing, it is CYA at the highest levels — and they should not be allowed to continue along this tactical path.

Recall, for example, that Karl Rove’s security clearance violations have still not been investigated by the internal arm in the White House charged with such duties because of “the ongoing criminal investigation.” So a man who has publicly admitted to discussing highly classified information with multiple journalists continues to have high-level security…because of a claimed technicality.

And on and on and on…the entire Bush Administration has been violate the law in secret (or write in a signing statement that says you can ignore it outright), get caught, and continue on your path of misconduct under a cloack of plausible deniability writ large unless and until the public sentiment builds to a crescendo that can no longer be ignored, forcing a halt or forcing whatever conduct is being questioned to morph into another non-public end-run of the law form.  (See, e.g., John Poindexter.)

But back to the Taguba situation.  As the former general told Hersh, his investigation was limited to the lower ranks, and no higher:

During the next two years, Taguba assiduously avoided the press, telling his relatives not to talk about his work. Friends and family had been inundated with telephone calls and visitors, and, Taguba said, “I didn’t want them to be involved.” Taguba retired in January, 2007, after thirty-four years of active service, and finally agreed to talk to me about his investigation of Abu Ghraib and what he believed were the serious misrepresentations by officials that followed. “From what I knew, troops just don’t take it upon themselves to initiate what they did without any form of knowledge of the higher-ups,” Taguba told me. His orders were clear, however: he was to investigate only the military police at Abu Ghraib, and not those above them in the chain of command. “These M.P. troops were not that creative,” he said. “Somebody was giving them guidance, but I was legally prevented from further investigation into higher authority. I was limited to a box.”…

Taguba’s assignment was limited to investigating the 800th M.P.s, but he quickly found signs of the involvement of military intelligence—both the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, commanded by Colonel Thomas Pappas, which worked closely with the M.P.s, and what were called “other government agencies,” or O.G.A.s, a euphemism for the C.I.A. and special-operations units operating undercover in Iraq. Some of the earliest evidence involved Lieutenant Colonel Steven L. Jordan, whose name was mentioned in interviews with several M.P.s. For the first three weeks of the investigation, Jordan was nowhere to be found, despite repeated requests. When the investigators finally located him, he asked whether he needed to shave his beard before being interviewed—Taguba suspected that he had been dressing as a civilian. “When I asked him about his assignment, he says, ‘I’m a liaison officer for intelligence from Army headquarters in Iraq.’ ” But in the course of three or four interviews with Jordan, Taguba said, he began to suspect that the lieutenant colonel had been more intimately involved in the interrogation process—some of it brutal—for “high value” detainees.

“Jordan denied everything, and yet he had the authority to enter the prison’s ‘hard site’ ”—where the most important detainees were held—“carrying a carbine and an M9 pistol, which is against regulations,” Taguba said. Jordan had also led a squad of military policemen in a shoot-out inside the hard site with a detainee from Syria who had managed to obtain a gun. (A lawyer for Jordan disputed these allegations; in the shoot-out, he said, Jordan was “just another gun on the extraction team” and not the leader. He noted that Jordan was not a trained interrogator.)

Taguba said that Jordan’s “record reflected an extensive intelligence background.” He also had reason to believe that Jordan was not reporting through the chain of command. But Taguba’s narrowly focussed mission constrained the questions he could ask. “I suspected that somebody was giving them guidance, but I could not print that,” Taguba said.

“After all Jordan’s evasiveness and misleading responses, his rights were read to him,” Taguba went on. Jordan subsequently became the only officer facing trial on criminal charges in connection with Abu Ghraib and is scheduled to be court-martialled in late August. (Seven M.P.s were convicted of charges that included dereliction of duty, maltreatment, and assault; one defendant, Specialist Charles Graner, was sentenced to ten years in prison.) Last month, a military judge ruled that Jordan, who is still assigned to the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command, had not been appropriately advised of his rights during his interviews with Taguba, undermining the Army’s allegation that he lied during the Taguba inquiry. Six other charges remain, including failure to obey an order or regulation; cruelty and maltreatment; and false swearing and obstruction of justice. (His lawyer said, “The evidence clearly shows that he is innocent.”)

Taguba came to believe that Lieutenant General Sanchez, the Army commander in Iraq, and some of the generals assigned to the military headquarters in Baghdad had extensive knowledge of the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib even before Joseph Darby came forward with the CD. Taguba was aware that in the fall of 2003—when much of the abuse took place—Sanchez routinely visited the prison, and witnessed at least one interrogation. According to Taguba, “Sanchez knew exactly what was going on.”

Taguba learned that in August, 2003, as the Sunni insurgency in Iraq was gaining force, the Pentagon had ordered Major General Geoffrey Miller, the commander at Guantánamo, to Iraq. His mission was to survey the prison system there and to find ways to improve the flow of intelligence. The core of Miller’s recommendations, as summarized in the Taguba report, was that the military police at Abu Ghraib should become part of the interrogation process: they should work closely with interrogators and intelligence officers in “setting the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees.”

Taguba concluded that Miller’s approach was not consistent with Army doctrine, which gave military police the overriding mission of making sure that the prisons were secure and orderly. His report cited testimony that interrogators and other intelligence personnel were encouraging the abuse of detainees. “Loosen this guy up for us,” one M.P. said he was told by a member of military intelligence. “Make sure he has a bad night.”…

And so, the accountability for the origination of all of these practices which went against the tenets of the UCMJ and our international legal obligations under the Geneva Conventions and the laws of warfare which the United States had been key in implementing and enforcing in the aftermath of the Second World War — all of that was thrown away by the crowd surrounding Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and George Bush, and none of them were to be held to account by orders issued to General Taguba. How very convenient.

It is one thing to have suspected this or to have gotten hints of this over the past few years, but it is quite another level of furious to read Taguba’s words on the page about this.  The level of contempt that Rumsfeld and his top commanders showed to Congress in their outright obfuscations is appalling enough, but to know that this was certainly a deliberate strategy of plausible deniability from the get go is unsustainable and demands both oversight and accountability.  Now.

In case you don’t remember the disgusting mess that was Abu Ghraib, or what we have done in Afghanistan at Bagram and other places prior to it, or elsewhere in Iraq before and since, or at Guantanimo — all, not coincidentally, having been under the command of former Lt Gen. Geoffrey Miller at one point or another, take a peek at this Frontline special “The Torture Question.”  (Taylor had a great summary write-up about it when it aired, and you can read it here.)  I found a bit of an excerpted clip from it and posted it as the above YouTube, but the Frontline website has the entire show available for streaming online.

The full Taguba report is available here via The Agonist.  And there is more on Hersh’s report in The WaPo as well.

This is not who we ought to be in America.  We are far, far better than this — and we once believed that we ought to strive to be a beacon of decency and hope, rather than a glaring spotlight of what not to be.  Congress must step in on this issue, as the courts have done already in a number of cases, for the Bush Administration has shown itself repeatedly to be untrustworthy stewards of the rule of law and of the tenets of decency and human rights. 

The Bush Administration has violated the principles that the United States has long held in sacred trust along with other civilized nations as the standards to which we all ought to strive.  From the utter disregard for the long-held principle of habeas corpus to the deliberate blurring of the line between United States citizen and enemy combatant to using the NSA for domestic spying without getting prior FISA court approval…the list continues unabated on the depths to which the Bush Administration will sink to avoid the legal course of action and do as it pleases, whether or not such end-runs of the law are either necessary and/or useful in a long-term policy and reputation context for our country. 

It is past time that they were called on this, publicly, loudly, and repeatedly.  We are better than this.  Our policies should be driven by knowledge and long-term strategy and not short-term fear.  And lawbreakers — all of them, no matter how low or how high their influence may reach, should be held to account for their actions.  All of them.

Congress must hold them all to account.  There must be cleansing sunshine, oversight and accountability on this issue if America is ever to regain any measure of trust with the rest of the civilized nations of the world. 

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Christy Hardin Smith

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy is a "recovering" attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review. Christy was a partner in her own firm for several years, where she practiced in a number of areas including criminal defense, child abuse and neglect representation, domestic law, civil litigation, and she was an attorney for a small municipality, before switching hats to become a state prosecutor. Christy has extensive trial experience, and has worked for years both in and out of the court system to improve the lives of at risk children.

Email: reddhedd AT firedoglake DOT com