Rogue officialdom

The exoneration of top brass in the Abu Ghraib scandal makes a mockery of our system.

Published April 29, 2005 10:37PM (EDT)

Only America's most jaded and cynical critics could have foreseen what has occurred during the year since CBS News first exposed the terrible abuses at Abu Ghraib.

Since April 28, 2004, we have learned that the images captured inside the notorious military prison revealed only the initial clues to a grim investigation that has reached from Guantánamo Bay into Iraq, Afghanistan and several other countries. We have seen evidence proving that several hundred detainees in those places were subjected to brutal and illegal violence, and that dozens of them died under dubious circumstances. And the ultimate responsibility for many of those abuses can be traced to high-ranking military and civilian officials, notably including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

From the beginning, we were promised complete accountability by the nation's ranking authorities in the White House, the Pentagon and Congress. We were assured by the president, the secretary of state and assorted senators that any guilty soldiers and officers would be punished for their misconduct, but that lowly miscreants would not be made scapegoats for their culpable superiors. We were told, again and again, that the government's response to this scandal would demonstrate the resilience of our system -- and that the cynics at home and around the world were wrong to predict whitewash and coverup.

Now we can assess 12 months of investigation by duly constituted authorities, as well as human rights organizations and media outlets, and the results aren't uplifting. As if to mock those early vows of accountability on the scandal's anniversary, the Army's inspector general has just exonerated the brass, while punishment has been reserved for the grunts. Of all the ranking Army officers who might have been held to account, only Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who plausibly claims she has been singled out for her gender, was relieved of her command and reprimanded.

Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the Army officers under whose command these abuses occurred, and who appear to have encouraged and abetted them, have evaded any sanctions whatsoever. Indeed, Sanchez was publicly praised the other day by Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while Rumsfeld looked on benignly. Miller, who is strongly suspected of taking the abusive interrogation techniques from Gitmo to Abu Ghraib, has likewise escaped without so much as a scolding.

In this disgraceful story, accountability diminishes with every ascending link in the chain of command. Miller and Sanchez at least were criticized in official reports, but Rumsfeld, former CIA director George Tenet and Gonzales haven't endured even that degree of discomfort. They haven't even been investigated. Instead, all three have been rewarded and lavishly praised by the president. Tenet got the Medal of Freedom. Gonzales got a promotion from White House counsel to attorney general. And Rumsfeld, despite widespread bipartisan demands for his resignation, got to keep his job.

The failure of our "system" in this scandal has not been confined to the White House or the Pentagon, awful as their failures are. Although traditional news organizations such as CBS News, the New Yorker magazine and a few newspapers deserve tremendous credit for their reporting on Abu Ghraib and its sequels, most of the American media has conspicuously hesitated to emphasize this story or to confront the responsible officials. It was remarkable to read the transcript of Rumsfeld's press briefing this week, which reveals the extent of journalistic timidity on this topic. No doubt emboldened by this weakness, Rumsfeld recently placed unprecedented restrictions on the First Amendment freedoms of reporters covering the court-martial of a sergeant at Fort Bragg.

On the anniversary of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the only appropriately outraged editorial in any major publication appeared in the Washington Post, a paper whose editorial support for the Iraq war hasn't diminished its desire to see national honor restored.

And then there is Congress, which might once have been expected to enforce accountability on rogue officialdom. Not anymore. The House of Representatives is entirely useless under its current leadership, except to echo the excuses of the executive branch and perform whatever favors its corporate sponsors have bought.

The Senate might be expected to perform better -- even under the nominal leadership of the spineless, Bush-appointed Bill Frist -- and several of its most voluble members once said they would not allow a whitewash of Abu Ghraib. It was telling that those outspoken members included three Republican veterans: Lindsey Graham, who served as a lawyer in the Air Force; John McCain, who suffered torture himself as a Navy pilot; and John Warner, the Navy vet who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee.

All three distinguished themselves by demanding accountability from their own party's president after the scandal broke, but they have been silent as the coverup proceeded. It isn't too late for them to fulfill those earlier courageous pronouncements.

The most reliable defenders of American values in this yearlong crisis have been that despised minority known as "the lawyers" -- specifically, those who work at the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Human Rights Watch, the International League for Human Rights, and Human Rights First (formerly known as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights), along with members of various bar associations, notably the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and various retired officers who served in the military's Judge Advocate General Corps.

Those attorneys, and their moral and financial supporters in the broader legal community, have done the difficult, thankless work of digging out documents, analyzing their meaning, presenting the facts to the media, and fighting for accountability. They have brushed aside false and partisan attacks on their patriotism and threats to their funding from people who somehow don't understand that torture is a tactic that damages our country without protecting our security.

And in a discouraging political climate, they haven't faltered. Last month Human Rights First and the ACLU, whose Freedom of Information Act digging uncovered so much vital information, filed civil lawsuits against Rumsfeld on behalf of abused detainees. Last week, Human Rights Watch issued a detailed report on the potential criminal offenses by Rumsfeld and other officials, and called for the appointment of a special counsel and an independent commission to ensure the accountability that was promised a year ago.

How ironic it would be if the lawyers someday proved the cynics wrong.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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Abu Ghraib Donald Rumsfeld Guantanamo