July 26, 2004

The Practice of National Self-Deception and Denial

In connection with the abuses at Abu Ghraib (and at many other prisons in Iraq and elsewhere), you can now see the practice of denial raised to a refined art form, an art form that is painfully obvious in its transparency for anyone paying attention:
A new Army report concludes that military detention operations in Iraq and Afghanistan suffered from poor training, haphazard organization and outmoded policies, but that these flaws did not directly contribute to the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.

The report, by Lt. Gen. Paul T. Mikolashek, the Army inspector general, found no evidence that any systemic problems caused the abuses. Instead, his five-month inquiry blamed the "unauthorized actions taken by a few individuals, coupled with the failure of a few leaders to provide adequate monitoring, supervision and leadership over those soldiers."

The 321-page report, the first of at least seven military inquiries into prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan to be released in the next few months, left many contentious issues still to be addressed by Army criminal investigators and the other inquiries. ...

The report is likely to inflame debate over how far up the chain of command culpability extends. Its findings contradict those of an earlier Army inquiry, by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who concluded military police at Abu Ghraib conducted "systemic and illegal abuse of detainees." A report by the International Committee of the Red Cross in February found that "methods of ill treatment" were "used in a systematic way" by the United States military in Iraq.

Some Democrats privately accused the Army of delaying the release of the report until today so it would be overshadowed by news coverage of the final report of the commission looking into the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, an accusation Army officials denied. The Army did not post a copy of General Mikolashek's report on its Web site until early this afternoon, and even Army public affairs personnel said they had difficulty gaining access to it.

Moreover, aspects of the inspector general report appear to contradict its central conclusion.

The report said that poor training in the handling of detainees increases the risk of abuse. A major finding of the report was that many military police and intelligence officials were poorly trained for their tasks in detention operations.

The report also found that many of the policies relating to detention operations were unclear, ambiguous and poorly carried out.

The report found that the potential for abuse increased when interrogations were conducted in "an emotionally charged environment by untrained personnel who are unfamiliar with the approved interrogation approach techniques." A major finding of the report was the military suffers from a shortage of experienced interrogators and interpreters.

Finally, the report concluded that "a command climate that encourages behavior at the harsher end of the acceptable range of behavior towards detainees may unintentionally increase the likelihood of abuse." In his testimony to the committee on Thursday, General Mikolashek said that at many detention centers, "It was a less than ideal command climate."
And about this purposeful denial of the obvious, the NYT editorialized as follows:
The authors of this 300-page whitewash say they found no "systemic" problem - even though there were 94 documented cases of prisoner abuse, including some 40 deaths, 20 of them homicides; even though only four prisons of the 16 they visited had copies of the Geneva Conventions; even though Abu Ghraib was a cesspool with one shower for every 50 inmates; even though the military police were improperly involved in interrogations; even though young people plucked from civilian life were sent to guard prisoners - 50,000 of them in all - with no training.

Never mind any of that. The report pins most of the blame on those depressingly familiar culprits, a few soldiers who behaved badly. It does grudgingly concede that "in some cases, abuse was accompanied by leadership failure at the tactical level," but the report absolves anyone of rank, in keeping with the investigation's spirit. The inspector general's staff did not dig into the abuse cases, but merely listed them. It based its findings on the comical observation that "commanders, leaders and soldiers treated detainees humanely" while investigators from the Pentagon were watching. And it made no attempt to find out who had authorized threatening prisoners with dogs and sexually humiliating hooded men, to name two American practices the Red Cross found to be common. The inspector general's see-no-evil team simply said it couldn't find those "approach techniques" in the Army field manual.


Mr. Warner has admirably resisted pressure from the White House and Republican leaders in Congress to stop his investigation. But he is showing signs of losing appetite for the fight. Mr. Warner held only one hearing in the last month - on the new report - and agreed to the ground rules on the Red Cross reports. We've always been skeptical that the Defense Department can investigate itself credibly, and now it's obvious that it plans to stick to the "few bad apples" excuse. The only way to learn why innocent Iraqis were tortured by American soldiers is a formal Congressional inquiry, with subpoena power.
I recommend that you read the entire editorial, which contains additional details about how this whitewash is being accomplished.