New story on Abu Ghraib (Worth reading)

Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker has a new story on how the entire Abu Ghraib incident came to pass. The story relies a great deal on background sources, so it’s got to be read carefully with a skeptical eye – but it smells more or less right to me.

The Pentagon is trying to deny it, but I’m not convinced that this story reflects all that poorly. In essence, it says: A covert program was running to find, capture and kill very high-value al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Afghanistan and elsewhere. (bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, Mohammed Omar, etc.) The project seems to have been populated with excellent people, and given essentially free rein as far as techniques – but it was kept very small, and the only people put on it were people that could be trusted to do the right thing.

I’ve met some people like this before. I do believe that there are people that you could trust with this sort of thing, that they were in fact found, and that such a program was a perfectly reasonable solution – and that such could and ought to be continued, in just as covert a manner. It does not need to be brought up for analysis at this time, since that could jeopardize a legitimate and important task. (In the future, it should be – as all black programs should be, IMO. Otherwise black programs have no eye on them to make sure they don’t go crazy. But there’s no reason for that right now)

The indication of Hersh’s story is that a serious mistake was made later on (and points the finger specifically at Under-Sec’y for Intel Stephen Cambrone, and to a significantly lesser extent, at Rumsfeld; I have no idea how accurate this attribution actually is) the mistake was to expand this program into a traditional war zone like Iraq, and most of all, to pull in ordinary military intelligence people and ultimately reservist prison guards in, and give them the same effective free reign as was given to much more expert people before.

This smells about right to me. It also is an overall good sign – it suggests that the problems really were somewhat more localized than the worst initial estimates. I’d still say that the list of people so far named for courts-martial is a pretty good list of people to courts-martial in this regard, and it further dropped my estimation of Gen. Karpinski (the base CO) for somehow not noticing or deciding it wasn’t her place to be alert to things happening under her watch. Even if she was very far out of the loop (and I have no doubt that a reservist general was) that’s still no excuse for ignoring one’s command.

But it indirectly raises quite a few questions about just what is going on at Guantanamo, whether the people who are being held indefinitely and interrogated (using very harsh measures, I don’t doubt) are people that there’s any reason to be holding like that, and if there’s any plan to ever release them. I suspect that the answers to these questions will on the balance be much worse of a black mark than what happened at Abu Ghraib.

Key lesson from this: There are some very ugly things that are sometimes necessary. When those things have to be done – and sometimes they have to – it’s not something that can be delegated to just anyone. It requires people who are not only supremely competent at their work, but have the maturity for moral introspection, and the ability to thereby control their own impulses even when doing such things. Not a job to farm out to random schmucks.

Anyway – a very interesting read, both for the main story and for the incidental glimpses it gives into many of our operations and the people behind them. Whether or not you agree with my opinions on the matter. 🙂

Published in: on May 16, 2004 at 02:30  Comments (12)  
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  1. I think there’s a fair argument to make that once you start saying things like “well, we’re only going to allow the right kind of people to do it — you know, people who will use it appropriately” it’s pretty much inevitable that some rotten son-of-a-bitch will be terrorizing people under your authority.

  2. What do you think about the Nick Berg thing?

  3. OTOH, there are times when you need to use a lot of force – when hunting down top-level terrorists, for example. I’m not convinced that there’s a method of doing this that doesn’t involve using this level of nastiness. (If there is, that’s a different matter – but I don’t know of one) Given that, I think the best compromise is to only put a handful of people on it, and make sure that they’re people with enough maturity and a strong enough moral compass that they can do this, at least for a period of time, without becoming monsters.
    I agree that this isn’t going to always work, and sometimes you will get a rotten son of a bitch. But if the team has a critical mass of good, stable people on it, that’ll keep the SOB under some amount of control, and give you the warning to rotate that person out and into some less sensitive detail before they go out of control.

  4. What about it?

  5. There seems to be quite a lot of suspicion about it, curious what you think.
    See here including the links from that post and all the comments on it for more information.

  6. as a pacifist, i have a fundamental objection to your central theme of ‘ugly things’ and force being a necessity (in the strictest sense of the word).
    apart from that, this piece (and a related article on bbc) gets me thinking about justice, and humanity, and the necessity of pursuing resolution once something like this is revealed, if only to allow the rest of us to retain (or be reassured of) our own humanity.

  7. My favorite comment there was “those clearly aren’t Arabs.” What the fuck kind of sense does that make? If the CIA was, for whatever demented reason, going to cut a guy’s head off and blame it on Arabs, why wouldn’t they just have their Arab assets do it? It’s not like they don’t have any.

  8. Well, they’re a lot taller than most Arabs, and a lot thicker. Especially considering that the guy our intel is claiming killed Berg is someone who actually has only one leg.

  9. I got the impression that the “thickness” probably resulted from the bulky clothes they were wearing, but also these things are very difficult to gauge accurately. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if a bunch of athletic young men were taller and more muscular than a general sample of the population.
    Put it another way: I have pretty much no trust in anyone’s ability to identify a person’s race or ethnic background by looking at a blurry videotape of him with a mask on. In addition, I can’t envision a set of circumstances in which the killers would be Caucasians or Africans, you know? I mean, even if some US agency did the killing, the triggermen would still be Arabs. That’s how we roll.

  10. Hmm… I’d say this is a serious contender for this year’s Tinfoil Hat Award.
    I don’t really follow the argument that this is a forgery. Because the men doing the decapitating are big? I’ve met Arabs in any number of sizes. White hands are pretty meaningless, too; as far as I can tell, the only reason Israelis and Arabs can really tell one another apart (Mediterranean Israelis, that is, not Russians or Ethiopians or etc.) is by having lived in the same area for long enough.
    Orange jumpsuits are pretty generic items. You can buy them in stores. Prison-style jumpsuits aren’t particularly hard to get, and if you’re trying to intentionally draw comparisons between your prisoner and American prisoners, it makes some sort of sense. Or you just might have one on hand and use it for that. (I mean, hell, I know people who have NBC suits on hand, which is really a bit stranger…)
    Voicing and tape irregularities, ditto. So they filmed part 1, put away the camera, and came back later to finish the job; that’s actually fairly normal in cases like these. And voice irregularities are easily what would happen if someone were nervous, or at a weird angle, or the mic was a bit flaky…
    But the real thing is, I can’t see any good reason for the CIA (or whoever) to kill this guy. You’re not going to convince me that the CIA would stage a bloody execution of an American civilian for no other reason than to distract the public from a Congressional investigation. It would not only be stupid, but I’m pretty sure the idea would be deeply morally offensive to pretty much everyone there. I’ve met intel people; they’re not strange, evil characters plotting murder and torture. They tend to be overall fairly well-balanced, and have a tough job.
    Besides, the American public has the attention span of a drugged goldfish for anything not involving the sort of sex you can talk about on TV. Do you really think any fancy distraction is necessary?
    So short answer, I think the video is pretty much what it looks like. Our administration is run by a bunch of bastards, but that doesn’t mean that al Qaeda is actually any less villainous than they’ve been painted to be.

  11. On the second paragraph, I quite agree, and that’s much of what I liked about these articles.
    On the former, I suspect we could have a long and interesting conversation on this subject…

  12. It’s hard to even tell “Caucasian” from “Arab” on a blurry tape. (And consider that the latter is a subtype of the former)
    And as far as size averages for races, I’d just like to point out that the tallest person in the NBA at the moment is from Shanghai. 🙂

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