A sad little story about detainee abuse

Bush promises to investigate detainee abuse in Iraq, but sometimes the investigations aren't very thorough.

Published January 13, 2006 5:42PM (EST)

We're not saying George W. Bush is a liar. Or even that he sometimes doesn't deliver on his promises. No, no, there's a war on and we're being careful about what we say. And so, all we'll do is tell you a story about words and actions. It's an interesting story, so bear with us.

First, words. In 2004, shortly after the world saw pictures of the horrors that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, President Bush went on Al-Arabiya television and said this: "In our country, when there's an allegation of abuse ... there will be a full investigation and justice will be delivered ... This is a serious matter. It's a matter that reflects badly on my country. Our citizens in America are appalled by what they saw, just like people in the Middle East are appalled. We share the same deep concerns. And we will find the truth, we will fully investigate. The world will see the investigation and justice will be served." These are, obviously, very nice words. We feel good just reading them.

But then, actions. A few months before Bush said those nice words, the U.S. Army captured a former bodyguard to Saddam Hussein in Tikrit and began to question him at Baghdad International Airport. The detainee, whose name we don't know, says he was not treated very nicely at all by U.S. forces: According to him, Army interrogators kicked him in the stomach and punched him in the spine; they stripped him naked, placed a bag over his head, put him in front of an air conditioner, and periodically poured water on him.

According to Bush's statement, this detainee's allegations ought to have been investigated by the Army. And, give it credit, the Army did open an investigation. But the investigators looking into the abuse allegations quickly hit upon a snag. They didn't know who had interrogated the Iraqi detainee.

The detainee who alleged he'd been abused had given investigators a thorough description of his questioners, but "the only names identified by this investigation were determined to be fake names utilized by the capturing soldiers," the Army said later in a report, which has now been obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union. The interrogators, working as part of a highly classified unit called a Special Access Program, had kept their identities so secret that not even the Army's own investigation unit could follow up on their actions.

So, Bush's nice words notwithstanding, the Army closed the investigation into the abuse alleged by the detainee. Some time later, for reasons that aren't clear, the Army went back to look into the case once again -- but by then it was too late, as all the records had been lost in a computer snafu.

There you have it, then, words and actions. Bush promises to investigate detainee abuse. But when the alleged abusers go around using fake names (apparently according to standard operating procedure), and when the Army's computer system can't keep the records intact for more than a few months, his promises quickly fall apart, and the abuses go uninvestigated. We knew you'd like that story.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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