- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 16, 2004

Much more horrific than the regrettable events at the Abu Ghraib prison is the orgy of hand wringing and self-flagellation that we have witnessed in the past week.

It seems that in this political season no one on the left is willing to do all that can be done — apologize, investigate and vigorously prosecute those responsible to the full extent of the law. They would much prefer to see Secretary Donald Rumsfeld squirm before Congress and float the opinion that he didn’t squirm enough.

But Americans love a good scandal in an election year, so the pundits indulge their propensity for overwritten hyperbole, claiming that the abuse of prisoners is a metaphor for the perceived Iraqi “quagmire,” seeing a poetic irony in the plight of a people we came to liberate and instead imprisoned and humiliated. Some have called for a symbolic closing of Abu Ghraib, as though it were an Auschwitz, others for an immediate pullout from Iraq. More partisan commentators would impose responsibility on President Bush for the heinous acts of atrocity on the venerable principle that the “buck stops here.” Maureen Dowd in the New York Times even likened what she saw in the infamous photographs to a “Skull and Bones” initiation, forgetting perhaps that Sen. John Kerry, like President Bush, was also a member of Yale’s exquisitely secret society.

The English majors in the media are having a field day trashing the president, Mr. Rumsfeld, the Pentagon or the country with their stunning turns of phrase. Charles Krauthammer, appealing to the prurient interest, wrote a column headed, “This Was about Sex,” proclaiming in The Washington Post that, “we think of … [torture] as having a political purpose: intimidation political control, confession and subjugation. What happened at Abu Ghraib was entirely different. It was gratuitous sexual abuse, perversion for its own sake.” Last I heard, there was evidence of abuse and humiliation — not torture. But Maureen Dowd prefers to refer to “Iraq’s torture chambers” which she sees as not shut down, but under new management. And even Georgetown law professor David Scheffer, writing in the Financial Times of May 6, is into chambers, stating that, “The right of a POW or criminal suspect to remain silent — anathema to the hunters — creates the lawless chambers of Abu Ghraib and other facilities where abusive techniques appear to have trumped the legal constraints that shape civilized societies.”

Of course, there is enough blame to go around. The New York Times reports that mistreatment of prisoners, including sexual abuse, is routine in American prisons “with little public knowledge or concern.” In fact, there are fewer instances per capita of prison population of reported abuse in our military than our civilian prisons. I remember being impressed in 1967 as a Navy JAG lieutenant, visiting a maximum security brig at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station at the orderly and disciplined way in which the prison was administered. Prisoners stood at attention for the visitors; meals were served precisely on time; exercise programs were carried out in formation and on command. This was in sharp contrast to the looser approach of the federal prisons that I later visited as an assistant United States attorney.

Commanders of our military prisons have been routinely schooled in the requirements of the Geneva Convention, as it has been the uncomfortable lesson of history that prison guards are often sadistic and oppressive. This is why commanders frequently inspect prisons, ask prisoners about their complaints, insist on proper training for guard personnel, rigid rules of conduct and rigorous reporting up the chain of command. At the heart of the regime is strict accountability, and those who failed to inquire or who were less than robust in responding to reports of abuse, including those from the International Red Cross last year, must be held fully accountable, as must the abusers. Such personnel, we assume, will be dealt with appropriately.

It was the military itself, not the investigative media, which was the first to find human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib. The report of Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba to CentCom commander, Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, completed last February, says it better than any columnist that the events at the prison were “the wanton acts of select soldiers in an unsupervised and dangerous setting.” Gen. Taguba goes on that, “key senior leaders in both the 800th MP Brigade and the 205th MI Brigade failed to comply with established regulations, policies and command directives in preventing detainee abuses at Abu Ghraib (BCCF) and at Camp Bucca during the period August 2003 to February 2004.” Abu Ghraib is not a metaphor for Iraq, the war on terror, Mr. Rumsfeld’s alleged arrogance, Mr. Bush’s presidency or anything else. It is simply what the British call a “cock up.”

The Taguba report does make clear that it was not the undeviated practice of the military to engage in or condone human rights abuses. It cites the specific conduct of soldiers and sailors at Abu Ghraib who refused to participate in improper interrogations, interceded to stop abuse and reported the infractions to higher authority. Thus, Gen. Taguba concludes: “Throughout the investigation, we observed many individual Soldiers and some subordinate units under the 800th MP Brigade that overcame significant obstacles, persevered in extremely poor conditions, and upheld the Army Values. We discovered numerous examples of Soldiers and Sailors taking the initiative in the absence of leadership and accomplishing their assigned tasks.” This is a far cry from Maureen Dowd’s vision of “a dysfunctional and twisted occupation warped by arrogance over experience, ideology over common sense.”

And, while Miss Dowd’s colleague, Thomas Friedman, called for the resignation of Mr. Rumsfeld, as the secretary of defense is “ultimately responsible,” he was balanced enough to concede that, “there were a million acts of kindness, generosity and good will also extended by individual U.S. soldiers this past year — acts motivated purely by a desire to give Iraqis the best chance they’ve ever had at a decent government and a better future.” Does Mr. Rumsfeld get any credit for this? In an election year, you better bet not.

Abu Ghraib, like September 11, unfortunately has become a political football assuming iconic significance. It is time for the American people to put aside the schadenfreude, get past the ritual of scandal, employ their own common sense and resume the essential task of restoring Iraq to self-rule.

James D. Zirin is a partner in the New York office of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood LLP. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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