From the February 22, 2007, New York Times:
Abu Ghraib and Its Multiple Failures
By ALESSANDRA STANLEY
The problem with the Fox thriller “24” is not that it justifies torture but that it fosters the illusion that the American government is good at it.The practices of Abu Ghraib suggest the opposite. The mystery of that shameful episode was not the cruelty of American troops assigned there. After the initial disbelief over the obscene snapshots, their smile-for-the-camera barbarity turned out to be another painful reminder that the banality of evil has no borders.
The real puzzle is why the administration, which argued that the war against terror required extreme interrogation techniques — the kind critics call torture — would then entrust such measures to untrained amateurs.
“Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” a documentary by Rory Kennedy on HBO tonight, looks up and down the chain of command to examine how and why the abuse took place. It is not a new line of inquiry; a 2005 PBS “Frontline” documentary went over the same ground and also concluded that responsibility for the excesses trickled upward all the way to Washington.
But the raw material never ceases to shock. How is it that a government that took such bold steps to reinterpret the Geneva Conventions and update the rules of combat did not pay closer attention to how its policy changes were carried out on the ground? The Pentagon didn’t even manage to shield the worst excesses from public view.
The power of photography was yet another forgotten lesson of Vietnam, one relatively easy for the military to have remembered. If school principals can ban cellphones from the classroom, it seems strange — or reckless — that generals did not apply the same common sense and forbid cameras inside top-security cellblocks.
“If there were no photographs, there would be no Abu Ghraib, no investigation,” says Javal Davis, an M.P. interviewed on camera who was court-martialed and sentenced to six months in prison on charges of prisoner abuse. “It would have been, ‘O.K., whatever, everybody go home.’ ”
Abu Ghraib was not an isolated blunder. It embodied another paradox of the Iraq war: unwavering moral certainty undercut by what even President Bush now concedes was inadequate planning and execution. The United States government said that national security and the American way of life depended on success in Iraq, yet it seemed to punt the strategy.
The HBO film raises those issues indirectly. It focuses on the way men and women assigned to serve as prison guards at Abu Ghraib so quickly fell into behavior that one soldier describes in the film as “Lord of the Flies.”
The interviews with low-level soldiers who were court-martialed for prisoner abuse are striking because some of the subjects are obviously intelligent, well-meaning people. But sadly, their lapses are not really so difficult to explain. The documentary is framed by clips from Dr. Stanley Milgram’s infamous “obedience” studies in the 1960s, which showed how easily ordinary, law-abiding citizens could be persuaded to inflict pain on strangers with what they were led to believe were high-voltage electric shocks.
Ms. Kennedy addresses the question of whether disregarding international laws protecting the rights of prisoners of war is ever justifiable.
“At the Justice Department we did not think the Geneva Conventions applied in the war against Al Qaeda because they did not sign the Geneva Conventions, and they don’t follow any of the rules of warfare,” says John Yoo, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former Justice Department official who helped develop the administration’s early legal response to the terrorist threat. “Al Qaeda, if you look at what happened on 9/11, has no interest in following any of those rules.” He adds, “They don’t take prisoners, as far as we can tell. Instead they try to kidnap people and execute them on the Web or on television.”
His views on the Geneva Conventions are challenged by several former military officials and administration critics. But the viewers who may be most dismayed by the film are those who agree with Mr. Yoo.
According to “Ghosts” the administration, convinced that intelligence gathering was one of the most important weapons against terrorism, kept pressuring military commanders to produce information about the insurgency, but paid almost no attention to how it was done.
“How do we fight an enemy we cannot see?” Mark Danner, the author of “Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror,” says, voicing the military’s frustration. “The only way to do that is to interrogate enough people that we will get usable intelligence that will allow us to nip the insurgency in the bud.” Mr. Danner adds, “And I think there was a degree of panic about the lack of intelligence and the lack of knowledge about the insurgency.”
Thousands of detainees were watched over by a few hundred soldiers, who didn’t know what was expected of them. “It was never clear to me what was allowed and what wasn’t allowed in Iraq,” Ken Davis, another M.P., recalls. “No one ever could make anything clear to me. When the questions were asked, it was like, ‘Hey, I don’t know.’ ”
Military intelligence interrogators relied on untrained troops filling in as prison guards to soften up suspects. “ ‘This guy needs to have a bad night,’ ” Mr. Davis says he was told. “ ‘Use your imagination.’ ”
But it’s hard not to see a method to the madness of sexual degradation.
“Is there any chance that these people were self-actuated, that they were, that they just came up with this as their own idea?” asks Scott Horton, chairman of the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on International Law. “No, there’s no chance of that whatsoever, zero chance. What they are doing are very precisely described techniques that were developed for use on Arab men in the global war on terror, were implemented at Guantánamo and were then brought to and used at Abu Ghraib.” Though the administration might dispute such a characterization of Guantánamo, many critics and analysts agree.
“Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” will appall and sadden viewers worried about human rights and international law. But it will be just as discouraging for those who believe that the danger posed by Al Qaeda trumps even those humanitarian concerns.
Abu Ghraib wasn’t just a moral failure, it was a strategic setback in the war against terror.
GHOSTS OF ABU GHRAIB
HBO, tonight at 9:30, Eastern and Pacific times; 8:30, Central time.
Directed and produced by Rory Kennedy; produced by Liz Garbus; written and produced by Jack Youngelson; Tom Hurwitz, director of photography; Sari Gilman, editor; original music by Miriam Cutler. Diana Barrett, executive producer for the Fledgling Fund. A Moxie Firecracker Films production. For HBO, Nancy Abraham, senior producer; Sheila Nevins, executive producer.
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