May 6, 2004

About Abu Ghraib

A handful of liberal Democrats have developed a raging case of the ague over the kinky misdeeds of military police assigned to guard prisoners at the Abu Ghraib Prison outside Baghdad. You no doubt have seen the pictures of leering guards jeering at hooded and/or naked prisoners. The sick puppies responsible for the mess apparently snapped hundreds of pictures of their handiwork. In so doing, they embarrassed the administration and enraged military personnel who have withstood the rigors and dangers of duty in Iraq without ignoring the human rights rules laid out by the Geneva Convention.

Rep. Charlie Rangel has filed a bill to impeach Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for malfeasance in the affair, while a parade of politicos has called for Rumsfeld’s resignation. The list includes Sen. Tom Harkin, the Congressional Black Caucus, and Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry.

Yet, if anybody has a gripe with the defense secretary, it’s President Bush, who apparently was kept out of the loop on this scandal after learning in January that some guards “reportedly” had done awful and tacky things to their captives. After that initial warning, a lot of people made a bad situation worse by failing to pass bad news to their superiors.

Here’s a rough timeline: A soldier or soldiers informed lower-level officers last November that something was amiss at Abu Ghraib. Gen. Rene Sanchez, the general in charge of operations in Iraq, got word of the problem on Jan. 13. Donald Rumsfeld got a cursory briefing then, too. Sanchez launched an investigation the next day, and the next week he appointed General Antonio Taguba, asking Taguba to conduct a no-holds-barred inquiry.

Taguba got cracking. By early March, he had nailed the prison guards for misconduct; documented an appalling breakdown in leadership, training, discipline and professionalism; given military authorities the names of the guards involved; and recommended disciplinary proceedings against at least 18 people in supervisory positions, including the general in charge of military police, the colonel in charge of the prison, and the lieutenant colonel charged with overseeing the unit guilty of the crimes.

If anybody had been thinking, the Pentagon then and there would have issued a report about the scandal and documented the way in which Taguba addressed the matter swiftly and effectively. The general’s investigation was and is a success story. But the brass remained quiet. Taguba submitted a report on April 6 – five days after the slaughter of four Americans in Fallujah and at the beginning of major operations against anti-American killers throughout Iraq – but Gen. Sanchez didn’t authorize the report’s conclusions until April 30.

Meanwhile, CBS’ "60 Minutes" and Seymour Hersch of the New Yorker both got wind of the scandal – and CBS got some of the infamous photos. Top Pentagon officials, including Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, begged the news organizations to hold off until after the Battle of Fallujah, and the journalism outfits agreed. Again, the White House could have short-circuited the bad news by going swiftly to the press, and again, it did nothing because it apparently knew nothing.

Nobody had bothered to tell Donald Rumsfeld that CBS had pictures and therefore, nobody was in a position to tell the president the story was coming. Rumsfeld himself didn’t learn about CBS’s info-coup until the very day the pictures appeared on the air; the president found out only by watching "60 minutes."

In this way, a combination of bureaucratic tail-covering and public relations incompetence transformed a good story into a nightmare. The White House today should be crowing about the way the Army cracked down on its own bad actors. Instead, it will have to spend the next month fending off demagogic impeachment petitions, shrill and misleading press reports, and angry communications from every capital in the Arab world.

What a mess.