The shaming of America


George Bush's boast of shutting down Saddam Hussein's torture chambers in Iraq rings hollow now, writes Conor O'Clery

The shaming of America this week had its beginnings in an exchange of a CD in January between two army buddies, both reservists serving at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad. When Specialist Joseph Darby, a young man with shaggy brown hair from the coalmining hills of south-west Pennsylvania, slid the CD into his laptop, he was horrified by the images that came up.

There was Corp Charles Graner, a bespectacled prison guard from Pennsylvania, arm-in-arm with a woman reservist, grinning and giving a thumbs-up sign behind a pile of seven naked Iraqi prisoners. In another image, Graner, who has a history of violent spousal abuse, stood smirking as the woman, Lynndie England, formerly a chicken processing worker in West Virginia, bent her head laughing towards the anus of a naked Iraqi.

Joseph Darby, who was brought up "respectful" according to a neighbour in his home town of Jenners, was so upset by what he saw that he slipped an anonymous note under the door of a superior, and later came forward to tell the officer he "felt very bad about it and thought it was very wrong".

The military in Baghdad reacted swiftly. Lieut Gen Ricardo Sanchez, the senior commander in Iraq, quietly suspended the general in charge of prisons, Janis Karpinski, and asked Maj Gen Antonio Taguba to conduct an investigation. On January 16th, the Pentagon issued a press release about an inquiry into possible abuse in Iraq, without specifying the prison. Some days later - the White House cannot give the exact date - President Bush was told by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during a regular briefing that abuse charges had been made. But Rumsfeld said nothing about pictures. The Pentagon received Gen Taguba's 53-page report on March 3rd. It was devastating.

It found that between October and December of 2003 there were numerous instances of "sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses" at Abu Ghraib, the notorious prison now run by the US army, where Saddam Hussein had his opponents tortured. Soldiers of the 372nd Military Police Company and intelligence agencies, aided by civilian contractors, had committed atrocities on some prisoners.

They included: "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; sodomising 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".

A military policewoman asserted in the report that in one instance a hooded prisoner was kept awake by placing him on a box with wires attached to his fingers, toes, and penis. The report cited gross sexual abuse, with male detainees forced to simulate oral sex. It said there were graphic photographs of these indignities, making Muslim detainees involuntary bit players in a series of hundreds of pornographic pictures.

Whether or not senior Pentagon officials were fully aware of the possibility of a looming catastrophe that could do incalculable damage to America's image should the pictures ever be published, the media were alert to the brewing scandal. CNN reported in January of an inquiry into abuse and the possible existence of photographs of torture in Abu Ghraib. It wasn't until mid-April, however, that CBS 60 Minutes contacted the Defence Department in Washington to say it had pictures of flagrant abuse at Abu Ghraib prison and was planning to broadcast them.

Gen Richard Myers, who, as joint chiefs of staff chairman represents the armed services in the White House, asked the network to hold off, pleading it could inflame the insurgencies against the US occupation that had flared across Iraq. CBS producers agreed, but two weeks later came back to tell Gen Myers that it was going ahead with the broadcast on April 28th, as the pictures had started to circulate on the Internet.

In Baghdad, Brig Gen Mark Kimmitt told reporters hours in advance what was coming, saying it was the work of a few wrongdoers, who would be punished. That day, after Brig Gen Kimmitt's briefing, Rumsfeld again met the president in the White House for a routine briefing. Astonishingly, he said nothing about the pictures, nor gave any indication of the storm that was about to break.

The first Bush knew about the photographs, according to White House officials, was when he saw them on television later that evening. Last weekend, as the pictures evoked horror throughout the US, and presented the world with an enduring image of the occupation, another bombshell exploded on the Internet edition of the New Yorker magazine. Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who had first reported on the Mai Lai massacre by US soldiers during the Vietnam War, had got Taguba's report. The pictures now had a context.

Far from being an aberration they were clearly part of a pattern. That evening, the president and the defence secretary were in a jolly mood at the White House correspondents' dinner where Bush poked fun at himself for never admitting he was wrong. But as the international furore beat down on the White House the next day, the mood soured.

First, Gen Myers on Sunday and then Donald Rumsfeld on Monday strained credibility by claiming they had not seen the two-month-old Pentagon report, even though Hersh had already published its main findings. On Tuesday, as questions swirled about who knew what and when, Bush summoned Rumsfeld into his office. For the first time in his presidency, he publicly chided a senior official by revealing later what he told Rumsfeld: "I said I should have known about the pictures and the report," he snapped to reporters.

It was a huge embarrassment to admit being out of the loop, but it may have been a strategic move, designed to distance the president from the scandal and show he was sharing the nation's outrage at photographs that "sickened my stomach". But many commentators were quick to point out that presidents historically took the blame when things went wrong. In 1961, John F. Kennedy accepted full responsibility for the Bay of Pigs disaster; in 1980 Jimmy Carter took the blame for the failed rescue mission of US hostages in Iran; and in 1987 Ronald Reagan admitted to the nation after the Iran-contra arms for hostages scandal, "I was stubborn in my pursuit of a policy that went astray". Bill Clinton also said, often, that his relationship with Monica Lewinsky "was wrong".

In contrast, neither the president nor anyone in the Bush administration has accepted any culpability for anything that has gone wrong concerning Iraq, from the false intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, to the debacle of the post-invasion planning, to the failure to provide proper armour for soldiers, to the blunders that led to Falluja and Najaf.

As the full force of the Iraq crisis bore down, the administration, which had been noted for its public cohesion, began to come apart at the seams. The relationship between the State Department and the Pentagon, already strained, turned poisonous. A senior State Department official pointedly told the Washington Post that Rumsfeld and the Pentagon had resisted appeals by Secretary of State Colin Powell, at several White House meetings over the last few months, to release Iraqi detainees quickly and to see those in custody were properly treated. Paul Bremer, the US proconsul in Iraq, had also warned about the consequences, officials said.

Bob Woodward's book, Plan of Attack, recently revealed the depth of the animosity between Powell and the Rumsfeld team of neo-conservatives, including Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Douglas Feith - about whom Gen Tommy Franks said, according to Woodward: "I have to deal with the f**king stupidist guy on the face of the earth almost every day".

Even before the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, Powell was putting the word out through his friends that he was just about finished with the administration.

Several spoke frankly to GQ magazine about how Powell was bitter, uncomfortable with the president's agenda and exhausted from his battles with the Pentagon. Powell's closest buddy, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, told GQ's Wil Hylton that Powell's disastrous speech at the UN last year was "a source of great distress for the secretary [Secretary of State]".

His chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson, said Powell was tired "mentally and physically", doing damage control and apologising for some "less-than-graceful actions" by other cabinet members. Wilkerson assailed the Pentagon neo-conservatives in a memorable phrase: "I don't care whether Utopians are Vladimir Lenin on a sealed train to Moscow or Paul Wolfowitz," he said. "Utopians, I don't like. You're never going to bring Utopia, and you're going to hurt a lot of people in the process of trying to do it."

As the US was convulsed with embarrassment over the photographs, the focus turned to the Bush administration's attitude to human rights since 9/11. The New York Times highlighted cases of innocent Muslims picked up in New York and beaten and held without charge in a Brooklyn prison for months before being thrown out of the country. The Washington Post charged Rumsfeld with setting the foundations for Abu Ghraib in January, 2002, when he instituted a system of holding detainees incommunicado, declaring they did not have any rights under the Geneva conventions.

This meant their treatment became an arbitrary matter for government agencies not subject to any normal legal restraints. This week, the Pentagon admitted 25 prisoners have died in Afghanistan and Iraq with almost no accountability. The anger at the scandal now stretches across the political spectrum.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman commented: "We are in danger of losing America as an instrument of moral authority and inspiration." There is now ebbing support for a mission which claimed the moral right to regime change. President Bush still takes credit in his stump re-election speech for shutting down Saddam Hussein's torture chambers, but the boast rings somewhat hollow today.

Americans, already disillusioned by seeing the marines turn to one of Saddam Hussein's Revolutionary Guard commanders who led pogroms against Kurds and Shiites, to get them out of Falluja, are turning against the war, according to new polls this weekend. As for the military police in the digital pictures that have tainted the image of America - perhaps for a generation - they are back in the US. Charles Graner is again working as a guard on death row in Maryland.

Lynndie England is in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where she is expecting a baby by Graner. Her mother told the New York Times: "Everything she did, she did because someone higher up told her to".