Global Policy Forum

The Stain of Abu Ghraib


By Reed Brody

April 29, 2005

It has now been one year since the appearance of the first pictures of U.S. soldiers humiliating and torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. In the intervening months, it has become clear that Abu Ghraib was only the tip of the iceberg. Around the world, in a long archipelago of recognized detention centers from Iraq and Aghanistan to Guantánamo and in "secret locations" where CIA prisoners are kept, the United States is brutalizing Muslim detainees in the name of the war on terror.

Torture, of course, can occur anywhere. What matters--and what determines whether torture is a mere aberration or state policy--is how a government responds. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recognized this when, shortly after the first public revelations, he "[Said] to the world: Judge us by our actions. Watch how Americans, watch how a democracy deals with wrongdoing and scandal and the pain of acknowledging and correcting our own mistakes and weaknesses." Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell recognized this, too, when he told foreign leaders: "Watch America. Watch how we deal with this. Watch how America will do the right thing."

Regrettably, however, the United States is not doing the right thing. Rather, it is doing what authoritarian governments do the world over when their abuses are discovered--loudly proclaiming its respect for human rights while covering up and shifting blame downwards to low-ranking officials and "rogue actors." Ten investigations by the Pentagon have only looked down the chain of command, while prosecutions have targeted only those privates and sergeants directly involved in abuse. Just last week, the Army cleared Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the former senior U.S. commander in Iraq, of any wrongdoing. Yet just before the worst abuses at Abu Ghraib, Gen. Sanchez authorized interrogators to "exploit Arab fear of dogs." They did, and we know what happened.

Because a wall of immunity appears to surround the policy architects, Human Rights Watch has called for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the culpability of Secretary Rumsfeld and ex-CIA Director George Tenet, among others.

Secretary Rumsfeld should be investigated under the doctrine of "command responsibility"--the legal principle that holds a superior responsible for crimes committed by his subordinates when he knew or should have known that they were being committed but fails to take reasonable measures to stop them. Secretary Rumsfeld approved interrogation techniques which violated the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture, such as the use of guard dogs to frighten prisoners and painful "stress" positions. There is no evidence that, over a three-year period of mounting reports of abuse, Rumsfeld exerted his authority and warned those under his command that the mistreatment of prisoners must stop. Had he done so, many of the crimes committed by U.S. forces certainly could have been avoided.

Under George Tenet's direction--and reportedly with his specific authorization--the CIA has "rendered" detainees to countries such as Syria and Egypt where they were tortured, making Tenet potentially liable as an accomplice to torture. The CIA has also "disappeared" detainees in secret locations and it is said to have used "waterboarding," in which the detainee's head is pushed under water until he believes he will drown, also reportedly with Tenet's authorization.

Why should we care about what happens to detainees? First, because, despite the information apparently gleaned from some suspects, the systematic U.S. mistreatment of Muslim prisoners has created resentment against the United States and become a recruiting tool for jihad, thereby making the world less safe from terror. Many Americans still do not appreciate how the torture scandal has damaged the country's reputation. As the 9/11 Commission said, "allegations that the United States abused prisoners in its custody make it harder to build the diplomatic, political, and military alliances the government will need."

Second, the torture and "disappearance" of prisoners by the United States invites all the unsavory governments in the world to do the same. Indeed, countries from Sudan to Zimbabwe have already cited the torture scandal to justify their own practices or to blunt criticism.

But our concern must stem, first and foremost, from the acceptance of methods that are antithetical to a democracy and that betray the U.S. identity as a nation of law. If the United States embraces the torture and "disappearance" of its opponents, it abandons its ideals and becomes a lesser nation. If the United States is to wipe away the stain of Abu Ghraib, it needs to investigate those at the top who ordered or condoned torture and repudiate--once and for all--the mistreatment of detainees.

More Information on Empire?
More Information on US, UN and International Law


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.