Sunday, May 16, 2004

Somebody's going to jail

Seymour Hersh's latest instalment in the New Yorker is earth-shattering:

The roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists but in a decision, approved last year by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to expand a highly secret operation, which had been focussed on the hunt for Al Qaeda, to the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq. Rumsfeld’s decision embittered the American intelligence community, damaged the effectiveness of √©lite combat units, and hurt America’s prospects in the war on terror.

According to interviews with several past and present American intelligence officials, the Pentagon’s operation, known inside the intelligence community by several code words, including Copper Green, encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in an effort to generate more intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq. A senior C.I.A. official, in confirming the details of this account last week, said that the operation stemmed from Rumsfeld’s long-standing desire to wrest control of America’s clandestine and paramilitary operations from the C.I.A.

The short version: After September 11th, Donald Rumsfeld established a secret operation to kill, capture, and interrogate "high value" Al-Qaeda targets, with blanket permission to do whatever they thought was necessary. This included torture and sexual abuse - whatever would get people to talk. Later, when the insurgency in Iraq was going badly and US forces were floundering in the dark without any idea of who they were fighting, the project was expanded into detention facilities there. In order to cope with the number of detainees, Military Intelligence interrogators were bought into the loop - and there it started to go wrong. The overworked interrogators got the prison guards to help them (how else to explain these photos of Military Intelligence staff and MPs cooperating in abusing prisoners?) - and things spiralled out of control. It's unclear whether all the abuse was at the behest of interrogators, or whether some of it was done for recreational purposes by sadistic guards (describe as "recycled hillbillies" by one of Hersh's sources), but either way the techniques originally approved for use against terrorist masterminds were being applied to "cabdrivers, brothers-in-law, and people pulled off the streets". Then, when people who weren't supposed to know found out - people like the MP's superiors, and General Taguba - an investigation was started and the whole thing hit the media.

Hersh's sources are quite clear on where ultimate responsibility lies: with Stephen Cambone, the deputy under-secretary for intelligence. He had direct oversight of the program, and approved its expansion. Donald Rumsfeld and General Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are also in the gun, for approving it and "[creating] the conditions that allowed transgressions to take place". Command responsibility goes all the way to the top.

What's interesting is that people have come forward. Violating secrecy and leaking the details of a classified program to the media is a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment. Even knowing about this when you are not supposed to results in the cancellation of security clearances. Yet senior figures in the Pentagon and intelligence community have come forward to talk about it. I guess the stakes have simply got too high. This is bigger than Iran-Contra - someone is going to carry the can for it in the end, and people are desperately trying to make sure that it's not them. And they're doing it by leaking and pointing the finger in advance.

But the worst bit is that it hasn't stopped. According to one of Hersh's sources:

“The black guys”—those in the Pentagon’s secret program—“say we’ve got to accept the prosecution. They’re vaccinated from the reality.” The [program] is still active, and “the United States is picking up guys for interrogation. The question is, how do they protect the quick-reaction force without blowing its cover?”

Not "why are we torturing people", not "how do we stamp out this practice", but "how do we cover our arse and keep doing this." Well, now the program's cover is well and truly blown, and there will be a shitstorm of epic proportions. Media coverage, investigations, congressional hearings, indictments and prosecutions. This will drag on for months, years even. But at the end of it all, hopefully, somebody will be going to jail.