National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 28, 2004

The war crimes of Nakedgate


While on the campaign trail four years ago, George W. Bush spoke glowingly of Harry S. Truman and tried to associate himself with the plainspoken president from Missouri.

So it seems fair to ask: Where does the buck stop when buck-naked Iraqi prisoners held in U.S. custody are repeatedly tortured, abused, exploited and photographed? When Truman occupied the Oval Office, he was man enough to know the answer to questions like that, but George W. Bush just keeps coming up empty. With his eyes trained on November, Bush and his cabinet obfuscate and mislead in their public responses to the Nakedgate scandal.

In a secret March report, Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba’s investigation discovered “systematic and illegal abuse of detainees” including “sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses,” much of it sexual. Yet when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld testified to Congress May 7, he falsely claimed that the abuses were an exception and that no pattern existed. Perhaps he really wasn’t lying this time insofar as he also claimed he had not yet read the 53-page report in full. Apparently the buck never stops at the Pentagon these days, either.

Actually, none of the abuse was news to the Bush administration, despite its desperate attempts to convince the American public otherwise. The United States had been repeatedly alerted to the pattern of prisoner abuse over the past year by no less than all three of the leading nonpartisan international human rights organizations: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Last July, for example, Amnesty raised allegations of torture and ill-treatment of Iraqi detainees by U.S. and coalition forces in a memorandum to the U.S. government and the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.

But to hear President Bush tell it, one would never know that the inquiries and warnings from the Red Cross and others were consistently ignored or rebuffed. When finally publicly confronted last week with the photos that could no longer be suppressed and that would soon mushroom into Nakedgate, the president misled the public by claiming, “We’ve discovered these abuses. They’re abhorrent abuses. Of course we’ll cooperate with the International Red Cross. They’re a vital organization …”

The discovery of the Abu Ghraib abuses was actually made by the Red Cross seven months ago, and the United States has not cooperated.

The Red Cross visited the prison last October, a full two months before any of the photos we are now seeing were even taken. Red Cross officials saw U.S. troops keeping Iraqi prisoners naked for days in complete darkness in totally empty concrete cells. Appalled enough to immediately interrupt its visits with the prisoners, the Red Cross delegates met with U.S. authorities to demand an explanation. The military officer in charge explained that this practice was “part of the process” of interrogating prisoners.

So it turns out that there was indeed a “process.” Worse yet, it was apparently systematically practiced across Iraq. The Red Cross confirmed May 7 that its 29 visits to 14 prisons in Iraq from March 2003 through October 2003 resulted in “serious concerns regarding the treatment of persons protected by the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions.” These concerns prompted the agency to make “repeated requests” to the U.S. authorities that they take “corrective action” to adhere to the Geneva Conventions and other international treaties.

The 1949 Geneva Conventions prohibit “outrages upon the personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment” against any detainee. Mistreatment that amounts to “torture or inhuman treatment” breaches the Geneva Conventions. In other words, the degrading and inhumane sexual abuse and torture represented in the now famous photos is a war crime.

The American people must not allow full responsibility to fall to the reservists who were the actual abusers and torturers. Scapegoating is neither sufficient nor fair.

In the military, there is a chain of command, and command responsibility is particularly critical in times of war. It actually extends all the way to the commander in chief. Neither the Pentagon nor the White House can plausibly claim that they did not know about the abuse and sexual torture. Indeed, they apparently cultivated a culture of permissiveness that resulted in reservists hamming it up for the cameras. The White House and the Pentagon were duly warned by the leading international human rights organizations. Those warnings fell on what were at the time deaf ears.

At the very least, come November the Bush cabinet ought to hear the sound of the buck coming to a crashing, screeching halt.

Patrick G. Coy is associate professor at the Center for Applied Conflict Management at Kent State University and the editor of Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change.

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 2004

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