New Questions About Abu Ghraib

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, June 18, 2007; 2:12 PM

A New Yorker article is raising uncomfortable questions for the White House about what President Bush knew about the horrific abuse at Abu Ghraib, when he knew it -- and whether he and his top lieutenants bear more responsibility for it than they have acknowledged.

The shocking news and appalling photographs chronicling the sadistic torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. personnel first emerged in April 2004, deeply damaging America's reputation, particularly in the Arab world. Bush responded by expressing disgust at the behavior of a small number of people who, he said, were acting on their own. He said those responsible would be held accountable. And he said he had not seen the photographs before they were made public.

But according to Seymour M. Hersh' s blockbuster story in the New Yorker, Bush was told about the abuse Abu Ghraib long before the photographs went public, failed to respond appropriately -- and may indeed have recognized what happened at Abu Ghraib as the predictable result of administration policy rather than the random act of a few bad apples.

Hersh's story is based on interviews with Antonio M. Taguba, the former two-star general who submitted a scathing (and career-killing) secret report about Abu Ghraib in March 2004. Hersh also concludes that then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld knew more than he admitted and that the abuses were in some cases similar to treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But from a White House perspective, the most significant aspect of Hersh's story is that it threatens to associate Bush with a sordid chapter of the Iraq war from which he has managed to remain largely disconnected by pointing fingers down the chain of command. Hersh's report raises the possibility that those truly responsible for Abu Ghraib have never been held accountable.

Here's Hersh talking to Wolf Blitzer on CNN yesterday: "The question you have to ask about the president is this: No matter when he learned -- and certainly he learned before it became public -- and no matter how detailed it was, is there any evidence that the president of the United States said to Rumsfeld, 'What's going on there, Don? Let's get an investigation going.'

"Did he do anything? Did he ask for a -- did he want to have the generals come in and talk to him about it? Did he want to change the rules? Did he want to improve the conditions?

"BLITZER: And what's the answer?

"HERSH: Nada. He did nothing. . . .

"BLITZER: Here's the White House response. We asked the White House for a response to your article: 'The president addressed this fully. He first saw the pictures on TV and he was upset by them. He called for the investigation to go forward. He found the actions abhorrent and urged the Defense Department to get to the bottom of the matter.'

"HERSH: It's not when they saw the photographs. It's when they learned how serious it was. They were told in memos what the photographs showed."

From Hersh's Piece

Writes Hersh: "Whether the President was told about Abu Ghraib in January (when e-mails informed the Pentagon of the seriousness of the abuses and of the existence of photographs) or in March (when Taguba filed his report), Bush made no known effort to forcefully address the treatment of prisoners before the scandal became public, or to reevaluate the training of military police and interrogators, or the practices of the task forces that he had authorized. Instead, Bush acquiesced in the prosecution of a few lower-level soldiers. The President's failure to act decisively resonated through the military chain of command: aggressive prosecution of crimes against detainees was not conducive to a successful career."

Taguba wrote in his report of "[n]umerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees . . . systemic and illegal abuse." But he wasn't allowed to trace the behavior to its root cause.

Writes Hersh: "'From what I knew, troops just don't take it upon themselves to initiate what they did without any form of knowledge of the higher-ups,' Taguba told me. His orders were clear, however: he was to investigate only the military police at Abu Ghraib, and not those above them in the chain of command. 'These M.P. troops were not that creative,' he said. 'Somebody was giving them guidance, but I was legally prevented from further investigation into higher authority. I was limited to a box.'"

Hersh suspects one reason Bush was so intent on casting blame at the lowest levels was that "from the beginning the Administration feared that the publicity would expose more secret operations and practices."

Hersh notes: "Despite the subsequent public furor over Abu Ghraib, neither the House nor the Senate Armed Services Committee hearings led to a serious effort to determine whether the scandal was a result of a high-level interrogation policy that encouraged abuse . . . An aggressive congressional inquiry into Abu Ghraib could have provoked unwanted questions about what the Pentagon was doing, in Iraq and elsewhere, and under what authority."

Hersh exposes another executive-power end-run by the White House: "By law, the President must make a formal finding authorizing a C.I.A. covert operation, and inform the senior leadership of the House and the Senate Intelligence Committees. However, the Bush Administration unilaterally determined after 9/11 that intelligence operations conducted by the military -- including the Pentagon's covert task forces -- for the purposes of 'preparing the battlefield' could be authorized by the President, as Commander-in-Chief, without telling Congress."

In other words, declare the world your battlefield and the military your intelligence service -- and suddenly there's no need to tell Congress anything.

And here's one more insight from Hersh into how the White House operates: "C.I.A. officers, who were under pressure to produce better intelligence in the field, wanted explicit legal authority before aggressively interrogating high-value targets. A finding would give operatives some legal protection for questionable actions, but the White House was reluctant to put what it wanted in writing.

"A recently retired high-level C.I.A. official, who served during this period and was involved in the drafting of findings, described to me the bitter disagreements between the White House and the agency over the issue. 'The problem is what constituted approval,' the retired C.I.A. official said. 'My people fought about this all the time. Why should we put our people on the firing line somewhere down the road? If you want me to kill Joe Smith, just tell me to kill Joe Smith. If I was the Vice-President or the President, I'd say, "This guy Smith is a bad guy and it's in the interest of the United States for this guy to be killed." They don't say that. Instead, George' -- George Tenet, the director of the C.I.A. until mid-2004 -- 'goes to the White House and is told, "You guys are professionals. You know how important it is. We know you'll get the intelligence."'"

The Wilkerson Explanation

Of course, this is far from the first time that it's been suggested that responsibility for the abuse of detainees lies higher up the chain of command.

Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to secretary of state Colin Powell, wrote in July 2006 for (where I am deputy editor): "Documents and memos that have already made their way into the public domain make it clear that the Office of the Vice President bears responsibility for creating an environment conducive to the acts of torture and murder committed by U.S. forces in the war on terror.

"There is, in my view, insufficient evidence to walk into an American courtroom and win a legal case (though an international courtroom for war crimes might feel differently). But there is enough evidence for a soldier of long service -- someone like me with 31 years in the Army -- to know that what started with John Yoo, David Addington, Alberto Gonzales, William Haynes at the Pentagon, and several others, all under the watchful and willing eye of the Vice President, went down through the Secretary of Defense to the commanders in the field, and created two separate pressures that resulted in the violation of longstanding practice and law."

Previous White House Statements

Here's Bush at an April 30, 2004, Rose Garden event:

"Q What is your reaction to photos of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners? How are you going to win their hearts and minds with these sort of tactics?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: Yes, I shared a deep disgust that those prisoners were treated the way they were treated. Their treatment does not reflect the nature of the American people. That's not the way we do things in America. And so I -- I didn't like it one bit.

"But I also want to remind people that those few people who did that do not reflect the nature of the men and women we've sent overseas. That's not the way the people are, that's not their character, that are serving our nation in the cause of freedom. And there will be an investigation. I think -- they'll be taken care of."

In an interview on May 5 with Alhurra Television:

"Q Mr. President, in a democracy and a free society, as you mentioned, people investigate, but at the same time, even those who are not directly responsible for these events take responsibility. With such a problem of this magnitude, do we expect anyone to step down? Do you still have confidence in the Secretary of Defense?

"THE PRESIDENT: Oh, of course, I've got confidence in the Secretary of Defense, and I've got confidence in the commanders on the ground in Iraq, because they -- they and our troops are doing great work on behalf of the Iraqi people. We're finding the few that wanted to try to stop progress toward freedom and democracy. And we're helping the Iraqi people stand up a government. We stand side-by-side with the Iraqis that love freedom.

"And -- but people will be held to account. That's what the process does. That's what we do in America. We fully investigate; we let everybody see the results of the investigation; and then people will be held to account."

In a May 5 interview with Al Arabiya Television: "[I]t's very important for people, your listeners, to understand, in our country that when an issue is brought to our attention on this magnitude, we act -- and we act in a way where leaders are willing to discuss it with the media. And we act in a way where, you know, our Congress asks pointed questions to the leadership. In other words, people want to know the truth. That stands in contrast to dictatorships. A dictator wouldn't be answering questions about this. A dictator wouldn't be saying that the system will be investigated and the world will see the results of the investigation. A dictator wouldn't admit reforms needed to be done."

On May 6, Robin Wright and Bradley Graham wrote in The Washington Post: "President Bush privately admonished Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday, a senior White House official said, as other U.S. officials blamed the Pentagon for failing to act on repeated recommendations to improve conditions for thousands of Iraqi detainees and release those not charged with crimes. . . .

"The president was particularly disturbed at having had to learn from news reports this week about the scope of misconduct documented in an Army investigative report completed in March, according to the official, who refused to be named so he could speak more candidly. . . .

"Bush aides conceded that Rumsfeld had earlier given Bush a general sense of the investigation of Abu Ghraib during a meeting that included Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. But White House press secretary Scott McClellan said officials have not been able to pin down the exact date, except that it was after Jan. 16, when the Pentagon issued a release announcing the probe."

Indeed, as I wrote in my May 7 column, the White House consistently refused to offer specifics about what Bush was told and when.

And consider this tidbit from a May 7 article by Mike Allen in The Post: "Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday on CBS's 'Early Show' that beginning in mid-January, everyone 'up the chain of command . . . was kept apprised orally of the ongoing investigation.'

"Asked if Bush 'was well aware of the situation,' Pace replied: 'Yes.'"

White House E-Mails

A report just in from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee finds:

" * The number of White House officials given RNC [Republican National Committee] e-mail accounts is higher than previously disclosed. In March 2007, White House spokesperson Dana Perino said that only a 'handful of officials' had RNC e-mail accounts. In later statements, her estimate rose to '50 over the course of the administration.' In fact, the Committee has learned from the RNC that at least 88 White House officials had RNC e-mail accounts. The officials with RNC e-mail accounts include Karl Rove, the President's senior advisor; Andrew Card, the former White House Chief of Staff; Ken Mehlman, the former White House Director of Political Affairs; and many other officials in the Office of Political Affairs, the Office of Communications, and the Office of the Vice President.

" * White House officials made extensive use of their RNC e-mail accounts. The RNC has preserved 140,216 e-mails sent or received by Karl Rove. Over half of these e-mails (75,374) were sent to or received from individuals using official '.gov' e-mail accounts. Other heavy users of RNC e-mail accounts include former White House Director of Political Affairs Sara Taylor (66,018 e-mails) and Deputy Director of Political Affairs Scott Jennings (35,198 e-mails). These e-mail accounts were used by White House officials for official purposes, such as communicating with federal agencies about federal appointments and policies.

" * There has been extensive destruction of the e-mails of White House officials by the RNC. Of the 88 White House officials who received RNC e-mail accounts, the RNC has preserved no e-mails for 51 officials.... In addition, there are major gaps in the e-mail records of the 37 White House officials for whom the RNC did preserve e-mails. The RNC has preserved only 130 e-mails sent to Mr. Rove during President Bush's first term and no e-mails sent by Mr. Rove prior to November 2003. . . .

" * There is evidence that the Office of White House Counsel under Alberto Gonzales may have known that White House officials were using RNC e-mail accounts for official business, but took no action to preserve these presidential records."

Here's the full report. "These violations could be the most serious breach of the Presidential Records Act in the 30-year history of the law," it says. Here's what looks like a fascinating deposition from former Rove aide Susan Ralston. More on all this tomorrow.

Iran Watch

Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "A year after President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced a new strategy toward Iran, a behind-the-scenes debate has broken out within the administration over whether the approach has any hope of reining in Iran's nuclear program, according to senior administration officials.

"The debate has pitted Ms. Rice and her deputies, who appear to be winning so far, against the few remaining hawks inside the administration, especially those in Vice President Dick Cheney's office who, according to some people familiar with the discussions, are pressing for greater consideration of military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities."

Cooper and Sanger note that "[o]n Thursday, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the international nuclear watchdog agency, warned anew that military action against Iran would 'be an act of madness.'"

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "Iran is in the midst of a sweeping crackdown that both Iranians and U.S. analysts compare to a cultural revolution in its attempt to steer the oil-rich theocracy back to the rigid strictures of the 1979 revolution.

"The recent detentions of Iranian American dual nationals are only a small part of a campaign that includes arrests, interrogations, intimidation and harassment of thousands of Iranians as well as purges of academics and new censorship codes for the media. Hundreds of Iranians have been detained and interrogated, including a top Iranian official, according to Iranian and international human rights groups."

In her final paragraph, Wright cites a possible reason for this crisis: "The Bush administration's $75 million fund to promote democracy in Iran is the key reason for the recent arrest of several dual U.S.-Iranian citizens in Iran, including D.C. area scholar Haleh Esfandiari. Iranian analysts contend that the U.S. funds have also made civil society movements targets because of government suspicions that they are conspiring to foster a 'velvet revolution' against the regime."

Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Guy Dinmore put it more strongly in the Financial Times: "The survival of Iran's fragile pro-democracy movement is being threatened by the US administration's continuing attempts to fund the country's civil society, leading activists have warned.

"Prominent NGOs say the US funding for opposition groups, and Iranian suspicions that the money is designed to create the conditions for a 'soft revolution', have helped President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad justify a crackdown on their activities.

"The recent arrests of four Iranian-American dual citizens -- two on charges of espionage -- have sharpened what was already a fierce debate in Tehran and Washington on whether the lack of transparency in identifying the recipients of US funding makes local activists vulnerable to action by the regime. . . .

"One insider in Washington said some officials had even welcomed the backlash from Tehran, arguing that it would clarify the divisions between the Iranian government and 'opposition'. He said that Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary leading Iran policy, was a keen proponent of the funding programme, seen as another lever to use against Tehran."

And Karen J. Greenberg writes for that in the case of the four Iranian-Americans being detained, Bush's "frantic, fear-filled, information-impoverished, but stubbornly defended policy" on detainees held by the United States "has finally blown back on America's own citizens. . . .

"President Bush is correct. These detentions represent a travesty of justice and a violation of the rules of conduct among nations. It is horrifying that these Americans, who are engaged in foreign affairs at non-governmental and scholarly levels, are held, seemingly without recourse to law and certainly without respect for international rights.

"But there is another disturbing reality here which must be faced. In numerous ways, the U.S. has robbed itself of the right to proclaim the very principles by which these prisoners should be defended. Though President Bush and his spokespersons may not see it, their past policies have set a trap for the government -- and for Americans generally. More than five years after setting up Guantanamo, and then implementing national security strategies based upon torture, secret prisons, and illegal detentions, the Bush administration has managed to obliterate the moral high ground they now seek to claim in relation to Iran."

Iraq Watch

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "Conditions in Iraq will not improve sufficiently by September to justify a drawdown of U.S. military forces, the top commander in Iraq said yesterday.

"Gen. David H. Petraeus . . . and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, his diplomatic counterpart in Baghdad, said a key report they will deliver to Washington in September will include what Crocker called 'an assessment of what the consequences might be if we pursue other directions.'"

So instead of an objective report describing progress that we were promised, we'll get a fear campaign? Talk about moving the goalposts.

Steven Simon and Ray Takeyh write in a Washington Post opinion piece: "The war in Iraq is lost. The only question that remains -- for our gallant troops and our blinkered policymakers -- is how to manage the inevitable. What the United States needs now is a guide to how to lose -- how to start thinking about minimizing the damage done to American interests, saving lives and ultimately wresting some good from this fiasco.

"No longer can we avoid this bitter conclusion. Iraq's winner-take-all politics are increasingly vicious; there will be no open, pluralistic Iraqi state to take over from the United States. Iraq has no credible central government that U.S. forces can assist and no national army for them to fight alongside. U.S. troops can't beat the insurgency on their own; our forces are too few and too isolated to compete with the insurgents for the public's support. Meanwhile, the country's militias have become a law unto themselves, and ethnic cleansing gallops forward. . . .

"The same policymakers who assumed that Iraq would be a cakewalk now assume that the hard-to-predict consequences of leaving will be vastly worse than the demonstrated costs of hanging on."

Maliki and Bush

Larry Kaplow and Christopher Dickey write in Newsweek about the mutually sycophantic and dependent relationship between Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. "[T]he dour-faced Shiite politician's aides say he often brightens up after talking to the U.S. president one-on-one, whether by phone, in person or in a videoconference. 'You can see how happy he is,' says Sami Al-Askari, a close adviser, speaking of past encounters. 'Mr. Bush encourages him.' . . .

"Perhaps it's not surprising that a stubborn president of the United States and this equally stubborn prime minister of Iraq find solace in each other's company. They're both increasingly isolated from the people they are supposed to lead. They are contemporaries (Bush is 60, Maliki is 57), and both spent most of their lives as relatively unworldly men, albeit worlds apart. Both have had to learn on the job while in the top job. Both are surrounded by small circles of confidants who have given them demonstrably bad advice where the future of Iraq is concerned. Both are at odds with fractious legislatures. Both are deeply religious and have important fundamentalist constituencies. Each of them very much needs the other to succeed, and neither has any real alternative.

"But while Bush reassures Maliki, the American public's patience is running out."

From Kaplow's interview with Maliki:

Kaplow: "Some say both of you need to be more flexible -- him in recognizing more of Iraq's realities and you reaching out to your government's opponents."

Maliki: "Destiny wanted to bring together two people who strongly stick to their principles."

Personnel Watch

Michael Duffy writes in Time: "Over the past month, President George W. Bush has removed many of the last traces of the team that conceived and then executed the Iraq war. It is probably a good sign that many of the new replacements are Navy admirals, who tend to think more creatively than their counterparts in the hidebound Army. At the White House, meanwhile, day-to-day responsibility for coordinating policy on Iraq and Afghanistan has been taken from long-standing National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and handed to a three-star general, Doug Lute, who opposed the surge from the start. The political team is molting too: longtime GOP operative Ed Gillespie is set to replace Bush senior adviser Dan Bartlett. . . .

"All these moves suggest -- but hardly guarantee -- a course correction on Iraq by September, when the patience of even GOP lawmakers will probably run out. Talk of a partial U.S. drawdown or a new acceleration of Iraqi-troop training increases with each day. A senior Administration official who participates in foreign policy meetings chose his words carefully last week: 'It will be easier to execute a change in direction if the people who have to decide on it do not feel bound by things they have said and done in the past.'"

Scooter Libby Watch

Mike Allen writes for the Politico: "White House loyalists have begun arguing that clemency for I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby -- either a pardon or a commuted sentence -- would be a way for an embattled President Bush to reassert himself, particularly among conservatives.

"The White House has not ruled out a pardon for Libby, sources say. But several Republicans, who sense a movement in Libby's favor, said a more likely possibility might be a presidential commutation -- a reduction or elimination of Libby's 2½-year federal prison sentence. Such a move, they said, would be less divisive for the country. . . .

"The lobbying is subtle, according to participants. They say that making the case directly to the president or his top aides would be insulting and could backfire. Instead, friends of Bush and Libby have been quietly working cocktail parties and other venues, laying out their logic for a pardon."

So does that mean they're lobbying people like Allen himself, rather than Bush? Writes Allen: "In an effort to get their messages to the top echelons of the White House, Libby's friends cooperated with recent articles by Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times and John Dickerson of Slate, whose piece bore the subhead: 'No way Scooter Libby is going to prison.'"

Tabloid Watch

Bob Roberts and Ryan Parry write in Britain's Daily Mirror: "Tony Blair feared George Bush would 'nuke the s**t' out of Afghanistan in revenge for 9/11, a sensational documentary will claim this week.

"Giving the inside story on the war, former British ambassador to the US Chris Meyer reveals: 'Blair's real concern was that there would be quote unquote 'a kneejerk reaction' by the Americans. . . . they would go thundering off and nuke the s**t out of the place without thinking straight.' . . .

"In Channel 4's candid two-part documentary The Rise and Fall of Tony Blair, Mr Meyer claims the threat explains why the Prime Minister vowed to stand 'shoulder-to-shoulder' with Bush over the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan -- to thwart his allguns blazing battle plan."

Cartoon Watch

Nick Anderson and Jared Novack bring you an interactive Bush missile defense game.

Post a Comment

Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

© 2007 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive