[lit-ideas] What happened at Abu Ghraib?

  • From: John McCreery <mccreery@xxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Thu, 13 May 2004 11:03:56 +0900

The following is cross-posted by the author. It was written originally
for bestoftheblogs.com.

Reflections on a Hearing

Ruth and I were really tired last night. Having slipped away early from
a Democrats Abroad meeting in Tokyo, we were thinking of going to bed
when CNN announced that live coverage of the Senate hearing at which
Major General Antonio Taguba would be questioned about his report on
abuses of detainees in Iraq would soon begin. When it did begin, I
found myself riveted to the screen. Here are a few things that crossed
my mind then and this morning.

The unexpected joint appearance of Taguba with Lt. General Smith and
Undersecretary for Intelligence Carbonne was, one commentator noted, a
device for limiting the time that Taguba would speak and, since the
speaking order was Carbonne-Smith-Taguba to frame his remarks before he
made them. In strong contrast was the amount of time that Senators from
both parties spent complimenting Taguba on his professionalism, adding
credibility both to his testimony and to the report on which it was

As the questioning unfolded, I was impressed by Taguba and the care
with which he answered the questions put to him. The most important
piece of evidence I heard was his statement that he and his team had
examined charges of abuse at four facilities under the control of the
800th MP brigade and that abuses at Abu Ghraib were substantially
different and much more severe than those at the other three
facilities, where complaints were more on the order of being slapped in
the face than the sort of obscenities perpetrated at Abu Ghraib.

That did not, for a moment, mean that he was going along with dumping
the blame on the seven MPs who currently face courtmartial. He did not
seek to exculpate them for what are clearly heinous acts, but he not
only pointed out "a lack of discipline, no training whatsoever and no
supervision", a clear dereliction of duty on the part of their
superiors at the company, battalion and brigade level; he also noted
the confused chain of command created when tactical control of the
prison was transferred from the MP's General Karpinsky to the 205th
Military Intelligence unit's Colonel Pappas and the October-December
timing of the events, which followed General Miller's visit to promote
the use of techniques developed at Guantanomo Bay to accelerate the
flow of intelligence. While remaining perfectly clear that the MI and
civilian contractors had no "directive" authority over the MPs and
slamming General Karpinsky's claim that she was shut out of the parts
of the prison where the events took place, he also said repeatedly that
evidence indicated that the MPs had been "influenced" by individuals
whom they perceived (wrongly) as "competent authorities."

In contrast to Taguba's focus on specifics of the situation in which
the absues at Abu Ghraib took place, the up-the-line defenses offered
by Smith and Cabonne were weak. They asserted, correctly I believe,
that training in the Geneva Convention begins in boot camp and that
interrogation do's and don'ts are spelled out in Army Manuals. What
seemed feeble, however, was the repeated excuse that key documents, the
International Red Cross Report and Taguba's own report had only
recently, within the last couple of weeks, "reached their level." This,
too, may be true--but, if so, it points to a major systemic flaw in a
military that prides itself on rapid and comprehensive acquisition of
information and quick battlefield response to information received. The
fact that it took soo many months for information and images with the
devastating consequences that we have seen to reach the upper echelons
of the Pentagon suggests all too plainly that key leaders and
policymakers have been fatally isolated by their eminence from the grim
realities of a situation that they are attempting to manage at a

There may be something to the argument that the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld
doctrine of pre-emptive war and the current administration's contempt
until bludgeoned over the head for international law and multilateral
decision making parallels or anticipates the breakdown of moral and
legal order at Abu Ghraib. There is something, too, to Luc Sante's
observation that the attitudes displayed in the images we have seen are
those seen previously in photographs of Southern lynchings. Taguba's
testimony points, however, in another, equally damaging direction, the
indifference to detail and isolation of the highest echelons of command
and control from the feedback needed to be effective--not to mention
moral and humane.


John L. McCreery
International Vice Chair, Democrats Abroad

Tel 81-45-314-9324
Email mccreery@xxxxxxx

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