Senate Report on Detainee Abuse

21 December 2008

The Senate Armed Services Committee recently released a report (available here) (pdf) recounting our recent policy of detainee abuse. It also recounts the approval process, and concludes that "[t]he abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own." Rather, the report finds that these policies were the direct result of Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld's "message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody."

Aside from linking Rumsfeld to the Abu Ghraid atrocities, the report is a good read just for its timeline of events. It's still bizarre to look back at how these policies came to be implemented, despite such strong opposition, and warnings that they risked violating anti-torture statutes.

For more on the detainee abuse issue, you can watch this video interview with Janis Karpinski (the former Commanding General of Abu Ghraib), who was told by her superiors that "You have to treat them like dogs." The ACLU also has some interesting resources to look at on their website.

GTMO is going to be a major issue in the coming months, so you had all better do your homework.

UPDATE: One of the big misconceptions about Guantanamo is that it is filled with people who are almost certainly guilty of conspiring in terrorist plots. In the words of Donald Rumsfeld himself, these people are "the worst of the worst." While I don't doubt that there certainly are some very bad people there, it's still shocking to look back and see that 520 of the 775 detainees have already been released without charge. Furthermore, it's troublesome to see that 86% of the people detained were turned over by Afghan and Pakistani citizens, who had been offered "millions of dollars ... enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life."

UPDATE II: The New York Times Editorial Board concludes that "A prosecutor should be appointed to consider criminal charges against top officials at the Pentagon and others involved in planning the abuse." They also highlight this:

One page of the report lists the repeated objections that President Bush and his aides so blithely and arrogantly ignored: The Air Force had “serious concerns regarding the legality of many of the proposed techniques”; the chief legal adviser to the military’s criminal investigative task force said they were of dubious value and may subject soldiers to prosecution; one of the Army’s top lawyers said some techniques that stopped well short of the horrifying practice of waterboarding “may violate the torture statute.” The Marines said they “arguably violate federal law.” The Navy pleaded for a real review.

The legal counsel to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time started that review but told the Senate committee that her boss, Gen. Richard Myers, ordered her to stop on the instructions of Mr. Rumsfeld’s legal counsel, Mr. Haynes.
I think that the internal opposition to these policies is very important to keep in mind.

UPDATE III: Failed Presidential candidate Duncan Hunter (R-CA) thinks that this is all "left-wing rubbish." Scott Horton dresses Hunter down here:
Hunter is right that the Defense Department reports made no accusations against Rumsfeld. But isn’t it worth asking why? Rumsfeld was the boss of the authors of the reports; he commissioned them and carefully set the guidelines within which the generals who wrote the reports could operate. They were not permitted to comment upon the conduct of any officials up the chain of command. However, Major General Antonio Taguba, who authored the principal report, left no question about his conclusions. “Serious war crimes were committed with the approval of senior Bush Administration officials,” he said to an audience at New York University two weeks ago (I spoke at that event as well), “there is no question about that. The only question is whether there will be accountability for the political figures who are responsible.”

Hunter demonstrates another failing. He supposes that in the absence of a “smoking gun” linking Donald Rumsfeld directly to the abuses at Abu Ghraib Rumsfeld is in the clear. Of course, that smoking gun exists in the form of the Rumsfeld memos, but is not necessary. Under the doctrine of command responsibility, Rumsfeld faces per se liability for the abuses at Abu Ghraib assuming he knew or had reason to know of the abuses and failed to take steps to stop them (now well established, as the Levin-McCain Report notes).

UPDATE IV: For a longer account of the entire detainee abuse story, and its approval process, I highly recommend checking out Jane Mayer's excellent book The Dark Side.

UPDATE V: Taxi to the Dark Side is also a pretty good account.

UPDATE VI: Another popular misconception is that torture works, and has provided us with reliable information in the past. Interrogator Matthew Alexander has recently published a book pushing back against this myth, and David Rose has written an excellent article debunking the previous claims made by the current administration.

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