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The System Was Lacking
by E. J. Dionne, Jr.
Washington Post
May 7, 2003

"The system worked."

That's what Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told NBC's Matt Lauer this week of the response to those despicable acts of abuse committed in our names in the most notorious of Saddam Hussein's prisons. It all came out, and all is well because the Defense Department investigated itself.

Oh, yes, and we cannot call it torture. "My impression," Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon this week, "is that what has been charged so far is abuse, which is different from torture. Just a minute, I don't know if the, it is correct to say what you just said, that torture has taken place, or that there's been a conviction for torture. And therefore, I'm not going to address the 'torture' word."

So we have come to this: The secretary of defense cannot address the "t" word because it all depends on what the meaning of "torture" is.

And then there is Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On CBS News's "Face the Nation" last Sunday, host Bob Schieffer asked Myers why he had not seen a report on these horrific events that was completed in March.

"It's just working its way up, up the chain," Myers replied. Up the chain? Myers is the man who leads all of our men and women in uniform, people who share our values and face grave risks. He hears about an event that violates everything our country espouses, is guaranteed to embarrass us before the entire world and deepens the danger for our troops in the field. In the now popular phrase, Myers's hair should have been on fire. Apparently it wasn't.

If Rumsfeld really thinks "the system worked" and if Myers really just sat by as the chain of command operated in its desultory way, neither is suited to lead the brave people defending our country.

But dumping Rumsfeld and Myers is not enough. Ultimately the buck stops with President Bush. No, I don't think for an instant that Bush knew anything about this. That's the problem. Reports of prisoner abuse have been around since the war in Afghanistan and the opening of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The president needs to explain why he wasn't more curious about what was happening, and whether his management style delegates so much authority that the White House could be caught so unprepared for this catastrophe. Are we dealing here with a culture of unaccountability?

The temptation will be to blame a small group of people and charge them with brutality. Yes, individuals should be held accountable for what they do. But a democracy cannot content itself with pushing blame downward. These crimes are seen around the world as acts supported by our government. By extension that means all of us.

Those soldiers and private contractors humiliating Iraqi prisoners were operating within a set of assumptions about what they were and were not supposed to do. Did they get nods and winks that anything was okay as long as it produced results? Or were they told they needed to live up to the president's public promise that prisoners would be treated fairly? Let's assume the second is the truth. Why didn't this view get communicated all the way down that chain of command?

And would Bush be making his statements of sorrow to the Arab media if our country's free media had not exposed what happened? Or was the administration hoping all this could be covered up? Republican Sen. John McCain was horrified that Congress had been told nothing about these abuses. "Congress should have been notified of this situation a long time ago," McCain said. If the administration wasn't trying to cover up, why didn't it tell Congress of the abuses? It owes not only Congress but also the country far more than it has given by way of an explanation.

This cruelty allows our nation's enemies to mock everything we Americans say we stand for in the world. Just last week Bush justified the Iraq war by declaring that removing Saddam Hussein put an end to a series of evils. "As a result," Bush said, "there are no longer torture chambers or rape rooms or mass graves in Iraq." Sadistic acts by people with power over others are precisely what our nation is supposed to be fighting against. This idea should guide not only what we say but also what we do.

2004 The Washington Post Company

Topplebush.com
Posted: May 12, 2004

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