This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 17, 2004
U.S. Torture Scandal in Iraq
IT'S THE KIND of epiphany that George W. Bush could have done without. For over a year now, his administration has worked diligently - some would say obsessively - to keep photos of the flag-draped coffins of dead soldiers out of the morning newspapers, and the consciousness of American voters. Now it turns out that it was the images of living, breathing, smiling servicemen and women that they should have been worrying about.
The scandal over the U.S.-led coalition's treatment of its Iraqi prisoners is deepening by the day and is already threatening the President's inner circle. After initially trying to downplay the significance of a series of shocking trophy pictures of naked captives being humiliated and abused by their military jailers, the White House abruptly changed tack last week, vowing far-reaching punishments and launching a media blitz of contrition. Penitent senior administration officials did the circuit of morning interview shows, while the President made two appearances on Arabic-language news channels. "There will be investigations. People will be brought to justice," Bush told a U.S.-funded satellite broadcaster. "The actions of these few people do not reflect the hearts of the American people."
But it may not be enough to insulate Bush's sputtering re-election campaign from the political fallout, or save the jobs of some of the key architects of his war on terror. The President, who says he first learned of the torture scandal through TV reports, called Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld onto the carpet last week for failing to inform him about investigations that had been going on since at least last fall. Although he later reiterated his support for the dour Washington veteran - "He'll stay in my cabinet," the President told reporters - there are growing calls for "Rummy" to make the ultimate political sacrifice and resign.
Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University and a former member of the National Security Council, says Rumsfeld could well weather the storm, but that other high-ranking officials at the Pentagon should be polishing their resumés. "I think the Bush administration is at a point where they need accountability," says Feaver. "There will be military officers who are held responsible, and I would not be surprised to see a senior civilian resign as well."
The scandal adds another layer of complication to Bush's already fraught Iraq strategy. With fewer than 50 days remaining until the deadline to hand over power to the provisional government, and coming off the worst month for American casualties since the invasion, he must now furiously try to repair bridges to the Arab world and shore up support at home. His rationale of liberation and freedom from tyranny is in danger of becoming as discredited as the hunt for weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, the monetary cost of the war and reconstruction efforts is soaring. Last week, administration officials quietly asked Congress for another $25 billion for the fiscal year beginning in October, only a portion of what they privately concede they will need.
The latest opinion polls offered Republicans some respite - the President and Senator John Kerry, his Democratic challenger, are still running in a dead heat, each with 47 per cent of registered voters. But it may be a short-lived breather. Bush's approval ratings continue to slide, and it's Ralph Nader's three-per-cent support, as the Democrats struggle to fine-tune their theme for the November elections, that is keeping Kerry out of the lead. "Iraq is turning into a fatal issue for both Bush and Kerry," says Feaver, noting the gap between what Democratic voters want - a pullout - and what their candidate is currently promising: additional troops.
Things are likely to get worse before they get better. The photos of naked prisoners on leashes, or piled in pyramids, are disturbing, but they pale in comparison to some of the other allegations being made about the conduct of coalition forces. The official U.S. military investigation into conditions at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison (where the trophy pictures were taken) points to similar incidents at several coalition-run facilities. It also details allegations of beatings, sexual assaults, and dogs being set on inmates. The 53-page report - marked "Secret/No Foreign Dissemination" - notes that dozens of Iraqi detainees have been killed during riots and escape attempts. The U.S. Justice Department is already probing the involvement of CIA officers and contract employees in three suspicious prisoner deaths during interrogations, while the U.S. military is looking at 25 killings and assaults involving its forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Parallel investigations are underway in the U.K. following the publication of photos allegedly showing British troops kicking and urinating on a hooded prisoner. And last week, Ann Clwyd, Tony Blair's personal human rights envoy to Iraq, said she was probing the case of an elderly Iraqi woman who was forced to crawl on all fours while U.S. soldiers rode her "like a donkey."
Humanitarian organizations, including the International Red Cross and Amnesty International, say they have documented hundreds of complaints of torture, false imprisonment and murder by coalition forces. "We brought this to the attention of the American authorities nearly a year ago," says Nicole Choueiry, a London-based spokesperson for Amnesty. "We never received a response." Reed Brody, legal counsel for the New York City-based Human Rights Watch, says his organization has raised similar concerns about other detention facilities outside of Iraq. "There's too much secrecy and impunity. There's no oversight outside of the military," he says. "I don't trust any government, including my own, to hold people in a black hole." A Canadian businessman, Hossam Shaltout, has filed a civil suit against the U.S. army, alleging he was repeatedly beaten during an unjustified five-week detention by coalition forces in Iraq last spring.
While Canadian special forces in Afghanistan did turn over prisoners to U.S. authorities during the early days of the war, a Department of National Defence spokesman said he knows of no investigations or complaints about the conduct of our soldiers. The 1,900 Canadian troops currently based in Kabul work under well-established International Security Assistance Force guidelines, said Maj. Mike Audette, and rules of engagement that demand "respectful and humane treatment" for all detainees.
While the initial U.S. investigation points the finger of blame at poorly trained reservists (most of the allegations at Abu Ghraib involve members of a West Virginia-based reserve military police unit), there are uncomfortable questions about the whole control and command structure in Iraq. U.S. military intelligence officers, and private-sector contractors helping with interrogations, reportedly encouraged the guards to "break down" prisoners. Peter Desbarats, an author and journalist who was a member of the royal commission that probed Canada's Somalia affair, says he sees parallels between the scandals. "They're saying that it was a few bad apples, but that doesn't happen in a vacuum. It happens because there is a military society that accommodates them and brings out their worst tendencies." The two Canadian soldiers who tortured and killed 16-year-old Shidane Arone in 1993 didn't try to hide what was happening, he notes. "There was lots of evidence that his cries that night were heard by literally hundreds of soldiers. Everyone knew that something bad was going on, and no one said anything."
Judging by the grinning and goofy mugging the accused U.S. soldiers were doing for the camera, even as they mocked and humiliated their Iraqi captives, they too felt there was nothing to fear or hide. The line between liberator and oppressor was apparently crossed without a second thought. Any way you look at it, it's an ugly picture.
Maclean's May 17, 2004