Of Course They Knew

by Dover Bitch

In one of the homework assignments Digby left for us all, The General's Report, Sy Hersh describes the willful ignorance of the pentagon leadership when confronted with the bitter fruit that Donald Rumsfeld's policies yielded. Rumsfeld refused to look at the photographs, even though he knew what horrible acts the photos depicted. Others made the same decision.

Christy finds in this transparent and cowardly act a theme for the administration at large:

Plausible deniability. If it sounds familiar, it is because it has been the constant refrain from Bush Administration officials — including AG Gonzales in the latest series of inquiries into Department of Justice improprieties. They are using what ought to be a solemn, ethical obligation as a shield for liability from wrongdoing, taking an obligation to not interfere with genuine fact-finding and twisting it into an excuse for not correcting an ongoing problem. This is not governing, it is CYA at the highest levels — and they should not be allowed to continue along this tactical path.

The thing is, for plausible deniability to work as a defense, it has to be, you know, plausible. I suppose you could argue, after witnessing the war that Rumsfeld designed for us in Iraq, that he has either no imagination whatsoever or the greatest imagination of all time. After all, he couldn't seem to fathom that even basic lawbreaking would occur after the government was toppled in Iraq. On the other hand, the entire affair persisted in appearing to Rumsfeld a smashing success until the day he was dismissed.

But no functional human lacks enough imagination to require a photo to picture this:

"Here . . . comes . . . that famous General Taguba—of the Taguba report!" Rumsfeld declared, in a mocking voice. The meeting was attended by Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld's deputy; Stephen Cambone, the Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence; General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (J.C.S.); and General Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, along with Craddock and other officials. Taguba, describing the moment nearly three years later, said, sadly, "I thought they wanted to know. I assumed they wanted to know. I was ignorant of the setting."

In the meeting, the officials professed ignorance about Abu Ghraib. "Could you tell us what happened?" Wolfowitz asked. Someone else asked, "Is it abuse or torture?" At that point, Taguba recalled, "I described a naked detainee lying on the wet floor, handcuffed, with an interrogator shoving things up his rectum, and said, 'That's not abuse. That's torture.' There was quiet."


I learned from Taguba that the first wave of materials included descriptions of the sexual humiliation of a father with his son, who were both detainees. Several of these images, including one of an Iraqi woman detainee baring her breasts, have since surfaced; others have not. (Taguba's report noted that photographs and videos were being held by the C.I.D. because of ongoing criminal investigations and their "extremely sensitive nature.") Taguba said that he saw "a video of a male American soldier in uniform sodomizing a female detainee." The video was not made public in any of the subsequent court proceedings, nor has there been any public government mention of it. Such images would have added an even more inflammatory element to the outcry over Abu Ghraib. "It's bad enough that there were photographs of Arab men wearing women's panties," Taguba said.

At this point, there are so many examples of dereliction on behalf of the administration and the "party of accountability" that it's simply not plausible that any group of people could be that oblivious. But the idea that they could avoid responsibility simply by closing their eyes... that's the stuff a normal person learns won't work by the end of second grade in elementary school.

Hersh explained to Wolf Blitzer what was done with these reports:

HERSH: Oh, my God, two months. Is it possible — you know, the question you have to ask about the president is this. No matter when he learned, and certainly he learned before it became public, and no matter how detailed it was, is there any evidence that the president of the United States said to Rumsfeld, what's going on there, Don? Let's get an investigation going.

Did he do anything? Did he ask for a — did he want to have the generals come in and talk to him about it? Did he want to change the rules? Did he want to improve the conditions?

BLITZER: And what's the answer?

HERSH: Nada. He did nothing.

It's actually worse than nothing. Of course, this entire sorry episode stemmed from the policies that Bush put in place, with his torture memo and the latitude he gave Rumsfeld. But Al Gore, in Assault on Reason, noted that the administration's fingerprints are all over the abuses:

The abhorrent acts at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere were a direct consequence of the culture of impunity — encouraged, authorized, and instituted by Bush and Rumsfeld in their statements that the Geneva Conventions did not apply. These kinds of horrific abuses were the logical, inevitable outcome of policies and statements from the administration. To me, just as glaring as the evidence of the pictures themselves was the revelation that it was established practice for prisoners to be moved around during the visits of the International Committee of the Red Cross so they would not be available for interviews. No one can claim that was the act of a few bad apples. That was policy set from above with the direct intent to violate U.S. values that the administration was claiming to uphold.

There's another reason the deniability is simply implausible: There was never any doubt that abuse would take place in Iraqi prisons unless steps were taken proactively to stop them. These immoral acts didn't just happen; they were allowed to happen.

In 1971, psychology professor Philip G. Zimbardo conducted what are known as the Stanford Prison Experiments. Zimbardo set up a fake prison and randomly assigned roles to his students. Some were guards, others prisoners. The experiment ended abruptly when it became clear to Zimbardo that his students, the best and brightest this country had to offer, essentially turned into monsters in a matter of days.

Zimbardo discussed what happened in Alex Gibney's fantasic film The Human Behavior Experiments (video here), and how he saw, in Abu Ghraib, obvious parallels to his research:

PHILIP ZIMBARDO: Were there a few bad apples? No. The, what was bad was the barrel. Who made the barrel? This whole chain of command.

KEN DAVIS, ARMY RESERVIST: I feel terrible about what happened to these Iraqi detainees. They were in U.S. custody. Our country had an obligation to treat them right; to treat them as human beings. We didn't do that. [Uh] that was wrong.

NARRATOR: Prior to the Abu Ghraib scandal, Donald Rumsfeld had personally approved interrogation techniques, including dogs, stress positions, and nudity, that violated long-standing military rules.

DAVIS: When you follow an order, you gotta be held accountable as well. But the ones that hold the key to that door; the ones that ask you to walk through that door; hold a higher accountability, 'cause they know better.

ZIMBARDO: I know the situation very closely now, because I was an expert witness for one of those guards, Chip Frederick. Exemplary soldier. Nine medals. Model father. Husband. Uh, patriot, and you know, normal, healthy, no sadistic tendencies; nothing that would indicate he was anything other than [an] ordinary k-, good guy. And he gets into this place. And he is totally corrupted.

DAVIS: Sometimes you cross a line. And it's a thin line; that anytime, that can be crossed by anybody, if placed in certain conditions.

CHRISTINA MASLACH: I think it's a hard conclusion, from all of the research evidence, to sort of say, there's nothing inherent in who you are that would necessarily say, I'm safe, I will never cross the line. That research was done thirtysomething years ago. This is not news, you know. The, the lessons that we learned: it's been in textbooks; it's been taught in psychology courses. Other research — Milgram; all of these other studies — are pointing to those same conclusions.

Of course Bush knew. Of course Rumsfeld knew. Of course the pentagon leadership knew. It's been known for decades, perhaps centuries, what happens when a nation embraces the policies that this government has allowed to define us in the eyes of the world.

They all knew what was happening, their denials notwithstanding. It's time for some accountability already. Because we all know, too.