Monday, May 10, 2004

Unbroken chain

The core question in the Iraqi prison torture scandal continues to be: How high up the chain of command does this reach? Because the questions are clambering up the ladder all the time.

Recent testimony before Congress by both Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his underlings should raise some eyebrows, if nothing else. Of particular note was testimony from Army Chief of Staff Peter J. Schoomaker -- corroborating Rumsfeld's own remarks -- stating that military policemen at Abu Ghraib were not supposed to be "setting conditions for interrogation" at the prison:
Interrogators from military intelligence and other government agencies, believed to include the CIA, actively requested that MPs guarding prisoners at Abu Ghraib set the conditions for interrogations, Taguba reported. This is in violation of Army Regulation 190-8, he said.

That regulation states: "All persons captured, detained, interned or otherwise held in U.S. armed forces custody during the course of conflict will be given humanitarian care and treatment from the moment they fall into the hands of U.S. forces until final release or repatriation."

It also runs counter to the MPs' intended mission of maintaining a safe and orderly prison, he said.

The Army's top officer, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, confirmed that on Wednesday.

"It's a misstatement to say that the military police are trained to soften everybody up," he said. "Their job is to provide a safe and secure environment for those that we detain."

Taguba, however, received sworn statements from MPs who said they were involved in such activities.

Schoomaker's name may be familiar. Regular readers will recall it coming up in the context of a discussion of how the misadventure in Iraq stands as stark testament to the Bush administration's massive failure to address terrorism seriously or competently. Schoomaker, you see, was one of the military advisers who played a key role in the way the 1993 Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas, turned into a nightmarish disaster that wound up inspiring a fatal wave of domestic terrorism.

What's noteworthy in the current context is that Schoomaker appears to have later given false testimony to Congress, during the Danforth Committee hearings about Waco, regarding both his presence at the FBI command and control site at Waco, as well as his input regarding the final gassing plan -- that is, the disastrous one implemented, which was not the one approved by the FBI and Attorney General Janet Reno.

Jean Rosenfeld, the UCLA religious-studies scholar whose work I've cited previously, described the problems with Schoomaker's behavior at the scene in Waco and his later testimony in her piece, "The Use of the Military at Waco: The Danforth Report in Context," published in the scholarly journal Nova Religio:
On February 28 Gen. Schoomaker advised Texas governor, Ann Richards, about military equipment. On March 1 he drove to Waco, met with HRT commander Rogers, and "discussed the situation in general terms." At Rogers' request, Gen. Schoomaker returned to Waco on April 13 for an aerial tour of Mt. Carmel. Rogers and Schoomaker then flew to Ft. Bragg to pick up a Special Forces colonel and continued on to Washington to answer Janet Reno's questions about the FBI's plan to gradually insert gas into the Davidian residence. On the way to Washington, Commander Rogers asked Gen. Schoomaker to comment on the gassing plan, and Gen. Schoomaker declined. Gen. Schoomaker also told Janet Reno that he could not "grade" the specific tactics of the gassing plan, because that would be illegal. Gen. Schoomaker and the colonel did tell the Attorney General, however, that if the HRT were military troops under their command they would:

-- Recommend that the HRT team "stand down" for rest and retraining
-- Focus on "taking out" the leader (Koresh)
-- Conduct a rapid, total, and violent gassing and demolition of Mt.Carmel

One of the two officers later testified before the Subcommittees that he had never been to the Branch Davidian residence before April 13, and the other testified that he had not ever been to Mt. Carmel, but the Danforth interim and final reports place General Schoomaker at Waco on March 1 and April 13. From the government's own reports, one can piece together a pattern of consultation between Delta Force and the FBI on March 1 and on April 13-14, 1993.

Congress, in other words, should be taking a hard look at Schoomaker's current testimony. Clearly, his claims do not jibe with what is known about the situation at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. And the duelling accounts reek of misdirection, perhaps of an effort to intentionally mislead Congress about where the responsibility lies.

Indeed, as the Washington Post reported this morning:
A Senate hearing on the burgeoning Iraq prison abuse scandal will swing the spotlight today from the military police who committed the alleged offenses to the military intelligence community that oversaw them. In making that shift, senators said, they are likely to begin asking about the multiple chains of command that have blurred lines of responsibility in the U.S. effort in Iraq.

Schoomaker, it must be remembered, is a Rumsfeld man, having been brought out of retirement, as Sy Hersh has reported, as part of Rumsfeld's efforts to place Special Forces command in charge of much of the Iraq war. He has a reputation as an extraordinarily macho commander, one who regularly exhorts his men to instill a "warrior" ethos.

Coming to grips with what practices Military Intelligence was systematically deploying, who knew about the program and at what level it was approved are going to be the keys to resolving the issue.

A report in Sunday's Washington Post laid out the rationale:
U.S. officials were under mounting pressure to collect wartime intelligence but were hobbled by a shortage of troops, the failure to build an effective informant network and a surprisingly skilled insurgency. In response, they turned to the prison system. Today, as outrage spreads over images of abused prisoners, the practices inside the prisons have the potential of strengthening the insurgency that they were designed to defeat.

What's clear from this emerging account of why prisoner abuse occurred -- namely, because the insurgency in Iraq required human intelligence on the ground -- is that the abuse was not merely the work of a few rogues. It was -- and still is -- policy.

As the Post's story suggests, the neocon geniuses making policy for the Iraq war have blundered beyond belief by allowing this torture to occur. But then, this grotesque error is of a piece with this administration's entire approach to the "war on terrorism." As Jean Rosenfeld noted in a recent e-mail:
Any good analyst of terrorism knows that terrorism is "propaganda by the deed." Terror incites overreaction, and the dialogue of terror and war escalates -- polarizing, destabilizing, and giving the propaganda an increasing aura of truth.

I ... assert that a war against terror is not about winning territory, but winning populations. A camera, a caption, and a medium to disseminate the image can defeat an army. We can win all the battles in the field and still lose the war.

This is so basic and axiomatic that not to know and employ it in a war against terror constitutes gross incompetence. The war in Iraq fulfilled the US need to fight an enemy we were prepared to fight -- a rogue nation-state -- instead of the enemy who declared war on us -- a clandestine network. After three weeks we ran out of targets in the primitive landscape of Afghanistan. We did not realize that the war against al-Qaida required different weapons and an appropriate strategy. Al Qaida, on the other hand, needs war to foment jihad. We gave them that war.

And now we've given them a whole generation of fresh recruits. All because somewhere in the chain of command, someone approved of these kinds of tactics as a matter of policy. Such decisions are typically not made at the lower levels.

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