Back to website

How Much Did They Know?


It was a desperate attempt to shield his boss from the devastating fallout from the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison. “Let me be clear,” defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Friday. “I failed to recognise how important it was to elevate a matter of such gravity to the highest levels, including the President and the members of Congress.

“I wish we had known more sooner and been able to tell you more sooner, but we didn’t.”

But the question of who knew what – and when – is far more complicated and potentially far more damaging than Rumsfeld’s version of events suggests.

Even before the war against Iraq, the US had been told by Amnesty International of the abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan. Reports have been delivered from the Red Cross to coalition leaders almost every month since the official end of hostilities detailing similar abuses. Another Amnesty report making those same points was handed to Paul Bremer, the US ambassador heading the coalition provisional authority in Iraq, back in June 2003.

The Ministry of Defence in London also received Amnesty reports on abuse in the months immediately after the war.

The Rumsfeld version of events would have us believe that none of these complaints got to Bush before he briefed him on January 16 ... and even then the defence secretary “never gave the President a briefing with the impact that one would have had, had you seen the photographs or the videos”. Bush himself is insistent that the “first time I saw or heard about pictures,” was on TV.

The extent of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s knowledge is equally hazy. The MoD insists that the US report into the abuses in January was not officially sent to it but confirms he was aware of the contents. A spokesman told the Sunday Herald “it would have been logical” that the MoD would have seen the previous reports by Amnesty and the Red Cross. It’s not clear when Blair was made aware of the impending crisis, although he certainly did not refer to it publicly until the first, awful pictures from Abu Ghraib prison were in the public realm.

Those pictures and the ones that followed last week have holed President Bush’s ship of state, but so far the destruction is all above the waterline, according to sources close to the administration yesterday. Rumsfeld narrowly escaped calls for his dismissal by making a ritual apology for the disgrace brought on the US forces after the unacceptable behaviour of its soldiers in Iraq.

Before facing six hours of mainly hostile questioning from members of the Senate and House armed forces committees, who were clearly incensed not just by the photographs but also by the Pentagon’s prior knowledge of the systematic abuse of Iraqi prisoners, Rumsfeld got his retaliation in first by toeing the party line of sack cloth and ashes. For the combative defence secretary, it cannot have been a comfortable moment. He was the man who led the US into the war and, Iraq and the chain of command being what they are, the buck stops with him. As he admitted: “These events occurred on my watch. As secretary of defence, I am accountable for them.”

Although Rumsfeld has accepted that the question of his resignation or retirement from public life is still “possible” his denials might become academic if further images of serious maltreatment are revealed. During his testimony, Rumsfeld conceded that the worst might be yet to come. After the hearings Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican, South Carolina) told reporters that there were even more shocking photographs and videos which would make the Abu Ghraib images look tame. Graham said: “The American public needs to understand we’re talking about rape and murder here. We’re not just talking about giving people a humiliating experience.”

According to Pentagon sources, videotapes are believed to exist showing rape and the abuse of corpses of what are possibly murder victims; these form part of the evidence for an official investigation which is still continuing.

In an attempt to limit the damage, administration officials have denied that this is a My Lai moment – a reference to the infamous massacre of 374 Vietnamese villagers in March 1968 which was a defining moment in the Vietnam war – but there is no denying the harm that has already been done.

In that far-off anonymous prison compound what did die perhaps was something more damaging for the US coalition – the myth of their moral superiority in waging the war against Iraq. The sickening photographs were on public display night and day throughout last week in New York’s busy Times Square and they sent an appalling message to the American people. A week ago, while launching his bid for a second term in office, Bush told supporters at a rally in Michigan that things could only get better in Iraq without Saddam Hussein: “The world is better off because he sits in a prison cell. Because we acted, torture rooms are closed.”

At the end of the week those words came back to haunt him when he was forced to apologise, his act of contrition coming 24 hours after he had signally failed to say sorry during a televised broadcast to the Arab world. The White House’s counter-claims centred on the idea that the Abu Ghraib photographs were an aberration and atypical of the way that US soldiers were taught to behave. The president claimed the treatment meted out by the prison guards did not “reflect the nature of the American people”. The message was that those responsible would be punished and that the people of Iraq have nothing to fear from the US military.

In pursuit of that aim the US army’s senior legal officer Major-General Donald Ryder is leading the investigation into the deaths of 25 prisoners held in US custody in Afghanistan and Iraq since the end of 2002. Of those deaths, three have already been found to be murders committed by service personnel and one has been ruled as justifiable homicide. A further death involving a civilian guard contracted by the CIA has been handed over to the US attorney general John Ashcroft. Military sources say that a further 10 cases are still under investigation and human rights lawyers are putting pressure on the Pentagon to speed up the process. As a result of the revelations from Abu Ghraib six military prison guards have been arrested and seven officers have been subjected to what the Pentagon calls “career terminating reprimands”.

The failure to respond to the repeated warnings from Amnesty and the Red Cross was one reason for Rumsfeld’s appearance before the congressional committees. First he failed to act on the intelligence before the photographs damaged the US position. Secondly – and this failing goes to the heart of the matter – he did not act quickly and decisively to end the practices and to punish the guards involved. There is another factor which might have encouraged soldiers and guards to believe that they were immune from prosecution if they abused prisoners: in January 2002, Rumsfeld said that the Guantanamo Bay detainees had “no rights” under the Geneva Convention.

Calling the situation “disheartening”, Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at Washington’s highly-respected Brookings Institution think-tank, turned his guns on a politician whom he had previously admired: “We now have the United States appearing indifferent to the well-being of Muslims, and providing the world ample unforgettable visual imagery to document it. The damage will, as an administration official put it this week, endure a generation.”

O’Hanlon continued his argument in the popular Newsday journal by reflecting on a recent statement by Rumsfeld that the war against terrorism was going awry because the terrorist groups were attracting recruits faster than the US could deal with them. The inference was clear: the photographs from Abu Ghraib will be a better recruiting sergeant than any other financial or religious inducement. For Rumsfeld, the publication of the photographs is an own-goal and one which plays straight into the hands of enemies of the US, “largely because of the actions of a few bad apples in his own military, which he had long had reason to know about yet failed to address”.

For the Arab world, the photographs have been both disgusting and degrading – the use of female underwear as a mask, the sexual innuendo bordering on pornography and the ritualistic humiliation – and inevitably the widespread disquiet has damaged the US cause. At the end of hostilities last year, human rights activists warned US senior commanders that the occupying forces had to be mindful of the terms of the 1949 Geneva Convention, not only because its protocols protected those in custody but by implementing the rules the soldiers would persuade the Iraqi people that they had nothing to fear. Now the evidence points to the opposite and, as a senior US diplomatic source told the Sunday Herald, the US will suffer: “These pictures have gone round the world and can’t be deleted. They will inflame Arab opinion, they will make the Iraqis even more suspicious, they will upset our friends and allies and even worse perhaps, they will trouble our own people who have every right to believe that American soldiers should be above suspicion.”

The maltreatment of prisoners is not the only criticism that Rumsfeld is facing in Washington. As the situation on the ground in Iraq continues to worsen with the rebel S hiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr defying US forces in Najaf, Rumsfeld is taking the blame for failing to provide the necessary mix of forces for the country’s occupation. Critics concede that last April’s military operations using scaled down forces was brilliantly executed and that credit must go to Rumsfeld, but they are also uneasily aware that the aftermath has been badly handled.

The so-called “lite army” which won the war had insufficient numbers and equipment to manage the occupation and a huge tactical mistake was made when Rumsfeld ordered the dismantling of the Iraqi army and the internal security forces. Faced by a population which was either indifferent or downright hostile the US ground forces have had to accept high numbers of casualties and have faced humiliating setbacks such as the recent failure to pacify the city of Fallujah. So far the death rate amongst soldiers has not had a political effect in that most Americans find the numbers acceptable, given the task in hand. However all that could change with the revelation of the widespread and seemingly acceptable abuse of prisoners. As the President said, one good reason for going to war was to close Saddam’s torture chambers. If there are worse revelations to come – and there is every indication that there are – upright Americans might have to admit that they have simply been reopened, courtesy of the US army and the previously untouchable defence secretary.

09 May 2004