May 15, 2004

The Truth (About Abu Ghraib) Is out There...

Phil Carter goes X-Files on us as Donald Rumsfeld and company tell the CIA and Military Intelligence to go Medieval on detainees:

INTEL DUMP: Authorized at the highest levels?

The New Yorker has published Sy Hersh's latest piece on the abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. I think his first piece was the biggest, because of the bombshell it literally dropped on the White House and the nation. But this article may contain the most damaging allegations of all for the Pentagon's senior leadership. According to Hersh, the use of "torture lite" and other coercive tactics was not only condoned at the highest levels -- it was explicitly ordered under a covert "special-access program" by the SecDef and his top lieutenants.

The Abu Ghraib story began, in a sense, just weeks after the September 11, 2001, attacks, with the American bombing of Afghanistan. Almost from the start, the Administration’s search for Al Qaeda members in the war zone, and its worldwide search for terrorists, came up against major command-and-control problems. For example, combat forces that had Al Qaeda targets in sight had to obtain legal clearance before firing on them. On October 7th, the night the bombing began, an unmanned Predator aircraft tracked an automobile convoy that, American intelligence believed, contained Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader. A lawyer on duty at the United States Central Command headquarters, in Tampa, Florida, refused to authorize a strike. By the time an attack was approved, the target was out of reach. Rumsfeld was apoplectic over what he saw as a self-defeating hesitation to attack that was due to political correctness. One officer described him to me that fall as “kicking a lot of glass and breaking doors.” In November, the Washington Post reported that, as many as ten times since early October, Air Force pilots believed they’d had senior Al Qaeda and Taliban members in their sights but had been unable to act in time because of legalistic hurdles. There were similar problems throughout the world, as American Special Forces units seeking to move quickly against suspected terrorist cells were compelled to get prior approval from local American ambassadors and brief their superiors in the chain of command.

Rumsfeld reacted in his usual direct fashion: he authorized the establishment of a highly secret program that was given blanket advance approval to kill or capture and, if possible, interrogate “high value” targets in the Bush Administration’s war on terror. A special-access program, or sap—subject to the Defense Department’s most stringent level of security—was set up, with an office in a secure area of the Pentagon. The program would recruit operatives and acquire the necessary equipment, including aircraft, and would keep its activities under wraps. America’s most successful intelligence operations during the Cold War had been saps, including the Navy’s submarine penetration of underwater cables used by the Soviet high command and construction of the Air Force’s stealth bomber. All the so-called “black” programs had one element in common: the Secretary of Defense, or his deputy, had to conclude that the normal military classification restraints did not provide enough security.

“Rumsfeld’s goal was to get a capability in place to take on a high-value target—a standup group to hit quickly,” a former high-level intelligence official told me. “He got all the agencies together—the C.I.A. and the N.S.A.—to get pre-approval in place. Just say the code word and go.” The operation had across-the-board approval from Rumsfeld and from Condoleezza Rice, the national-security adviser. President Bush was informed of the existence of the program, the former intelligence official said.
This information is useful as background, and it certainly explains the existence of these tactics in the context of the larger war on terrorism. However, the most interesting stuff (to me) comes later in the story, and may explain some of why the 800th MP Brigade did so little to command & control their soldiers at Abu Ghraib. It also may explain why the prosecution has been so weak so far, charging just junior soldiers and no senior NCOs or officers.
The abuses at Abu Ghraib were exposed on January 13th, when Joseph Darby, a young military policeman assigned to Abu Ghraib, reported the wrongdoing to the Army’s Criminal Investigations Division. He also turned over a CD full of photographs. Within three days, a report made its way to Donald Rumsfeld, who informed President Bush.

The inquiry presented a dilemma for the Pentagon. The C.I.D. had to be allowed to continue, the former intelligence official said. “You can’t cover it up. You have to prosecute these guys for being off the reservation. But how do you prosecute them when they were covered by the special-access program? So you hope that maybe it’ll go away.” The Pentagon’s attitude last January, he said, was “Somebody got caught with some photos. What’s the big deal? Take care of it.” Rumsfeld’s explanation to the White House, the official added, was reassuring: “‘We’ve got a glitch in the program. We’ll prosecute it.’ The cover story was that some kids got out of control.”

* * *
Sometime before the Abu Ghraib abuses became public, the former intelligence official told me, Miller was “read in”—that is, briefed—on the special-access operation. In April, Miller returned to Baghdad to assume control of the Iraqi prisons; once the scandal hit, with its glaring headlines, General Sanchez presented him to the American and international media as the general who would clean up the Iraqi prison system and instill respect for the Geneva Conventions. “His job is to save what he can,” the former official said. “He’s there to protect the program while limiting any loss of core capability.” As for Antonio Taguba, the former intelligence official added, “He goes into it not knowing shit. And then: ‘Holy cow! What’s going on?’”
If this is all true, then the responsibility for Abu Ghraib belongs to the Secretary of Defense and his top assistants who directed and controlled this problem. Just as we would hold field commanders vicariously liable for their subordinates' criminal actions under the "command responsibility" doctrine, so too should hold the SecDef accountable if it turns out that he did direct these things to be done. Indeed, we send a very dangerous message by not holding these top officials accountable in the same way that these junior soldiers are by a court martial this week. That message is: senior leaders are not responsible for their actions, and soldiers will hang for the actions of their superiors. Suffice to say, that message does not support a good command climate for America's military.

Indeed, if the SAP was as tightly controlled as Mr. Hersh indicates, then commmand responsibility may skip a number of links in the chain of command. True culpability here may jump from the Pentagon down to the actual MI officers and MP soldiers who conducted abuses. That's because the MP leadership was almost certainly cut out of the loop for this clandestine program, and there were probably security measures in place which prevented them from learning about this stuff. This undermines what I've written so far on the culpability of the 800th MP Brigade leadership, but I think it's a reasonable point to deduce from this New Yorker story. If this report is true, then officers like BG Janis Karpinski and LTC Jerry Phillabaum may not have much legal culpability here, beyond the failure to establish effective command & control systems that would detect abuses like this within their units. But even that might not be true, if the spooks used measures to interdict the efforts of Karpinski and Phillabaum to learn what was going on.

There's another point here, which relates to unlawful orders and the ability of soldiers to identify them and disobey them. Imagine you're an Army Specialist in the field, and let's stipulate that you did get substantial amounts of training on the Geneva Conventions and the laws of armed conflict. Now imagine you've gotten brought into a black op that's been sanctioned by the top levels of the Pentagon, and explicitly blessed by the DoD Office of General Counsel. Who are you, SPC Joe Snuffy, to question the legal judgment of America's top national security lawyers? It would have been very hard to question orders to put a detainee in a stress position, or to use sleep deprivation, when such orders carried the imprimatur of the SecDef and his top legal advisor.

The question for me, therefore, is what exactly was authorized by this special program, and whether the MPs went a little further in their sexual abuse. I can easily believe that the Pentagon blessed such tactics as stress positions and sleep deprivation; after all, such things are taught in our own military's SERE schools. But I still find it difficult to believe that our military and its top political appointees would endorse the use of sexual humiliation and sexual assault. If they did, those were probably unlawful orders, and the soldiers should have disobeyed them notwithstanding the stamp of authority they carried. But we should also look at the individuals who gave those orders, whether they work in Baghdad or Washington.

Only one thing is certain -- the civilian and JAG lawyers assigned to the defense for this case are going to have a field day with this story.

Update: The Pentagon just issued a press released titled "Statement from DoD Spokesperson Mr. Lawrence Di Rita" in direct respose to the Hersh piece:
"Assertions apparently being made in the latest New Yorker article on Abu Ghraib and the abuse of Iraqi detainees are outlandish, conspiratorial, and filled with error and anonymous conjecture.

"The abuse evidenced in the videos and photos, and any similar abuse that may come to light in any of the ongoing half dozen investigations into this matter, has no basis in any sanctioned program, training manual, instruction, or order in the Department of Defense.

"No responsible official of the Department of Defense approved any program that could conceivably have been intended to result in such abuses as witnessed in the recent photos and videos.

"To correct one of the many errors in fact, Undersecretary Cambone has no responsibility, nor has he had any responsibility in the past, for detainee or interrogation programs in Afghanistan, Iraq, or anywhere else in the world.

"This story seems to reflect the fevered insights of those with little, if any, connection to the activities in the Department of Defense."
Everytime I see damning reports like that in the New Yorker juxtaposed against categorical denials like this one, I'm tempted to think of the motto from the X-Files: The truth is out there.

Posted by DeLong at May 15, 2004 09:02 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post

I think it is likely that authorization and therefore responsibility does lie with Rummy, et al. Such thinking and behavior is in line with the general trend of ideology of the Bush Administration and American Enterprise Institute. Both Bush and Rumsfield have been clear about their disdain for international conventions, treaties and law if any threaten to get in their way. Bush's "pre-emption" doctrine is a good example, as is the overall Bush/Cheney philosopy which is pretty much--the executive can do anything he/it wants as long as the GOP is in power (it will be different if a Dem is president). As is the Bush/Cheney/Ashcroft desire to shield its own doings while prying ever further(and with no notice) into the lives of everyone in the US. I think this is just another instance of over confident, thoughtless, heedless behavior on the part of another sector of the Bush Administration. There have been so many. And I think Mr. "I support our troops" could care less if a some plebs are thrown to the wolves if that helps put a good spin on yet another Bush-created disaster. Look how many people were executed while he was governor whose sentence he could've stayed.

Posted by: azurite on May 15, 2004 09:33 PM


The nice thing about the Hersh story is that it provides a coherent world view that matches the facts that we know, but that doesn't make it certain.

On the other hand, we are long past the point where bush administration protestations of complete innocence mean much, and as usual, this was one was loaded with weasel words.

On yet another hand, rumsfeld and the whole national security team should long ago have been fired, so i don't rely on this story as the basis for rumsfeld's firing, but for the sake of historical accuracy, if this story isn't true, it would be go to know the one that is....

Posted by: howard on May 15, 2004 09:39 PM


Let's put aside the larger issues for a second, since we can't ascertain the truth.

What I find fascinating is that we're seeing bureaucratic fighting of the classic kind -- the CIA has the long knives out, and they're coming for Rummy. That's true whether they're telling the truth or simply feeding disinformation to Hersh.

That's not necessarily good for democracy, as appealing as it may seem to us now. It's a faustian bargain.

Posted by: Ennis on May 15, 2004 10:01 PM


Remember, such categorical denials were issued in response to Amnesty reports of abuse in a) Afghanistan, b) Gitmo, and c) Iraq, one year ago.

The DoD probably used the same template for this denial.

Posted by: Dem on May 15, 2004 11:07 PM


If the CIA have the long knives out, we know who outed Plame.

Posted by: big al on May 16, 2004 03:56 AM


I think their denial is much more "fevered" than the insights offered in Hersh's article. And it's just blatantly false. "The abuse evidenced in the videos and photos...has no basis in any sanctioned program, training manual, instruction, or order in the Department of Defense." That's simply not true. And furthermore, the DoD would never prove that assertion, since I'm certain their "training manuals, instructions, and orders" are all classified.

Posted by: Ken on May 16, 2004 05:27 AM


This whole thing strikes me as very odd. I've suspected for quite awhile that there are internal disputes going on to a.) find a scapegoat for Iraq while simultaneously b.) explaining to the voters that Iraq is really going as well as can be expected. Early on Bush tried to finger Tenet and the CIA. Tenet will cooperate if he can save himself, and he has fingered the FBI, but a lot of lowlevel CIA / FBI / military people believe that it's the political appointees who caused the problem and are not cooperating. (Much of the military hates Rumsfeld, for good reasons and bad).

From what I knew about Guantanamo, Ashcroft, and the general tenor of Bush's administration, I have always assumed that torture of some sort was going on, and while I didn't actively follow it Amnesty International, the Red Cross, and Human Rights Watch were suggesting that torture was going on. How could it not have been?
It was openly talked about, including approving comments by the great civil libertarian Dershowitz.

One pathology of the American mind is fully in play here: tabloid obsession with sexual kink. In the first batch of photos there was one picture of a man who had been beaten to death lying on ice, but that was not what drove the story at all. It was dog collars and masturbation. The anti-American elitists in Europe have a pretty good reason to sneer about this.

Given that we are supposedly bringing democracy to Iraq and winning the hearts and minds of moderate Muslims, this really is a disaster, of course. But I think in American politics it's just a straw that broke the camel's back. Before the story broke, there were a lot of people getting ready to jump.

"Success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan". In an amazing display of scapregoating, one military man actually blamed the six lowly reservists for losing the war, as if everything would have been just peachy without them. The egregious Safire warns against "scapegoating" Rumsfeld -- he used the word. I agree, if he means that Bush is really to blame, but Safire is confusing "The buck stops here" with scapegoating, which normally has the opposite meaning (i.e., blaming the janitor). Safire has been extremely loopy recently.

Posted by: Zizka on May 16, 2004 06:22 AM


I find it extremely hard to believe that a group of EMs from West Virginia could come up with these type of sexual abuses on there own.

Someone with advance knowledge of psychological
black ops had to get this started.

There has to be an intelligence connections that is not yet exposed.

Posted by: spencer on May 16, 2004 07:14 AM


Agreed about the "weasel words" in the DoD release. It sounds as if it's a categorical denial. But when they deny the Pentagon did anything to authorize the sort of behavior in the photos, they're pointing to the photos of guys on leashes and the other sexually humiliating stuff. Plus cadavers on ice. But it was always unlikely that those activities were authorized explicitly. They don't deny the existence of the special program for high-level targets or that it was, at least in part, officially extended to the Iraq theatre.

As for the junior folks in Abu Ghraib getting the full blame, I was interested in a summary of the testimony from the first guy getting prosecuted in Baghdad, who has apparently offered to cop a plea. He put everything on the senior MP, Garner(?), as a sadistic troublemaker and assured everyone that that's as high as it went. But even the photos with the MI guys present show that it wasn't just Garner & friends on a frolic of their own.

I hope we don't go off on a "shocked, shocked" tangent with the "black ops" project triggering another Church Comm overreaction. It's pretty clear that there needs to be authorized means to go after terrorists who don't wear uniforms or fight on battlefields. And few would be overly concerned that some pressure techniques should be available to interrogate people who are central to the planning of further terrorist operations. That being said, the exceptions to the rules should be construed narrowly -- obviously not the case in Abu Ghraib. And the application of the exceptions should be overseen by an internal watchdog.

The intelligence professionals (mostly CIA) who are spilling the beans to Hersh may have be pushing a bureaucratic political agenda. But they're also saying that this type of stuff can be done properly if the basic procedures are applied, but the M.O. of Rumsfeld et al is to toss the safeguards out at the same time that they push the envelope. Clear exceptions to normal rules are not incompatible with internal oversight.

Posted by: nadezhda on May 16, 2004 07:25 AM


Ends do not justify the means. Terrorist or not they should not be tortured.

Posted by: big al on May 16, 2004 09:50 AM


Newsweek's sources have pretty much confirmed the same story that Hersh's sources tell.

Which still doesn't guarantee that it's true, but it makes it increasingly likely.

Posted by: howard on May 16, 2004 10:28 AM


Newsweek has posted a narrative similar in broad strokes to Hersh's but which reaches somewhat different conclusions about who was and was not in the loop. Nw is clearly throwing the big guns at the story: three lead authors and another 7 or so are cited as contributors.

Also: the Guardian/Observer report that systematic beatings by the "Extreme Reaction Force" (ERF) at Gitmo were systematically videotaped; Pentagon spokesperson goes on record as saying that the tapes exist:,6903,1217973,00.html

The White House has almost completely lost control of the news cycle, and this round of reports is what will set the tone for this week's reporting. Good; time for Truth and Reconciliation.

Posted by: CD318 on May 16, 2004 12:58 PM


nadezhda: I think it's difficult to argue that the Church Comission overreacted, given the outrageous conduct that their inquiries revealed. If we are to avoid becoming what we despise, we open ourselves to certain risks. That is the very meaning of the phrase "Live Free or Die". Any other way is, in my view, the way of moral cowardice, and the way to despotism.

Posted by: CD318 on May 16, 2004 01:03 PM


No responsible official of the Department of Defense approved any program that could conceivably have been intended to result in such abuses as witnessed in the recent photos and videos.

(From Pentagon statement)

-No RESPONSIBLE official-- ...
well, sure, by definition, anyone who approved this would be irresponsible, which is like Don Rumsfeld's middle name.

--of the DOD--
hmm. First, that doesn't include the CIA. And who knows if they think it includes... well, military intelligence. The civilian contractors. Rumsfeld. Who knows who they mean.

--approved any program--
winks and nods don't count as approval. Also actions don't count as programs. So sure, we could have set in motion a type of action that would have this effect without every approving a specific program to have this effect.

-that could conceivably have been intended to result--
"intended"? What they "intended" presumably was breaking prisoners and getting intelligence. The actions are what's in question here, not the intent. If I intend to scare you out of your house, and set fire to the back porch, then I can say I didn't INTEND to burn down your house. But my action led, rather predictably, to the results, no matter what my intent.

--to result in such abuses as witnessed in the recent photos and videos. --
But other abuses? Maybe so. Look at how narrow that is. Not abuses of the Geneva Convention. Not abuses of the military code. Just those specific types of abuses that the world can see in the photos and videos.

This denial sounds to me like Haldeman and Ehrlichman wrote it.

Posted by: Alira on May 16, 2004 01:09 PM


Ignore DoD's denial.

This operation was secret, and it still is. Its a BLACK OP. Its classified. Actually, its REALLY REALLY REALLY classified. And just because it's in the New Yorker doesn't mean it's any less classified. That means they don't have to acknowledge it when asked point blank by a reporter.

It means they can LIE about it. Legally. To everyone.

And if Congress asks, they probably only have to tell the heads of two or three committees, and those committee members can't admit that they were briefed (because to do so would be an admission that the program existed).

Josh Marshall points out the that latest DoD response is a non-denial denial. Who gives a rats ass? They could translate "The US Government Completely Denies These Allegations" into every language that ever existed and broadcast it worldwide for a year on Voice of America and it wouldn't mean a damn thing.

Posted by: Silent E on May 16, 2004 07:38 PM


Where is the link?

Where is the documentary or testimonial evidence which contradicts the Article 15-6 Report which was the basis for all the reporting on Abu Ghraib to date? Where is the link between the "Black Program" and the 800th MP Brigade?

Your tin foil beanies obviously are in need of replacment.

Posted by: Rodney G. Graves on May 16, 2004 09:00 PM


Actually, Rodney, a lot of it is in those memos mentioned in the Newsweek article. To whatever extent there actually is a direct link between High Up and Low Down in this affair, it is now virtually certain to be uncovered. (No thanks to you and the self-indulgent twerps like you.)

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw on May 16, 2004 10:51 PM


Rodney, could you give some more of your money to Bush? We're trying to bankrupt your sorry ass.

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