The Wrong Direction
Published: May 14, 2004
President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld this week, it was hard to avoid the sinking feeling that they had already moved on from the Abu Ghraib prison mess and were back to their well-established practice of ignoring all bad news and marching blindly ahead as if nothing unusual had happened. That was the impression that emerged from Mr. Bush's disconnected performance on Monday, when he viewed photos and video stills of the atrocious treatment of prisoners by soldiers under his and Mr. Rumsfeld's command, and then announced that the defense secretary was doing a "superb job." It was stronger than ever yesterday, during Mr. Rumsfeld's road trip to Iraq, where he drew a curious parallel between himself and Ulysses S. Grant and announced his approach to the prison scandal: "I've stopped reading newspapers."
Mr. Rumsfeld told the soldiers that they had broad public support at home despite the Abu Ghraib scandal. That is obviously true. It is also beside the point. The proper way for Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld to show support for the troops is not to use them as a screen from the heat over the mismanagement of the military prisons. It is to fix the problem, now. The solution is real changes, not cosmetic ones like yesterday's announcement that Abu Ghraib's inmates would be moved within the prison grounds to new temporary quarters, which have been dubbed Camp Redemption.
Each passing day has made it more clear that the routine treatment of prisoners in military prisons violates international law, the Geneva Conventions and American values of due process and humane behavior. This is a terrible burden for the fine men and women serving in Iraq to bear, as they live their lives among an ever more hostile populace. Rather than assuring his uniformed audience — and the world — that the administration is moving heaven and earth to wipe out the rottenness within the prison system, the defense secretary simply urged the soldiers to ignore the politics back home.
There are things Mr. Bush can do quickly to demonstrate the American commitment to the decent treatment of Iraqi prisoners without jeopardizing the fairness of the coming trials of the soldiers charged with inexcusable actions at Abu Ghraib. The first is to drop the Camp Redemption foolishness, remove the prisoners from Abu Ghraib and raze the entire compound, a symbol of Saddam Hussein's reign of terror that has become a symbol of American brutality. Beyond that, the president should take these steps:
¶Order Mr. Rumsfeld to get military intelligence personnel out of the business of overseeing the detention and interrogation of Iraqi prisoners; an overwhelming majority of the prisoners have no intelligence value.
¶Ban private contractors from American military prisons.
¶Take all of the available trained military prison guards and send them to Iraq to relieve the exhausted troops who are doing work for which they were never prepared.
¶Order Mr. Rumsfeld to immediately issue new regulations that not only say that prisoners and detainees must be treated according to the letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions, but also ban, one by one, the harsh practices inflicted on prisoners.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld should also stop trying to dump the blame on the shoulders of America's enlisted men and women. The entire chain of command in Iraq must be part of the investigation. That includes Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander in Iraq who authorized the use of dogs during interrogations. Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who may have helped create the conditions that led to the outrages at Abu Ghraib, should be replaced as the head of the military prisons in Iraq.
Finally, Mr. Bush and his Republican allies in Congress should stop trying to evade responsibility by accusing those who want to ask tough questions of being disloyal to the troops and the war effort.