May 17, 2004,
We interrupt America's self-flagellation over the Iraqi prison-abuse scandal to ask three key crucial questions:
1. Just who were the inmates photographed at Abu Ghraib? Did they innocently wander into that Baghdad-area jail after Friday prayers, or were these the types who turned minarets into snipers' nests?
"They're not there for traffic violations," Senator James Inhofe (R., Ok.) told an Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday. "If they're in cell block 1-A or 1-B, these prisoners, they're murderers, they're terrorists, they're insurgents. Many of them probably have American blood on their hands."
Inhofe's statement is confirmed by none other than the International Committee of the Red Cross. While a confidential ICRC report summarized in the May 7 Wall Street Journal states that "between 70 percent and 90 percent of the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake," most of them are believed to have been properly handled. As the Geneva-based Red Cross found, "ill-treatment during interrogation was not systematic, except with regard to persons arrested in connection with suspected security offenses or deemed to have 'intelligence' value."
As Australian Army Captain Mark Doggett, an allied press officer, told me by phone from Baghdad Friday: "We have people in custody who have been involved in killing Americans and others from the Coalition forces."
2. If Inhofe, the Red Cross, and the Coalition Press Information Center are correct, and those who were targeted at Abu Ghraib were thugs with stories to tell, was their treatment totally unjustified? Americans have every right to be shocked and disturbed by allegations of forced sex, beatings, dog bites, and, at this writing, even reports of violent deaths in captivity. The fact that some blameless Iraqis apparently suffered in all of this is even worse. Nothing excuses this, and soldiers found guilty of these offenses should pay for them dearly.
But this country must ask itself if it is serious about crushing the barbarians who, among many things, recently decapitated a 26-year-old Pennyslvanian who traveled to Iraq to help modernize its antiquated telecommunications infrastructure. If so, it is crucial to extract information from Nick Berg's killers, those whose car bomb assassinated Iraqi Governing Council President Izzadine Saleem and five other Iraqi officials in Baghdad Monday, and even the alumni of al Qaeda's Afghan training camps who may know about Osama bin Laden's plans for fresh mayhem in, say, Chicago or New Orleans. Such villains are unlikely to identify their cohorts or reveal their intentions without encouragement. If spending time naked in dark cells loosens bad guys' lips, that is a reasonable retail price for intelligence that could prevent the mass murders of soldiers in Basra or tourists on Bourbon Street.
3. Will spies now get spooked into treating detainees so gingerly that they clam up? Apparently so.
America's top commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, Thursday banned the use of nine interrogation tactics on prisoners in Iraq, including sensory deprivation, sleep manipulation, isolation for more than 30 days, and the use of uncomfortable physical "stress positions."
Chief Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita admitted "the heightened scrutiny of the last couple of weeks" might have forced Sanchez's hand. Even before Sanchez's potentially fatal act of unilateral disarmament, intelligence experts worried that going lightly on those being pumped for information could generate less of it.
"I can only imagine that this is going to have some effect on interrogators who question hostile prisoners," said Peter Brookes, a former CIA operations officer and now senior fellow for national-security affairs at the Heritage Foundation. He added Wednesday that he believes "it is possible to stay within the law and conduct interrogations." However, he also fears that a new culture of caution could hinder information gathering.
The scrutiny to which the Pentagon's Lawrence Di Rita referred was on vivid display as Senator Carl Levin's (D., Michigan) hurled an accusatory question at Pentagon intelligence Undersecretary Stephen Cambone at Tuesday's hearing:
"Secretary Cambone, were you personally aware that permissible interrogation techniques in the Iraqi theater included sleep management, sensory deprivation, isolation longer than 30 days, and dogs?"
Levin's query suggested these tactics should be verboten, and now they are. Still, one wonders if Levin or Sanchez might like access to such methods up to and including the menace of snarling German shepherds, if they yielded a basement full of Saddam Hussein's botulinum toxin or the undisclosed location of terror master Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the man who sawed off Nick Berg's head?
This matter takes on far more urgency given this morning's announcement that insurgents or terrorists placed an artillery shell laced with sarin nerve gas near U.S. troops in Baghdad Saturday. If any of those who deposited that shell should be captured, priority one becomes finding out how much more nerve gas his colleagues have, where they store it, and what else they envision doing with it. It is vital to the lives of American and Coalition soldiers that those materials be found and destroyed at once. And God forbid that Islamofascists should have sarin gas that could be furnished to al Qaeda agents in America who could deploy it at Grand Central Terminal or Disney World. Given the potential for September 11-scale mass murder, but without the inconvenience of having to hijack airliners, it is an especially spine-tingling irony that America just handcuffed the interrogators who could find answers to these literally life-or-death questions.
Along these lines, Senator Levin complained at a June 20, 2002 hearing on launching the Department of Homeland Security that American intelligence agencies have difficulty sharing information. "The trouble is, they don't connect the dots, as we've recently seen," Levin said. The trouble is that Levin, and now the Bush Administration, have made it harder to collect the dots.
Wall Street Journal correspondent Michael M. Phillips offered a glimpse of the kinder, gentler military that has become the fruit of Abu Ghraib. "With the Baghdad photos in mind, U.S. commanders have barred the use of empty sandbags to hood detainees," Phillips wrote May 10. "American troops had used this technique to prevent captives from seeing the layout of the U.S. bases where they are held. Now military interrogators are looking over their shoulders, worried that hitherto accepted tactics, even if within the rules, will be seen as excessively harsh."
As General Sanchez and his political masters in Washington seem to be forgetting, this is war, not Swan Lake. Yes, excesses should be punished, and they will be. But if being forced to wear women's panties makes Baathist henchmen and al Qaeda killers sing, forgive me if I fail to burst into tears.