WHAT DID HE KNOW, AND WHEN DID HE KNOW IT?
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- By now the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal is old news, but it may signify something of importance back home - the awakening of the long dormant American press. All that remains is the ritual incantation, "What did the president know, and when did he know it?"
The story broke big time with a New Yorker article, "Torture at Abu Ghraib," by Seymour Hersh. More a history of the Army's own investigation, the story describes how a collection of soldiers consisting largely of Army reservists and reserve officers was handed the job of running detention facilities in Iraq. It was a task they had little training or experience for. (The story is available online at www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?040510fa_fact).
The Hersh article relied heavily on a U.S. Army investigational report by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba. The Taguba report, now widely available on the Internet, is a lengthy description of the investigation, findings and recommendations. It includes a list of specific violations including the beating of prisoners, photographing of naked male and female detainees, use of military working dogs to intimidate (and in at least one case, bite) a detainee, the piling of naked hooded prisoners in pyramids and so forth. It is bluntly critical of several Army officers and includes a list of recommended disciplinary actions against officers and enlisted personnel.
It is quite fascinating to see the response of the press to this developing scandal. I offer as exhibit one my local newspaper, the Daily Breeze. The Breeze is a member of the Copley Newspaper family. It is traditionally quite conservative in its editorial views, carrying syndicated columns by Mona Charen and Jack Kemp routinely. On Sunday, it balances Larry Elder's column with that of Dan Rather on the OpEd page.
Larry Elder is becoming more and more dependable as a Republican party shill. His column topic for today: we appear to have found the weapons of mass destruction. (Elder refers to a story regarding poison gas recently discovered and seized by Jordan.) Along with Charen, Kemp and others, the Breeze editorial pages routinely present the conservative and Republican Party positions without much on the other side as balance.
Here is a list of articles appearing within the 20 pages of section A on this Sunday, May 9: On the front page, the lead article from the Associated Press is headlined "Abuse reports faced silence" and describes how reports of the Iraqi prison abuses "were met by public silence from the U.S. Army last October - six months before shocking photographs stirred world outrage and demands for action."
Page A7 includes "From joy to a state of shock," with the additional heading, "Military: Two 21-year-old West Virginia women join the Army and become famous, but for very different reasons." The women are Jessica Lynch, famous as the subject of the rescue attempt early in the war, and Lynndie England, now becoming famous as the subject of the most objectionable photographs that provoked world outrage.
Page A8 includes "This 'stain' may require a great deal of washing," with the additional heading, "Analysis: Iraq prison photos seem particularly damaging abroad to U.S. claims of a moral high ground." What follows is a 21 column inch evaluation of the political fallout from the scandal including strongly negative assessments of the effect on President Bush's credibility and popularity.
Page A12 includes another 22 column inches on "U.S. head of Iraqi prisons vows increased oversight, end to abuses," with the additional heading, "Military: 'On my honor, I will ensure that it will not happen again,' he says." This story, excerpting the Taguba report, explains to readers, "Some military police at the prison have said they were instructed to 'soften up' the prisoners before interrogation," and this: "In an interview by e-mail from Baghdad, Harman told the Washington Post it was made clear that her mission was to break down the prisoners." (Sabrina Harman is one of the soldiers facing charges.)
Page A14 includes the continuation of the front-page story, including a photo of Iraqi brothers who "told of psychological abuse, deprivation, beatings and deaths after spending two and a half months at the U.S.-run Camp Bucca in Baghdad."
Page A16 includes a story "More and more mother-soldiers are going off to serve in Iraq." Its subheading is, "Military: There are more women than men in one Indiana National Guard detachment that will soon deploy."
Pages A18 and A19 are the editorial section. Besides the obligatory column about Mothers' Day and Larry Elder's revelation that we have finally found the President's WMDs, we find Dan Rather on "Who's accountable for civilian soldiers in Iraq?" This story discusses the issue (long since addressed by The American Reporter) that many responsibilities that previously would have fallen to uniformed soldiers are now being covered by private contractors in this Iraq conflict.
In total, part A of the Breeze has Iraq scandal related stories on 7 out of its 20 pages.
What we may be looking at here is, in microcosm, the American press breaking out of its cocoon, or straightjacket if you will, in which the president's gaffes, ignorances, incoherencies and just plain mistakes were treated ever so gently, if at all. For a newspaper as conservative as the Breeze to be jumping on board this scandal so vigorously signals a change in the wind direction of editorial viewpoint.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the press would find a new target, but it was always a question of Kerry, Bush, or perhaps even both as the butt of all the new jokes. The Bush campaign has been trying to pin the flip-flop label on Kerry. The press is now in the process of pinning a more wounding tag on Bush.
What happens next depends on the answers to a few questions. Some writer somewhere is going to remember that Bush walked into that April 13, 2004, press conference and said, "America's commitment to freedom in Iraq is consistent with our ideals, and required by our interests." In the 2003 words of Bush's prepared text, you will not find any references to American soldiers sodomizing prisoners or engaging in creative photography.
So what did Bush know about the scandal as he walked into that press conference on April 13? We know that the Red Cross had complained nearly a year ago. We know that the U.S. Army had a completed investigation containing disciplinary recommendations by February of this year. Either Bush had some working arrangement not to be told about this sort of thing, an attempt to maintain "plausible deniability," in which case he will be called dangerously ignorant and irresponsible, or he did know and in knowing deceived the reporters and the American people in lying by omission.
We don't know the answers, but it is inevitable that these questions will eventually get asked. They will be asked, that is, if the American press starts to get up off the canvass and starts to fight the way it sometimes did in the past.
Another argument that this scandal will feed has to do with troop strength and competence in Iraq. The Taguba report is scathing in its evaluation of leadership and training among the officers and soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison. It becomes clear that many of the accused are Army reservists. Hersh makes clear that these people were thrown into their prison guard tasks with inadequate training and oversight.
Taguba also referred to the issue of troop strength: "The units that remain are generally under strength, as Reserve Component units do not have an individual personnel replacement system to mitigate medical losses or the departure of individual Soldiers that have reached 24 months of Federal active duty in a five-year period." Some reporter ought to notice this statement and ask Donald Rumsfeld how it affects his views on fighting this war on the cheap.
There is one paragraph in the Taguba report that stands out for its understated tragic irony:
The US Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID), led by COL Jerry Mocello, and a team of highly trained professional agents have done a superb job of investigating several complex and extremely disturbing incidents of detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib Prison. They conducted over 50 interviews of witnesses, potential criminal suspects, and detainees. They also uncovered numerous photos and videos portraying in graphic detail detainee abuse by Military Police personnel on numerous occasions from October to December 2003. Several potential suspects rendered full and complete confessions regarding their personal involvement and the involvement of fellow Soldiers in this abuse. Several potential suspects invoked their rights under Article 31 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and the 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
In other words, American soldiers have the protection of our Bill of Rights. Supposedly we invaded Iraq to bestow the benefits of our freedom and security on the inhabitants, but the Abu Ghraib revelations call this into question. Perhaps another reporter will notice the disparity and ask about it.