"Abuse"? How about torture

The Bush administration has created a gulag that stretches from Afghanistan to Iraq, from Guantanamo to secret CIA prisons around the world.

By Sidney Blumenthal

Published May 6, 2004 6:54PM (EDT)

It was "unacceptable" and "un-American," but was it torture? "My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said on Tuesday. "I don't know if it is correct to say what you just said, that torture has taken place, or that there's been a conviction for torture. And therefore I'm not going to address the torture word." He confessed that he had still not read the March 9 report by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba on the "abuse" at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Some highlights: "pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape ... sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick."

The same day that Rumsfeld added his contribution to the history of Orwellian statements by high officials, the Senate Armed Services Committee was briefed behind closed doors for the first time not only about Abu Ghraib but also about military and CIA prisons in Afghanistan. The senators learned of the deaths of 25 prisoners and two murders in Iraq, that private contractors were at the center of these lethal incidents, and that no one had been charged. They were not given any details about the private contractors -- not even how many there are. The senators might as well have been fitted with hoods.

Many of the senators, Democratic and Republican alike, were infuriated that there was no accountability and no punishment and demanded a special investigation, but the Republican leadership quashed it. The senators have called Rumsfeld to testify before the committee on Friday.

The Bush administration was well aware of the Taguba report but was more concerned about its exposure than its contents. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was dispatched on a mission to CBS News to tell the network to suppress its story and the horrifying pictures. For two weeks, CBS's "60 Minutes II" complied, until it became known that the New Yorker would be publishing excerpts of the Taguba report in its May 10 issue. Myers was then sent on the Sunday morning news programs to explain, but under questioning he acknowledged that he had still not read the report he had tried to censor from the public for weeks.

President Bush, Condoleezza Rice and other White House officials, unable to contain the controversy any longer, engaged in profuse apologies and scheduled appearances on Arab television. There were still no firings. One of their chief talking points was that the "abuse" was an aberration. They pleaded for belief in their virtuous intentions. But Abu Ghraib was a predictable consequence of the Bush administration's imperatives and policies. "This is the only [occasion on which] they took pictures," Tom Malinowski, Washington advocate for Human Rights Watch and a former staff member of the National Security Council, told me. "This was not considered a debatable topic until people had to stare at the pictures."

Bush has created what is in effect a gulag. It stretches from Afghanistan to Iraq, from Guantánamo to secret CIA prisons around the world. There are perhaps 10,000 people being held in Iraq, 1,000 in Afghanistan, almost 700 in Guantánamo -- no one knows the exact numbers. The law as it applies to them is whatever the executive deems necessary. The administration has argued before the Supreme Court in the case of Jose Padilla, the so-called al-Qaida dirty bomber, that anyone who is considered a threat to national security, even a U.S. citizen, can disappear forever, never be charged with any crime, and never receive any legal representation.

There has been nothing like this system since the adoption of the Geneva Conventions after World War II and the fall of the Soviet Union. The U.S. military embraced the conventions because applying them to prisoners of war protects American soldiers. But the Bush administration, in an internal fight, trumped the military's argument by designating those at Guantánamo "enemy combatants." Rumsfeld extended this system -- "a legal black hole," according to Human Rights Watch -- to Afghanistan and then Iraq, openly rejecting the conventions.

Private contractors, according to the Taguba report, gave orders to U.S. soldiers to torture prisoners. Their presence in Iraq is a result of the Bush administration's strategy of invading with a relatively light force, itself a consequence of Bush's belief in the neoconservative fantasy that Iraq would be like France liberated from the Nazis. The gap in forces has been filled by private contractors, who provide not simply basic services like food but also military and intelligence functions. They are not subject to Iraqi law or the U.S. military code of justice. Now, there are an estimated 20,000 military contractors on the ground in Iraq, a larger force than the British Army. It is hardly surprising that recent events in Iraq revolve around these contractors such as the four killed at Fallujah and the interrogators at Abu Ghraib. One of the companies implicated at the Iraqi prison, CACI International, is today advertising on its Web site for interrogators for Iraqi prisons who will be "under minimal supervision."

Under the Bush legal doctrine, we must create a system beyond the law to defend the rule of law against terrorism; we must defend democracy by inhibiting democracy. The law is there to constrain others, "evildoers." Who can doubt that we love freedom? But the arrogance of virtuous certainty masks the egotism of power. It is the opposite of American pragmatism, which always understands that knowledge is contingent, tentative and imperfect. This is a conflict in the American mind between two claims on democracy -- one with a healthy sense of paradox, limits and debate, the other purporting to be omniscient, even Messianic, requiring no checks because of its purity, and contemptuous of accountability.

Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cia Donald Rumsfeld Guantanamo Iraq Middle East Torture