The Buck Stops with Lynndie

Boston Globe

Lynndie England is convicted. Donald Rumsfeld cackles. England, the 22-year-old private, was found guilty as prosecutors convinced an all-male Army jury that she bore full responsibility for ”her own sick humor” in the infamous photographs of her at Abu Ghraib holding a naked prisoner on a leash and smiling as she pointed at a prisoner’s genitals.

Defense lawyers depicted England as a depressed reservist, a mere file clerk who was compliant to authority and easy to manipulate. The defense failed as a prosecuting lawyer stained England for life with, ”What soldier wouldn’t know that’s illegal?”

Off in much higher, more stainproof places, Rumsfeld behaved as if he were carving President Bush into Mt. Rushmore. Last week, he serenaded the press about how some of America’s greatest moments were originally considered failure or folly.

”Today, history records the brilliance of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address,” Rumsfeld said. ”The Marshall Plan helped Europe recover. And Ronald Reagan’s tough line at Reykjavik — according to the Soviets, anyway — was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. In thinking about Afghanistan and Iraq, we should ask what history will say. . . . it will show . . . that America was on freedom’s side, and it will remember the millions of people who have been freed and the hundreds of thousands of coalition forces who helped achieve that freedom.”

You would never know this was the Rumsfeld who said last year about Abu Ghraib, ”These events occurred on my watch. As secretary of defense, I am accountable for them, and I take full responsibility.”

The truth lay in the reaction to England’s conviction by Richard Myers, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He called it ”one more example of holding people accountable, because that’s who did it.” He said, ”We had a problem, and we dealt with the problem and dealt with it in an appropriate way.”

A problem? When Abu Ghraib exploded into worldwide view last year, Bush said the prison practices ”represent the actions of a few people. . . . it’s important for people to understand that in a democracy that there will be a full investigation.” Since then, the number of punishments handed out to lower-rung soldiers in prisoner abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan has reached 230. The number of inquiries has passed 400. Bush has blocked any calls for a full, independent investigation.

Just last week came the news that Army Captain Ian Fishback and two sergeants from the 82d Airborne Division wrote ranking members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and told Human Rights Watch that they witnessed torture of prisoners near Fallujah, Iraq, in 2003 and early 2004, with some of the same tactics depicted in the Abu Ghraib photos.

In a letter to Senator John McCain, Fishback said he repeatedly asked superior officers for guidance on handling detainees but ”despite my efforts, I have been unable to get clear, consistent answers from my leadership. . . . I am certain that this confusion contributed to a wide range of abuses including death threats, beatings, broken bones, murder, exposure to elements, extreme forced physical exertion, hostage-taking, stripping, sleep deprivation, and degrading treatment.”

The ”confusion” started at the top, where then-White House counsel and now-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales wrote the torture memo suggesting that the United States need not follow international prisoner treatment laws. It continued with Rumsfeld, who approved overly aggressive tactics at Guantanamo Bay that were quickly adopted in Afghanistan and Iraq. It continued with Major General Geoffrey Miller, who imported abusive tactics at Guantanamo Bay over to Abu Ghraib. It continued with former Iraq commander Ricardo Sanchez, who moved too slow on reports of abuse.

It is obvious that the administration wants the ”confusion” to continue. Embarrassed by the continuing stench over detainee abuse, McCain, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John Warner, and committee member Lindsey Graham, all Republicans, proposed an amendment to the $491 billion defense bill that would standardize treatment under the rules of the Army Field Manual. Detainees would also be registered with the Red Cross to prevent ”ghost” prisoners. But Vice President Dick Cheney has been lobbying to kill the amendment.

The same Myers who says ”a problem” was dealt with was in federal court last month fighting the release of other photos of degrading treatment of Abu Ghraib prisoners. Myers said if the photos were released, ”riots, violence and attacks by insurgents will result.” Of course, the more the White House stonewalls, the more explosive the truth will be.

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