The prisoners' truth

If Washington is to prove its war motives, there must be more transparency in the interrogation of captured Iraqis.

Published May 7, 2003 8:50PM (EDT)

"We have ways to make you talk."

One hopes that is not how President Bush means to fulfill his promise that Iraq's elusive, or perhaps phantom, weapons of mass destruction would be found. What methods are U.S. inquisitors using to force captured Iraqis to confirm the president's justification for the invasion and occupation of Iraq?

As of Monday, 17 former members of the Iraqi elite portrayed in the Pentagon's "most wanted" playing cards have surrendered or been captured. Evidently none of them have been willing or able to tell their captors what they want to hear.

According to an Associated Press report Sunday, "Expected intelligence from senior captured Iraqis who might have been most knowledgeable about the government's secrets is not materializing. One by one, they are insisting under interrogation that the government had no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons programs in recent years, U.S. officials say."

This has irritated the petulant Bush, who complained: "We're learning that, for example, [Iraq Foreign Minister] Tarik Aziz still doesn't know how to tell the truth. He didn't know how to tell the truth when he was in office. He doesn't know how to tell the truth as a captive."

That is the language of a bully who holds all the cards and yet suspects they still might not produce a winning hand. If, in the end, Iraq is not shown to have had truly threatening weapons, it will be Bush who stands exposed as one who didn't know how to tell the truth.

So what if that Aziz is a loathsome fellow? That just makes it all the more depressing to observe that the facts on the ground in liberated Iraq seem to back up the bad guys' accounts.

Our government listed the specific quantities and qualities of Iraq's weapons, mocked U.N. inspectors as impotent stooges for being unable to find them, and even announced days before the invasion that chemical weapons had probably been distributed to some Iraqi military units. Secretary of State Colin Powell named and showed photos of sites where WMDs were said to be.

Now Bush tells us he hasn't the foggiest notion of where they are, and yet he still won't allow the U.N. inspectors to return. Powell stands by the intelligence he touted, even though most of the approximately 100 sites that same intelligence marked as probable WMD hiding spots have been searched and dismissed.

Our intelligence failure indicates that this was a "spec" war, rather than a legitimate preemptive strike launched with hard evidence of a pressing danger. This should make us very uneasy as citizens of a democracy. Either our government lied or it pursued a costly war against a resource-wealthy, militarily weak paper tiger based on vague hopes that incriminating evidence would turn up after the fact.

We have a right, as well as a compelling need as a free people, to know whether the president told us the truth when securing approval for this war. If Iraq did not pose an imminent threat to the security of our country or our allies, then the invasion violated the norms of international law and mocked representative government.

If Washington is to prove its war motives, there needs to be transparency in the process of learning what the captured Iraqis know. We must ensure that POWs are not coerced into serving the political needs of the Bush administration. It is a disgrace that the U.S. media have shown little interest in the location, legal rights and treatment of these high-ranking prisoners of war.

What is the situation, for example, of Gen. Amir Saadi, who surrendered on April 12 after telling German television he did not believe Iraq had possessed weapons of mass destruction for some time. Of course, he could be lying. But after being held incommunicado for weeks under the authority of an administration that has shown no respect for due process in its war on terror, can we trust anything he says from here on out?

If the former Iraqi elite are suspected of war crimes, it would seem all the more compelling to turn them over to an international tribunal to investigate impartially and return a judgment that the world would accept.

Otherwise, Uncle Sam appears to be nothing more than a hanging judge, roaming the world in search of convenient villains on which to impose a crude form of swift, but unsavory, gunslinger justice.

By Robert Scheer

Robert Scheer is a syndicated columnist.

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