20 July 2004, Volume 5, Number 13
IN FOCUSTHE IMPLICATIONS OF ABU GHURAYB... Americans are still continuing to come to grips with the issues surrounding revelations of the abuse of prisoners in Iraq's notorious Abu Ghurayb prison; the subsequent beheadings of American hostages; the continued detentions of suspects in the war on terrorism at home and abroad; and the implications for how democracy and human rights can be promoted abroad as well as preserved at home in the face of unrelenting terrorist assaults.
More cases of possible mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners have reached Congress and must be investigated by the Pentagon, Senator John Warner (R-VA) was quoted as saying on 15 July by AP and other news agencies. He also said that L. Paul Bremer, former head of the U.S.-led occupation, may testify about the prisoner abuse this week.
The statement followed an appeal by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on 13 July saying it fears U.S. officials are holding terror suspects in secret locations around the world. The United States said it has cooperated with the organization in allowing access to thousands of prisoners. The ICRC normally does not make public its accusations about problems of access, preferring to engage in quiet diplomacy. The organization has been criticized for appearing to single out the United States and ignore other countries with large numbers of secret detainees, but has also come under fire for not speaking out about the Abu Ghurayb abuses sooner. The ICRC in part has based its current appeal on the report of Major General Antonio Taguba, assigned by the U.S. Army to report on abuses at the Iraqi prison. He said that "ghost detainees" were moved around the prison to hide them from a Red Cross delegation, and characterized such actions as "deceptive, contrary to army doctrine, and in violation of international law."
"US News and World Report" obtained 106 classified annexes to Taguba's report, detailing abysmal conditions in the prison, attributable to an absence of a clear chain of command and some soldiers who "just ran wild." "Despite constant pressure from Washington to extract intelligence from detainees, high-level military officials were not responsive to requests by prison officials for adequate supplies or protection," the weekly reported on its website on 15 July.
Earlier, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the commander charged with responsibility for the prisoner-abuse scandal, claimed in an interview to the California-based "The Signal" that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld directly approved harsh interrogation methods, including the use of dogs, food deprivation, and sleep deprivation. The Pentagon denied the claims that Rumsfeld authorized the interrogation procedures.
"Those responsible for these abuses have caused harm that goes well beyond the walls of a prison. It has given some an excuse to question our cause and to cast doubt on our motives," AP quoted President George W. Bush as saying on 10 May, soon after the scandal was revealed. As more and more material has come to light, including declassified memos by legal advisers, Bush has maintained the denial of deliberate, high-level intent to commit grave human rights violations. "We do not condone torture. I have never ordered torture. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being," CNN quoted him as saying on 22 June.
The pictures of hooded and beaten prisoners subjected to humiliation and sexual abuse, easily distributed by ordinary soldiers in digital format by e-mail, shocked and disturbed the U.S. public when the media began to publish them in May. The revelations continue to fuel a major national debate about the efficacy and limits to the war on terrorism. As more and more gruesome details emerged, a debate ensued in Congress and talk-radio shows about whether it would damage the U.S. effort in Iraq and endanger U.S. soldiers' lives if the information continued to be made public. Issues of treatment of prisoners in domestic prisons and questions about the rationalization for the war in Iraq also began to be aired.
Underlying these debates is a premise that democracies have self-correcting mechanisms owned and operated by the people themselves that can both preserve democracy itself as well as defeat its enemies -- without becoming like them. Those in and out of government have maintained a belief that if the torture allegations were investigated promptly, if the system worked, if Congress held hearings, if the Pentagon's papers were revealed, as they were during the Vietnam War, and if those found guilty began to be brought to justice, this would prove a powerful signal to people in Iraq and the Middle East at large about how civil society can right its own wrongs and still remain intact.
As ensuing events have starkly indicated, this premise guiding official public apologies and disclosures about the torture in Abu Ghurayb and elsewhere around the world, did not yield the desired reciprocity, but has fueled more criticism of the United States.
An editorial published in the "Gulf Times" of Doha, Qatar, on 1 May said the alleged abuse equates to "a calamity that destroys the dubious claims to legitimacy that the White House advanced in support of the war and the occupation" (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 7 May 2004). "U.S. troops were supposed to be liberators, not occupiers. Last year they proudly showed off Saddam Hussein's torture chamber in Abu Ghurayb jail as evidence of what they were liberating Iraq from. Then they refilled the cells and took up where Saddam's torturers left off," the editorial concluded.
Elsewhere, the self-admissions of torture only elicited calls to go further. "The barbaric practices...do not reflect the culture of the American society. Similarly, the practices of Muslim terrorists do not represent the Islamic culture, nor do they represent the people of this region who call for peace and reject terrorism," Ahmad al-Rab'i wrote in the London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat." "Therefore, we must believe President Bush when he says that these abnormal practices by the U.S. brigadier general do not represent the American culture. We, however, want the president to believe us too when we say that terrorists and murderers do not represent our societies, people, and cultures," he added (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 7 May 2004).
Except for calls from a few local human rights groups, the revelation and justice process has failed to produce public sympathy or lead to replications of such justice in the Middle East's own torture chambers. Worse, and most horrifyingly, the effort by the United States to own up to its wrongdoing appeared to be answered by the horrendous beheading of the American contractor Nick Berg. His abductors were alleged by Arabic media to have said they justified their execution in retaliation for the abuses of Abu Ghurayb.
For some, the execution seemed to let America off the hook, as inevitably comparisons were drawn between decapitation, and the practices discovered in Abu Ghurayb of hooding prisoners' heads, or humiliating them with by forcing underwear over them. "For a confused country eager to scrub out the 'stain' of Abu Ghraib, Berg's violent murder provided a kind of industrial-strength detergent.... It shifted the emphasis back onto some vague and savage Islamist threat," "The Village Voice" wrote in its 19-25 May issue.
The shift did not occur for vocal human rights activists and investigative journalists, who continue to raise all the implications of Abu Ghurayb, and examine a wide variety of practices and laws put into effect after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
Writing in the same 19-25 May issue of "The Village Voice," Ted Gup condemned the "moral extraterritoriality" involved in sending terrorist suspects back to home countries where less scrupulous security forces would torture them for information the United States may then use. Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) introduced a bill on 23 June that would prohibit rendering suspects to any country identified by the State Department as using torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment during detention and interrogation.
Then the June kidnapping and beheading of engineer Paul Johnson in Saudi Arabia sparked another wave of anguished debate, putting the focus back on extremism abroad. "Last night my heart was filled with love and prayers, but today it is filled with hatred. Last night I was not a racist, but today I feel racism toward Islamic beliefs," a sign outside of Johnson's funeral was reported as saying by "The New York Times" on 19 June. Khalid Masood Butt, 51, president of the Pakistani American Muslim Organization of South Jersey, was quoted as saying by the daily, "This is understandable as the people react and they are under the influence of emotions." He said he wanted to give the family support, but was worried about how he would be received. "Now I feel I should have done it. As an American, as a Muslim, it is my duty to give them the concepts of being a Muslim," he said.
...FOR CIVILIZATION AND ITS ENEMIES... The debate about what constitutes torture and what is permissible in fighting terrorism has spanned moral, legal, and political categories. By opening up the possibility of permitting "fleeting pain" during interrogations as opposed to pain harmful to health or leading to death, legal advisories prepared for the White House and now declassified and disclosed have prompted a debate about how the distinctions will be determined and by whom, and whether the U.S. democratic process itself, rather than just domestic and international legal norms, can and should provide a solution to the problem.
"If the U.S. is indeed in a war with terrorists, if it is fighting for its very existence, then perhaps a valid argument can be made that the gloves must now come off, that the boundaries of our humanity must be redrawn," Ted Gup wrote in "The Village Voice." "But that would require a full and open national debate, beginning first within ourselves, then carried on between neighbors, rising to communities, and finding ultimate expression in Congress and the ballot box," he added.
The Biblical "do unto others as you would have others do unto you," as well as the quotation often attributed to Fedor Dostoevsky, "every civilization is judged by its prisons" form the moral background for the public discussion about torture. But what if a just civilization is itself threatened, rendering impossible the very upholding of the values of empathy?
In a recently published book, "Civilization and its Enemies: The Next Stage of History," American philosopher Lee Harris goes beyond Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History" to address the conflict between the civilized world and international terrorists. He develops a thesis that throughout history, liberal civilizations emerged and prevailed when they could defeat the "uncivilization" of ruthless gangs bent only on maintaining their own position, willing to use any barbaric method for their cause. Harris places such thuggery outside of specific cultures or national experiences. "Ruthlessness has no root causes. It is not engendered by poverty or illiteracy or a lack of education or the Muslim religion or the concept of jihad. It is a technique for gaining power," he writes.
Ruthlessness -- the willingness to kill brutally and preemptively to achieve an aim -- thus becomes the enemy of civilization. Civilizations who then use force to fight ruthlessness, Harris says, confront the problem of "the Seven Samurais," warriors brought in by concerned leaders to fight an enemy, who then remain behind after the enemy is vanquished and themselves become a threat to the civil peace. The task of the liberal civilization is to transform the tendency to form gangs into the building of cooperative teams.
Harris explores the limits of behavior in which a civilized nation will engage, describing 19th-century European reactions to cannibalism and the tendency of some gang-like regimes to punish their own dissidents as harshly as outside enemies. "The concept of civilization is notoriously subject to controversy; what is normally forgotten in these controversies is the fact that a civilization is first and foremost a production of the human imagination. A civilization comes into being whenever a large number of people begin to feel visceral shock whenever they are confronted with the state of savagery," Harris writes.
Such shock is exactly what Americans experienced with the evidence coming from Abu Ghurayb, shock that can only bring the highest accountability. "The best evidence of the incongruity of Abu Ghraib with American standards is the universal revulsion felt by the American people when those photographs were published," conservative commentator William F. Buckley wrote on nationalreview.com on 14 June. "But right now there are only seven soldiers being prosecuted, and the sense of it is that that does not go deeply enough. If what happened was odious, but what happened did so under the auspices of a well-organized military, then you scratch up against the lessons of Nuremberg, which held superiors responsible for misconduct by subordinates. And people are wanting to know what are the relevant jurisdictions, and what tribunals do we have in mind to convoke in order to satisfy ourselves -- and the world -- that America wants more than merely to punish the people who did it. We need to punish also the people who let it happen," Buckley wrote.
Particularly for Americans who have been in the armed services, the idea of a military code of honor, both reflecting and informing domestic and international law, is a basic institution of civil society intended to prevent abuses. Proper supervision is an integral part of this code. When asked to account for the events in the prison, U.S. Major General Antonio Taguba explained in his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee: "Failure in leadership, sir, from the brigade commander on down, lack of discipline, no training whatsoever and no supervision [resulted in prisoner abuse]. Supervisory omission was rampant," RFE/RL reported on 11 May.
One former military lawyer who asked not to be identified commented to "RFE/RL(Un)Civil Societies" that the death by asphyxiation of Major General Abid Mowhosh, head of Iraq's air defenses, was emblematic of what went wrong. "The whole concept of 'interrogating' a senior military officer is extraordinary, let alone using coercive methods...the [U.S. Air Force] chief of staff had to have been briefed.... Nobody stuffs a major general into a sleeping bag and sits on his head without some pretty serious conversation beforehand. A major general is a major general, regardless of whose army he is in. This is more than a matter of courtesy: the whole military enterprise ultimately depends upon respect for rank, even to the point of obeying orders that will result in the soldier's death for no apparent reason. Once soldiers get the idea that general officers are just ordinary middle-aged men, you no longer have an army, you have a mob or a gang or something I don't have a name for," he said.
As the circles of apparent responsibility for the Abu Ghurayb abuse widen, Americans and others concerned in the international community are looking beyond the hideous actions of a few, and expecting greater examination of institutions and practices. "Such blatant violations of human rights do not happen overnight. They are the inevitable result of gradual, but prolonged, and systemic, corrosion of respect for human dignity, and the dehumanization and demonization of a group of people...." Canadian military veteran Michel Drapeau wrote on 6 May in "The Globe and Mail".
...AS U.S. LAWYERS AND NGOS PROTEST TORTURE, TERRORISM. In the wake of the Abu Ghurayb disclosures, human rights activists have continued a struggle for what they see as the need for greater government accountability about those detained in the war on terrorism, and have become more preoccupied with domestic issues, fearing that their international credibility is at stake and their effectiveness abroad undermined.
Thomas Buergenthal, prominent U.S. jurist and judge at the International Court of Justice, summarized the attitudes of many American lawyers and human rights activists to the tragedy of Abu Ghurayb in his recent speech for this year's graduates of the George Washington University Law School on 23 May.
"As is natural, we all feel a deep sympathy for the victims themselves and disgust that anyone wearing a U.S. military uniform would so dishonor it. But beyond that, I also feel that millions of people around the world and I personally have lost something very special, something very precious," said Buergenthal, who has been associated with a number of domestic and foreign human rights causes. In promoting the rule of law around the world, he said, "one of my most valuable assets had always been the admiration felt for the United States and for what we stood for," admiration that meant that the United States had "tremendous leverage to save human lives," he said.
Yet the events of Abu Ghurayb have undermined the United States' special role as defender of human rights, Buergenthal said. "We have lost this very status -- our credibility -- at least for the time being. Apart from the adverse consequences for our foreign policy objectives, it is a truly tragic development for millions of people in many different parts of the world."
Among the youngest survivors of Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen, the Czech-born Buergenthal emigrated to the United States in 1951 and embarked on a distinguished international legal career. His own experience and his involvement in human rights investigations of atrocities from El Salvador to Bosnia have given him a unique perspective on the range and magnitude of human rights crises around the world. "Of course, what happened in that terrible prison in Iraq in recent months pales by comparison with the horrible crimes against humanity that continue to be committed in many parts of the world, including the recent beheading of that innocent young American, Nick Berg. But that is not the point," he said in his commencement speech. "The point is that the United States has lost the moral high ground -- I hope only for the time being. By losing it, it has deprived many current and future victims of human rights violations of their most effective advocate and protector," he concluded.
With concerns by bar associations and human rights groups and constant media attention to the 600 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the U.S. government established the Combatant Status Review Tribunal on 7 July to allow prisoners to challenge their imprisonment in federal courts. But the Center for Constitutional Rights, a watchdog group representing some of the detainees, said they did not think the process would be fair, given that the government had already had the prisoners for over two years with plenty of time to build their case for detention, and none of the prisoners had yet seen lawyers.
Human Rights Watch has also been a steady and vocal critic of the government's handling of detainees in terrorism-related cases and in the failure to go beyond a handful of those directly responsible for abuses in Abu Ghurayb. In a statement released on 7 June, the group's Executive Director Kenneth Roth said: "We now know that at the highest levels of the Pentagon there was a shocking interest in using torture and a misguided attempt to evade the criminal consequences of doing so. If anyone still thinks the abuses of Abu Ghraib were only dreamed up by a handful of privates and sergeants, this [high-level classified Pentagon memorandum that sought to justify the use of torture] should put that myth to rest."
Responding to such criticism, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the administration "rejects torture" adding, "I don't think it's productive, let alone justified," AP reported on 8 June.
In an article on salon.com on 7 May, Joe Conason wrote that senior Judge Advocate General officers in the military worried as long ago as last year about changes in policy and regulations on interrogation of prisoners. They contacted legal experts at the Association of the Bar of New York, which then responded by preparing a 110-page report on the subject. They found that the abuses in Abu Ghurayb were not only lawless, but sanctioned by political appointees.
Scott Horton, a New York attorney who chairs the Committee on International Law of the New York Bar Association, told salon.com he was approached by senior officers of the Judge Advocate General Corps, the military's legal division, who "expressed apprehension over how their political appointee bosses were handling the torture issue," saying they were allegedly creating "an atmosphere of legal ambiguity" that would allow mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"There are some extremely damaging documents around, which link senior figures to the abuses," Horton told telegraph.co.uk on 13 June. Horton has traveled extensively in Eurasia, and as part of his pro-bono assistance to such figures as Russia's Andrei Sakharov and Kyrgyzstan's Feliks Kulov, he has visited prisons and advised law enforcement officers and lawyers on protection of human rights. Like other U.S. advocates, he has increasingly turned his attention to these troublesome domestic developments as they impact efforts to promote human rights abroad.
At the second annual membership meeting of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on 8 July, leaders on opposite sides of the political spectrum, unaccustomed to sitting in the same hall together, voiced similar concerns about what they saw as threats to civil liberties posed by security measures in the war on terrorism. Kenneth Starr, former independent counsel in President Bill Clinton's impeachment proceedings, and leaders of the National Rifle Association as well as other conservative groups spoke in a panel session on the threat to constitutional freedoms before 2,000 ACLU members, the ACLU's website (http://www.aclu.org) reported. While they have very divergent views, both sides are keen to keep the fabric of U.S. civil society intact, embodied in the constitution's protection of civil rights.
Along with mounting concern about human rights at home and abroad has come calls for more effective ways for civil society groups to denounce terrorism and find means to promote the very values threatened by terrorism. Political pressure has been evident particularly on Muslim organizations to disassociate themselves from terrorist acts and affirm the peaceful nature of Islam. Already ordinary Muslims in New York City, particularly new immigrants, feel constrained to hang U.S. flags and "We Remember" signs showing beribboned twin towers of the World Trade Center in their shops, cafes, and cabs to signal to their fellow Americans that they share American values and condemn terrorism. The actions have had an uncomfortable resonance with the professions of loyalty demanded of German- or Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Recently, the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) nongovernmental organization launched a petition called "Not in the Name of Islam." The organizers explicitly described their campaign as a reaction to the videotaped beheading of Nick Berg. "We, the undersigned Muslims, wish to state clearly that those who commit acts of terror, murder and cruelty in the name of Islam are not only destroying innocent lives, but are also betraying the values of the faith they claim to represent," read the appeal (see http://www.cair-net.org) in May. To date, according to a counter on the organization's website, over 683,000 signatures have been gathered.
"No injustice done to Muslims can ever justify the massacre of innocent people, and no act of terror will ever serve the cause of Islam. We repudiate and dissociate ourselves from any Muslim group or individual who commits such brutal and un-Islamic acts. We refuse to allow our faith to be held hostage by the criminal actions of a tiny minority acting outside the teachings" of both the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad, the petition says. CAIR has also started a campaign against the torture of detainees in the war on terrorism.
The petition has been reprinted in numerous online English-language and Arabic news sites. But it has drawn criticism both in the United States and abroad from opposite directions. A U.S. Muslim leader, Samir G. Jerez, writing on islamonline.net on 23 May accused the CAIR petition of being "politically correct" and illustrating "what we were warned about in the Quran of not being accepted by non-Muslims until we have abandoned our religion and become like them." He goes on to claim the Berg beheading is merely an "alleged" incident, joining numerous conspiracy theorists on the Internet. After making a number of anti-Semitic claims, Jerez denounces the petition for promoting pacifism, "disregarding Islam's instructions to fight oppression and invasion." His comments have also been reprinted on Indonesian Muslim and other websites
Writing in "The New York Sun" on 13 July, Middle East expert Daniel Pipes says the petition is too vague because it only condemns "terror" in the abstract, and implies that "Islamist suicide bombings against Russians, Israelis, and Indians do not fit its [CAIR's] definition of terrorism." Pipes also believes that a general statement of position is not as effective as an appeal addressed to Hamas, Al-Qaeda, or extremists in Iraq by name, to emphasize their responsibility for terrorism. Pipes also points out that the names of the CAIR petition signatories have not been made available in any form.
Strengthening legal protection of detainees at home and abroad, and publicly denouncing the terrorism are among the ways Americans hope to keep alive in the world the values with which the United States has been associated. "I believe we can repair the damage done to our credibility in the region if we hold true to our principles and continue to keep our commitments to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Eventually, the nobility of that mission will touch the hearts of more people in the Arab world," U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone said at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on 11 May, RFE/RL reported the same day.
RECOMMENDED NEWS LINKSU.S./IRAQ. Sections of the March 2003 draft report prepared by Defense Department lawyers, in which administration attorneys argued that President Bush has the constitutional authority to disregard both international treaties and federal laws banning torture and other cruel treatment of prisoners. http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/military_0604.pdf
Summary of White House, Pentagon, and Justice Department documents about interrogation policies. The documents were released by the Bush administration on 22 June. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A62516-2004Jun22.html
"Hell on Earth". Newly released documents, including 106 annexes to Major General Antonio Taguba's report, show the "chaotic and dangerous environment" at Abu Ghurayb. http://www.usnews.com/usnews/issue/040719/usnews/19prison.htm
The Association of the Bar of the City of New York assigned experts to prepare a 110-page commentary on legal advice given by military lawyers on the handling of interrogation of detainees and obligations under domestic and international law in the treatment of prisoners. http:/www.abcny.org/pdf/HUMANRIGHTS.pdf
Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights) has begun to issue the weekly "US Law and Security Digest" to focus on U.S. national-security law and policy affecting civil liberties and human rights. The first issue highlighted the group's letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft urging criminal investigations into what are described as serious allegations of torture and other abuses committed by nonmilitary personnel, i.e. hired private contractors, against Iraqi prisoners. http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/us_law/us_law.htm