A strategy for some kind of victory in Iraq is in place. Unfortunately, it is not a plan for defeating those who are resisting the imposition of democracy by the United States. Rather, it is a strategy for politically surviving the scandal created by the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
If this strategy had a name, the Pentagon might call it Operation Enduring Fog. If its tactics had an acronym, it would be SCADS -- stall, control, attack, deny and scare -- tactics calculated to ensure that only a handful of enlisted men and women are punished for Abu Ghraib and that the higher-ups escape judgment.
It is therefore no surprise that the various inquiries into the abuses at Abu Ghraib and other prisons "have so far left crucial questions of policy and operations unexamined," according to a story in the Sunday New York Times. That is the intended result of the administration's coverup strategy.
No doubt the memorials for President Reagan will also be used to help advance the strategy. Since he is best remembered for making Americans feel good about themselves without ever causing them to ask why, his long goodbye can be further used to support the notion that if our purpose is noble, our tactics don't matter. If nothing else, his weeklong funeral will be a spectacle of distraction.
Stalling is a particularly effective part of this strategy because Washington policymakers know that if they can get through a few news cycles without any breaking news, the media will focus on something else. Promising an investigation while discouraging a rush to judgment buys the time required and allows the guilty up the chain of command to go unpunished.
The strategy is tried and true. For instance, on June 18, 2003, U.S. forces attacked an Iraqi village near the Syrian border because they received good intelligence about potential high-value targets being in the area. No one of high value died, but among those killed were a young woman and her 2-year-old daughter. When asked by journalists whether there would be a formal report on the incident, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld replied, "Everyone will know that which is available to be known" when "the dust settles." A year later, the dust has apparently still not settled.
Controlling the message is another essential piece of the strategy. Rumsfeld has already banned the use of digital cameras by troops, since he understands that what is seen is more important than what is said. And he knows that what is said is more important than what is done. The Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq has an office of "strategic communications" with a staff of about 80. A full 95 percent of them are dedicated solely to generating stories in the American media, particularly small local television stations. Many of them are Republican political operatives and campaign staffers who are being paid huge salaries to protect the American public from the reality of Iraq.
The attack phase of the strategy is being left to surrogates, rather than to those, such as Rumsfeld, who will assume the responsibility for what happened as long as they are not held accountable. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., announced at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the abuses that he was "outraged by the outrage" over Abu Ghraib, and by the fact that "so many humanitarian do-gooders" were "crawling all over these prisons looking for human rights violations."
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., went even further. He told a local TV reporter there was nothing wrong with terrifying a prisoner with an attack dog "unless it ate him." He went on to say that treating prisoners roughly, even if some died, was acceptable, since interrogations are not like Sunday school. Let's hope the next time an American is taken prisoner, the captors don't follow the advice of these two distinguished senators.
Denial is also part of the strategy, especially since the truth can be so elusive in a combat zone. On May 18, U.S. forces bombed another Iraqi village near the Syrian border, this time killing some 45 people, about half of whom were women and children, according to a local police official. Gen. Mark Kimmit, spokesman for the coalition forces, initially asserted that the group bombed was a "high-risk meeting of high-level, anti-coalition forces."
After videotape appeared that purported to show the gathering had been a wedding celebration, Kimmit responded, "Bad people have parties too." Asked about the incident again on May 28, Kimmit said two senior officers had begun an investigation of it within the previous 48 hours. But nothing further has been revealed, and as with the attack a year ago, the media have moved on.
If even the most distinguished newspapers dutifully repeated the administration's baseless assertions about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction before the war, why should anyone in the media now take the time or effort to pursue why a few innocent civilians were killed?
Another aspect of denial is refusing to provide information. When Congress received Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba's report on Abu Ghraib, some 2,000 pages were missing. One of the missing documents was a report to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the head of prison operations in Iraq, on rules for interrogating prisoners. Miller toured the prisons in Iraq last summer, when he was still commander of the prison at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and recommended changes to interrogation procedures. Although Rumsfeld personally approved the use of "intensive interrogation techniques" against some of the prisoners at Guantánamo, just what those techniques consist of remains classified.
Scare tactics are the final element of the strategy. On the eve of the Memorial Day weekend, Attorney General John Ashcroft called a press conference to warn of new terrorist threats, even though he had no new intelligence and had not bothered to inform the Department of Homeland Security he was making such an announcement.
On June 1, the Justice Department struck again, making new accusations about Jose Padilla. He is the American citizen arrested in Chicago for allegedly plotting to detonate a dirty bomb. Officials at the Justice Department say they were just trying to educate the public by informing us that Padilla was also planning to blow up apartment buildings. Some wondered why Justice declassified this information now, since Padilla has been held without charges for two years and arguments in his case before the Supreme Court were made just last month.
Whatever the motivations, such announcements illustrate the belief that any manipulation is acceptable if it might help make us safer. Torture and abuse, throwing U.S. citizens in jail without the right to an attorney -- these are all necessary because this is a two-front war, one against terrorism and one against defeat in November.
If the coverup strategy succeeds, we will likely never know who should be held ultimately responsible for Abu Ghraib. And the coverup strategy may succeed because it has no shortage of accomplices -- those who do not question the political leadership that made the abuses not only possible but inevitable.