It is now more than four and a half years since Americans first saw the photos depicting the brutalizing of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. At that time, some commentators thought that the photos would be a political disaster for the Bush administration, perhaps even imperiling the president’s reelection. However, the Bush administration managed to exploit patriotism, blind trust, and reflexive servility to defuse the crisis.
It is important to understand how the Bush administration managed to blunt the torture scandal, since it is likely that other presidents will use similar tactics to whitewash other atrocities in the future.
On April 28, 2004, CBS broadcast photos of graphic abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, showing bloodied prisoners, forced simulation of masturbation and oral sex, the stacking of naked prisoners with bags over their heads, mock electrocution by a wire connected to a man’s genitals, guard dogs on the verge of ripping into naked men, and grinning U.S. male and female soldiers celebrating the degradation. Three days later, the New Yorker, in an expos by Seymour Hersh, published extracts from a March 2004 report by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba that catalogued U.S. abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, including
breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape … sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick, and using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee.
On the day after Hersh’s article was posted on the Internet, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted in a television interview that he had not yet bothered to read the Taguba report.
The Bush administration quickly portrayed the leaked photos as aberrations resulting from a handful of deviant National Guard members. However, a government consultant informed Hersh that the Abu Ghraib photos were specifically intended to be used to blackmail the prisoners abused, “to create an army of informants, people you could insert back in the population.” Hersh noted that “the notion that Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation became a talking point among pro-war Washington conservatives in the months before the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq.”
The Abu Ghraib photos were only the tip of the iceberg. Far more incriminating photos and videos of abuses existed, which Pentagon officials revealed in a slide show for members of Congress. However, the Bush administration slapped a national security classification on almost all the photos and videos not already acquired by the media. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Congress that the undisclosed material showed “acts that can only be described as blatantly sadistic, cruel, and inhuman.” Highlights included “American soldiers beating one prisoner almost to death, apparently raping a female prisoner, acting inappropriately with a dead body, and taping Iraqi guards raping young boys,” according to NBC News. Suppressing those videos and photos enabled the Bush administration to persuade many people that the scandal was actually far narrower than the facts would later show.
On May 5, 2004, Bush granted an interview with Alhurra Television, an Arabic-language network owned and controlled by the U.S. government. He stressed,
We have nothing to hide. We believe in transparency, because we’re a free society. That’s what free societies do. They — if there’s a problem, they address those problems in a forthright, upfront manner. And that’s what’s taking place.
A minute later, he announced what the results of the investigation would be: “We’re finding the few [U.S. troops] that wanted to try to stop progress toward freedom and democracy.” Three days later, in his weekly radio address, Bush assured Americans that the abuses had been committed by “a small number of American servicemen and women.”
On May 7, Rumsfeld informed the House and Senate Armed Services Committees that he was taking “full responsibility” for “the terrible activities that occurred at Abu Ghraib” and was personally appointing a commission to investigate the problem. He urged members of Congress to recognize the real victims: “If you could have seen the anguished expressions on the faces of those of us in the Department upon seeing the photos, you would know how we feel today.” Rumsfeld complained that “people [in Iraq] are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they had not even arrived in the Pentagon.” Rumsfeld, like Bush, stressed the idealistic upside:
Judge us by our actions. Watch how Americans, watch how democracy deals with wrongdoing and scandal and the pain of acknowledging and correcting our own mistakes and, indeed, our own weaknesses.
In reality, Rumsfeld was already deeply involved in putting a lid on the scandal. Seymour Hersh revealed last year in the New Yorker that Taguba was vindictively forced into retirement by the Pentagon because of his courageous report. Taguba said Rumsfeld deceived Congress in May 2004 when he portrayed himself as a blindsided victim of a leak when testifying shortly after the Taguba report and the Abu Ghraib photos were posted online. Rumsfeld claimed to have not seen Taguba’s report when they met the day before he first testified, even though Taguba had submitted more than a dozen copies to the Pentagon and elsewhere in the military command structure. Doug Feith, who set policy for detainees in Iraq, emailed a message around the Pentagon prohibiting officials from reading the Taguba report. Feith also warned that Pentagon officials should not discuss the report with anyone, even family members. One Pentagon consultant declared that the Bush team’s “basic strategy was ‘prosecute the kids in the photographs but protect the big picture.’” Suppressing the worst evidence was key. Taguba told Hersh that he had seen “a video of a male American soldier in uniform sodomizing a female detainee.” That could not have been spun away as mere college fraternity hazing.
Taguba had been ordered to focus only on the actions of the military police at Abu Ghraib. He could not examine the responsibility of senior officers or the Pentagon for the atrocities he found. Col. Tom Pappas, the commander of the battalion that carried out the abuses photographed at Abu Ghraib, “was granted immunity in return for his testimony against a dog handler,” as author Andrew Cockburn derisively noted.
On May 15, 2004, Pentagon Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Lawrence Di Rita revealed that newspaper editorial writers were as abominable as the soldiers who rampaged at Abu Ghraib. Di Rita declared that the Washington Post’s criticisms of Bush administration detainee policies put its editorial page “in the same company as those involved in this despicable behavior in terms of apparent disregard for basic human dignity.”
The Republican Party quickly exploited Abu Ghraib to portray Democrats as anti-American and unpatriotic. The Republican National Committee chairman, Ed Gillespie, accused Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) of exploiting the scandal as a fundraising method and declared that Democrats
do not see the reprehensible images from Abu Ghraib Prison as the isolated, aberrant acts of a few soldiers who should be brought to justice…. These hasty calls for [Rumsfeld’s] resignation reflect a cynical political ploy, or an inaccurate and sadly unfortunate view of the honor of our Armed Forces.
Yet Kerry specifically commented that the prisoner scandal did not reflect “the behavior of 99.9 percent of our troops.” That did not dissuade the Bush-Cheney campaign chairman, Marc Racicot, from denouncing Kerry for having suggested that all U.S. troops in Iraq are “somehow universally responsible” for the Abu Ghraib abuses. Many Republicans and much of the conservative media convinced themselves that the torture scandal was a fabrication of the liberal media and of the “hate America” crowd. At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on May 10, 2004, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) fumed, “I’m probably not the only one up at this table that is more outraged by the outrage than we are by the treatment” the Abu Ghraib prisoners received.
On May 25, the Bush administration responded to the growing PR debacle by bringing seven Iraqis whose hands had been chopped off at Abu Ghraib during the Saddam era to the White House for a meeting and photo session with President Bush. (The men received new mechanical hands, thanks to private donors in Texas.) The White House subsequently touted the “get-together” as the “President’s Meeting With Tortured Iraqis.”
The Bush administration distracted public attention from the Abu Ghraib scandal with a new terror alert. On May 26, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced,
Credible intelligence from multiple sources indicates that Al Qaeda plans to attempt an attack on the United States in the next few months. This disturbing intelligence indicates Al Qaeda’s specific intention to hit the United States hard…. [An] Al Qaeda spokesman announced that 90 percent of the arrangements for an attack in the United States were complete.
He assured one and all that the attack plans had been “corroborated on a variety of levels.” But Homeland Security officials told the media that “there was no new information about attacks in the U.S., and … no change in the government’s color-coded ‘threat level.’”
The Ashcroft warning quickly became a laughingstock — at least to people who followed the news. NBC News reported on May 28 that Ashcroft’s primary al-Qaeda source was “a largely discredited group, Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, known for putting propaganda on the Internet” that had falsely “claimed responsibility for the power blackout in the Northeast last year, a power outage in London, and the Madrid bombings.” One former White House terrorism expert commented, “The only thing they haven’t claimed credit for recently is the cicada invasion of Washington.” The group’s warning consisted of one message emailed two months earlier to a London newspaper. Newsweek reported that the White House
played a role in the decision to go public with the warning…. Instead of the images of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, the White House would prefer that voters see the faces of terrorists who aim to kill them.
From the first days of the torture scandal, the Bush administration followed a “deny everything and praise American values” strategy to defuse the controversy over Abu Ghraib.
In a May 28, 2004, interview, a French journalist mentioned Abu Ghraib and asked President Bush, “Do you feel responsible in any way for this moral failure in Iraq?” Bush replied,
“First of all, I feel responsible for letting the world see that we will deal with this in a transparent way, that people will see that justice will be delivered. And what I regret most of all is that the great honor of our country has been stained by the actions of a few people.”
Bush reminded the Frenchman that “America is a great and generous and decent country.”
The Bush strategy of down-playing Abu Ghraib was helped by comments by prominent Republicans demonizing anyone whom the Americans locked up in Iraq. On June 3, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) sneered at those who complained about Abu Ghraib. He explained to a Mississippi television interviewer, “Hey, nothing wrong with holding a dog up there, unless the dog ate him.” Lott explained, “This is not Sunday school; this is interrogation; this is rough stuff.” He pointed out that some of the Abu Ghraib detainees “should not have been prisoners in the first place, probably should have been killed.” But U.S. military intelligence officers told the Red Cross that between 70 and 90 percent of detainees in Iraq “had been arrested by mistake.”
On June 17, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, at a Pentagon press conference, portrayed the government as the victim and blamed the news media:
The implication is that the United States government has, in one way or another, ordered, authorized, permitted, tolerated torture. Not true. And our forces read that, and they’ve got to wonder, do we?
I have not seen anything that suggests that a senior civilian or military official of the United States of America … could be characterized as ordering or authorizing or permitting torture or acts that are inconsistent with our international treaty obligations or our laws or our values as a country.
Yet in December 2002 Rumsfeld personally authorized “the use of techniques including hooding, nudity, stress positions, ‘fear of dogs’ and physical contact with prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay base.” Numerous commentators suggested that Rumsfeld’s authorization was itself a war crime.
On June 22, Bush responded to criticism:
Let me make very clear the position of my government and our country…. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being.
Instead of the issue’s being Bush’s orders, the issue was the American “soul and being.” Repeating largely meaningless denials and invocations satisfied most Bush supporters.
On the same day, White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales announced that some parts of the Bybee memo (the Justice Department memoby Office of Legal Counsel attorneys Jay Bybee and John Yoo, which claimed that the president did not need to obey U.S. criminal law) were being formally disavowed, calling the memo’s claims “irrelevant and unnecessary to support any action taken by the president.” Gonzales stressed the PR problems caused by the memo: “It was harmful to this country in terms of the notion that we may be engaged in torture.” He spoke of the “quaint” memo and other advocacy of vigorous interrogation methods as mere “documents … generated by government lawyers to explore the limits of the legal landscape as to what the Executive Branch can do within the law and the Constitution as an abstract matter.” He made it clear that the Bush administration was not disavowing its claim to absolute power:
I must emphasize that the analysis underpinning the President’s decisions stands and [is] not being reviewed. The Commander-in-Chief override power discussed in the opinion is, on its face — on its face — limited to our conflict with al-Qaeda. There is no indication that it applies to our conflict in Iraq.
His qualifying phrases “on its face” and “no indication” reserved the Bush administration’s options. Gonzales’s claim that the president has the right to override the law and the Constitution received little coverage in the American media.
The Democrats made a few languid gestures in opposition. On June 23, Democratic senators sought to issue a subpoena for Bush administration documents on detainee abuses. Republicans defeated the measure by a largely party-line vote, 50-to-46. The “talking points” issued to Republicans by the Senate Republican Policy Committee warned,
Because of an out-of-control media and widespread hysteria, the White House and Pentagon have been forced to reveal secret interrogation techniques just to prove our men and women in uniform aren’t torturers and murderers…. The forced disclosure will now complicate efforts to get information from terrorists who will train to withstand these techniques…. It’s high past time we remember who [our] enemies are.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) condemned Democrats’ criticism of Bush torture policies as “not only false — they dangerously undermine troop morale, put our troops at risk, and impede our efforts to win the global war against terrorism.”
In reality, it was the Bush administration policies that placed American troops at risk. By effectively proclaiming a right to torture captives, the U.S. government would legitimate similar abuses by foreign regimes against U.S. troops.
The following day, Bush was interviewed by a petite female Irish journalist who told him that most Irish people are “angry over Abu Ghraib. Are you bothered by what Irish people think?” Bush replied, “Listen, I hope the Irish people understand the great values of our country. And if they think that a few soldiers represent the entirety of America, they don’t really understand America then.” He was furious at the question and the White House is said to have protested to the woman’s superiors.
On June 26, in his annual proclamation on the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, Bush assured the world,
The American people were horrified by the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq…. They were inconsistent with our policies and our values as a nation…. The United States will continue to lead the fight to eliminate [torture] everywhere.
After the Abu Ghraib torture scandal had percolated for six weeks, the New York Times and CBS News polled people on whether “members of the Bush administration are telling the entire truth, are mostly telling the truth but are hiding something, or are mostly lying” in their statements on Abu Ghraib. Only 15 percent of respondents said the administration was telling the “entire truth”; 52 percent said they were “hiding something”; and 27 percent said they were “mostly lying.”
Yet, even though the public was not buying Bush’s story, the Democrats lacked the courage to vigorously challenge or even to strongly condemn his policies. At the Democratic National Convention in Boston at the end of July, Abu Ghraib was barely mentioned. Though the torture scandal had sparked fury and protests in America and around the world, the Democratic Party ignored the issue in a convention that celebrated the theme of former Navy officer John Kerry’s “reporting for duty.” The Democrats may have feared being labeled unpatriotic for mentioning the torture. But regardless of how they muzzled themselves, the Democratic candidate was soon savagely maligned by the “Swift Boat Vets for Truth” advertisement barrage.
The Pentagon sought to rewrite the narrative in Iraq as well as in America. On September 14, U.S. military authorities proudly unveiled Camp Liberty, a new tent compound to house Iraqi detainees next to Abu Ghraib. Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the camp commander, declared that Camp Liberty and other changes in the treatment of Iraqi prisoners are “restoring the honor of America.” The camp was used for Iraqis cleared of wrongdoing who were on the verge of being released. The New York Times noted that as detainees were released a soldier would give them “$25, in the form of a crisp new $20 bill and a $5 bill, and a 12-page glossy pamphlet on Iraq’s interim government, ‘Iraq. Development.’” The Bush administration’s use of the word “liberty” to try to expunge Abu Ghraib atrocities illustrated how all limits were waived in degrading the American political vocabulary. This was the second re-christening, since Pentagon officials had speedily christened part of the Abu Ghraib complex Camp Redemption in May, when the leaked photos were first rattling the world.
Despite the Abu Ghraib scandal, Bush ran for reelection as the anti-torture candidate. In a campaign speech in Missouri, he denounced Saddam: “For decades he tormented and tortured the people of Iraq. Because we acted, Iraq is free and a sovereign nation.” It was as if torture subverts freedom only if done on a dictator’s orders, not when inflicted by the greatest democracy in the world. In the closing weeks of the campaign, Bush constantly reminded audiences, “Think about how far that country has come from the days of torture chambers and mass graves. Freedom is on the march, and America and the world are better for it.”
But political lies were marching far further and faster than freedom in the 2004 presidential election. Investigations completed after the 2004 election, as well as disclosures of FBI and military memos and documents, proved that torture was far more systematic in the U.S. military and the CIA after 9/11 than the Bush team admitted before his reelection victory.
The media flinched, the public shrugged, the politicians lied, and Bush snared a second term. When he was asked about Iraq by a reporter shortly before his second inauguration, he declared that Americans had had their “moment of accountability” regarding his Iraqi policies. In his own eyes, his reelection was a total absolution for anything he did in the first term.
Bush will be leaving office on January 20. Americans may have seen only the tip of the iceberg of the abuses that the U.S. government committed during his presidency. Whether Americans learn the details of the torture abuses of the Bush era will be an acid test for the health and survival of American democracy.
James Bovard [send him mail] is the author of the just-released Attention Deficit Democracy, The Bush Betrayal, and Terrorism & Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the World of Evil. He serves as a policy advisor for The Future of Freedom Foundation. Visit his website.