Smiting the infidels

Gen. Boykin, the Bible-thumping crank who said Bush "was appointed by God," is at the center of the Abu Ghraib scandal.

By Sidney Blumenthal

Published May 20, 2004 7:10PM (EDT)

Saving Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin seemed like a strange sideshow last October. After it was revealed that the deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence had been regularly appearing at evangelical revivals, preaching that the United States was in a holy war as a "Christian nation" battling "Satan," the furor was quickly calmed. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld explained that Boykin was exercising his rights as a citizen: "We're a free people." President Bush declared that Boykin "doesn't reflect my point of view or the point of view of this administration." Bush's commission on public diplomacy had reported that in nine Muslim countries, just 12 percent of people believed that "Americans respect Arab/Islamic values." The Pentagon announced that its inspector general would investigate, though he has yet to report.

Boykin was not removed or transferred. At that moment, in fact, he was at the center of the secret operation to "Gitmo-ize" Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. He had flown to Guantánamo (known as "Gitmo") in Cuba, where he met with the commandant of Camp X-Ray, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, ordering him to extend his methods to the Iraq prison system, orders that had come from Rumsfeld. While Boykin weathered his public storm, he remained the operational officer overseeing Miller's new assignment.

Boykin was recommended to his position by his storied résumé in the elite Delta Force. He was a commander in the failed effort to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran in 1980, tracked drug lord Pablo Escobar in Colombia, advised the gas attack on barricaded cultists at Waco, Texas, and lost 18 men in Mogadishu, Somalia, while trying to capture a warlord in the notorious "Black Hawk Down" fiasco in 1993. Boykin told an evangelical gathering last year how this fostered his crisis of spirituality. "There is no God," he said. "If there was a God, he would have been here to protect my soldiers." But he was thunderstruck with the insight that his battle with the warlord was between good and evil, between the true God and the false one. "I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol."

Boykin was the action-hero side of his boss, Stephen Cambone, a conservative defense intellectual appointed to the newly created post of undersecretary of intelligence. Cambone is universally despised by the officer corps for his arrogant, abrasive and dictatorial style and is regarded as the personal symbol of Rumsfeldism. A former senior Pentagon official told me of his conversation with a currently serving three-star general who remarked, "If we were being overrun by the enemy and I had only one bullet left, I'd use it on Cambone." Cambone set about to cut out the CIA and State Department from the war on terrorism, but he had no knowledge of special ops. For this the rarefied civilian relied on the gruff soldier -- a melding of "ignorance and recklessness," as a military intelligence source told me.

Just before Boykin was put in charge of the hunt for Osama bin Laden and then inserted into Iraqi prison reform, he was a circuit rider for the religious right. He allied himself with a small group known as the Faith Force Multiplier that advocates applying military principles to evangelism. Its manifesto, "Warrior Message," summons "warriors in this spiritual war for souls of this nation and the world ... God has given us the stewardship and accountability of FAITH as our strategy for this time to mobilize an exceedingly great army."

As the head of the Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, N.C., Boykin invited Southern Baptist ministers for prayer meetings that would be highlighted by demonstrations of Special Forces hand-to-hand combat and guided tours of the "Shoot House" and "Snake Room."

Boykin staged a traveling slide show in which he displayed pictures of bin Laden and Saddam Hussein around the country. "Satan wants to destroy this nation, he wants to destroy us as a nation, and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army," he preached. "Why do they hate us? The answer to that is because we're a Christian nation. We are hated because we are a nation of believers." They "will only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus." It was the reportage of his remarks at one such revival in Oregon that made him a subject of brief controversy. But public relations handling rescued him so that he could pursue his job, including turning up the heat at Abu Ghraib.

After the war in Afghanistan, as the Bush administration focused on Iraq without distraction, White House legal counsel Alberto Gonzales wrote a memo on Jan. 25, 2002, to the president: "As you have said, the war against terrorism is a new kind of war ... The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians ... In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions." Secretary of State Colin Powell objected, but, according to Newsweek, he was shunted aside.

In the spring of last year and again in October, as first reported by Joe Conason in Salon, senior officers of the Judge Advocate General Corps, the military's legal division, approached the head of the Committee on International Law of the Association of the Bar of New York City, Scott Horton, seeking help in combating what they reported as the suspension of legal norms and the maltreatment of prisoners of war in Guantánamo, Afghanistan and Iraq. The JAG officers said that the shift away from the requirements of the Geneva Convention was directed from the office of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, a leading neoconservative. Horton's letters to the Pentagon were rebuffed.

Boykin had already received his new commission. There could be little doubt that he envisioned the "Global War on Terrorism" (the official name stamped on medals given to soldiers for service in Iraq) as a crusade. With the Geneva Convention apparently suspended, international law was supplanted by biblical law. Boykin was in God's chain of command. President Bush, he told an Oregon congregation, is "a man who prays in the Oval Office." And the president, too, is on a divine mission. "George Bush was not elected by a majority of the voters in the United States. He was appointed by God."

Boykin is not unique in his belief that Bush -- and we -- are God's anointed against evildoers. Before his 2000 campaign, Bush confided to a leader of the religious right: "I feel like God wants me to run for president. I can't explain it, but I sense my country is going to need me. Something is going to happen."

Michael Gerson, Bush's chief speechwriter, tells colleagues that on Sept. 20, 2001, after Bush delivered his speech to Congress declaring a war on terrorism, he called Gerson to thank him for writing it. "God wants you here," Gerson says he told the president. And he says that Bush replied, "God wants us here."

But it's Bush who wants Rumsfeld, Cambone and Boykin here.

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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Abu Ghraib Donald Rumsfeld Iraq Islam Middle East Pentagon Religion