Friday, August 27


What Jackson Diehl said.

The latest official reports on the prisoner abuse scandal contain a classic Washington contradiction. Their headlines proclaim that no official policy mandated or allowed the torture of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that no officials above the rank of colonel deserve prosecution or formal punishment. But buried in their hundreds of pages of detail, for anyone who cares to read them, is a clear and meticulous account of how decisions made by President Bush, his top political aides and senior military commanders led directly to those searing images of naked prisoners being menaced with guard dogs.

An abbreviated tour of that buried narrative could begin on Page 33 of the report by the panel led by James R. Schlesinger. There it details how President Bush, on the advice of his White House counsel and attorney general, decided in February 2002 that the Geneva Conventions would not apply to captured members of al Qaeda and Afghanistan's Taliban. This, despite the objections of the State Department and "many service lawyers," who worried that the decision "would undermine the United States military culture, which is based on a strict adherence to the law of war."
The causal chain is all there: from Bush's February 2002 decision to Rumsfeld's December 2002 authorization of nudity, stress positions and dogs; to the adoption of those methods in Afghanistan and their sanction in Iraq by a commander looking back to Bush's decision; and finally, to their use on detainees by soldiers who reasonably believed they were executing official policy.

So why do the reports' authors deny the role of policy, or its makers? Partly because of the Army's inbred inability to indict its own; partly because of the desire of Rumsfeld's old colleagues, such as Schlesinger, to protect him. But there's another motive, too: a lingering will to defend and preserve the groundbreaking decisions -- those that set aside the Geneva Conventions and allowed harsh interrogation techniques. Schlesinger argues they are needed for the war on terrorism; he and senior Army commanders say they are worried about a "chilling effect" on interrogations and a slackening in intelligence collection.

The buried message of their reports, though, is that the new system is unworkable. Once the rules are bent for one class of prisoner, or one detention facility, or one agency, exceptional practices cannot be easily returned to their bottle -- and the chaos of Abu Ghraib is a predictable result. Just as the Army professionals foresaw, Bush's 2002 decision undermined "U.S. military culture" and its "strict adherence to the law of war." That is the headline the investigators ducked.


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