has been four months since the photos from Abu
Ghraib came to light, and America still can't
decide what to make of them. Yes, they're appalling.
But who's to blame? With the release of two new
reports this week, we still can't quite connect
the torture and abuse to the commander in chief
or his defense secretary; we still can't quite
find that smoking gun.
there's never going to be a smoking gun.
you're waiting around for evidence of the phone
call from Donald Rumsfeld to Pfc. Lynndie England
-- the one where he orders the "code red," instructing
her to pile up a bunch of naked, hooded men and
strike a queen-of-the-mountain pose -- you'll
wait forever. That's not how armies function.
It ignores the realities of the chain of command,
and the cha-cha of plausible deniability.
week's report by the James Schlesinger panel offers
the closest thing we'll get to a smoking gun.
Connect the dots and it's all there: The sadism
at Abu Ghraib stemmed from "confusion." Confusion
sounds accidental -- like it just blew in off
the Atlantic -- but the report is clear this confusion
resulted from systemic failures at the highest
report faults ambiguous interrogation mandates,
an inadequate postwar plan, poor training and
a lack of oversight. It notes that much of this
confusion stemmed from the Bush administration
posture that the Geneva Conventions applied only
where the president saw fit, and that the definition
of "interrogation" was up for grabs at Guantanamo
Bay, thus possibly at Abu Ghraib.
you can put your ear right up to the horse's mouth,
where -- even before the Schlesinger report --
Rumsfeld owned the blame. "These events occurred
on my watch. As secretary of defense, I am accountable
for them, and I take full responsibility," he
told the Senate Armed Services Committee last
May. But we live in an era when such words are
intended to signify simultaneous culpability and
insistence that Rumsfeld not leave office -- because
his departure would "be a boon to all of America's
enemies" -- is a pragmatic argument. It doesn't
even pretend to be a just one.
can choose to connect these dots, or cast your
vote in November based on whether Colonel Mustard
was in a Swift boat with a lead pipe. But Abu
Ghraib can't be blamed solely on bad apples anymore.
It was the direct consequence of an administration
ready to bargain away the rule of law.
started with the suspension of basic prisoner
protections because this was a "new kind of war."
It led to the creation of a legal sinkhole on
Guantanamo. And it reached its zenith when high
officials opined torture isn't torture unless
there's some attendant organ failure.
is a sad, familiar echo behind the Abu Ghraib
prosecutions. This is precisely the approach the
administration has used throughout the so-called
terror trials here at home. Behind virtually every
prosecution of an Al Qaeda member since Sept.
11, there's been an overhyped, overcharged foot
soldier taking the fall for his invisible superiors.
the losers making up the so-called Portland Seven
to the Virginia "jihad network," all we've achieved
in our courts is a lot of pretrial chest thumping
by the Justice Department, followed by relatively
short sentences for a handful of malcontents.
ranking terrorists we do catch? They disappear
into yet more law-free zones for further interrogation.
The same intelligence-at-any-price culture that
led us to Abu Ghraib keeps the real terrorists
from being held to account.
is the beauty of an army: The little guy can always
get tagged as a proxy for the big guy. Does any
of this suffice as justice? In the terror trials,
it must: We convict low-level Al Qaeda members
as ringleaders because we can't catch (or won't
prosecute) their bosses. It's not just, but it's
satisfying. Convicting low-level American soldiers
as ringleaders to protect their bosses is neither
just nor satisfying. It's just easy.
LITHWICK is senior editor of the online magazine
Slate. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org or in
care of the New York Times op-ed department, attention:
Letters, 229 W. 43rd Street, New York City, NY,
Posted: August 30, 2004