A few bad apples

Systematic torture by regular army troops. No wonder the Bushies are so fanatical about opposing the International Criminal Court.

The New York Times, quoting Republican Senate staffers and a Human Rights Watch document, reports that, before the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, soldiers in the 82nd Airborne routinely maltreated captives at the behest of intelligence officers who wanted them “softened up,” but also merely for their own amusement. A captain who spent 17 months trying to report the abuse — including breaking a captive’s leg with a metal baseball bat — up his chain of command has finally gone to the staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Not ill-educated reservists from Appalachia: regulars, from one of the proudest units in the Army.

There’s a technical legal term covering this sort of behavior. It’s called “war crime.” If the top brass in the Pentagon didn’t know about this, it’s only because they didn’t want to know. No wonder the Bushies are so fanatical about opposing the International Criminal Court.

Here’s part of the Human Rights Watch’s account of statements made to HRW by Capt. Ian Fishback, a West Point graduate:

I witnessed violations of the Geneva Conventions that I knew were violations of the Geneva Conventions when they happened but I was under the impression that that was U.S. policy at the time. And as soon as Abu Ghraib broke and they had hearings in front of Congress, the Secretary of Defense testified that we followed the spirit of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan, and the letter of the Geneva Conventions in Iraq and as soon as he said that I knew something was wrong. So I called some of my classmates [from West Point], confirmed what I was concerned about and then on that Monday morning I approached my chain of command.

I talked to an officer in the Ranger regiment12 and his response was, he wouldn’t tell me exactly what he witnessed but he said “I witnessed things that were more intense than what you witnessed,” but it wasn’t anything that exceeded what I had heard about at SERE school.13

After that I called the chaplain at West Point who I respected a lot and I talked to him about some things and we were on the same page. Then I had said well, “I’m going to talk to my company commander and then my battalion commander on Monday.”

My company commander said, “I see how you can take it that way, but…” he said something like, “remember the honor of the unit is at stake” or something to that effect and “Don’t expect me to go to bat for you on this issue if you take this up,” something to that effect.

I went and talked to my battalion commander. Again, he clearly thinks he has done the right things and that what I am bringing attention to is within the standards and that he is okay. He didn’t dismiss me. He just said “Go talk to JAG. We’ll work this out.” It wasn’t alarming to him in any way, shape or form that these things had happened.

So I went to JAG and … he says, “Well the Geneva Conventions are a gray area.” So I mentioned some things that I had heard about and said, “Is it a violation to chain prisoners to the ground naked for the purpose of interrogations?” and he said, “That’s within the Geneva Conventions.” So I said, “Okay. That is within the Geneva Conventions.” And then there is the prisoner on the box with the wires attached to him, and to me, as long as electricity didn’t go through the wires, that was in accordance with what I would have expected US policy to be and that he wasn’t under the threat of death. And he said, “Well, that is a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions.” And I said, “Okay, but I’m looking for some kind of standard here to be able to tell what I should stop and what I should allow to happen.” And he says, “Well, we’ve had questions about that at times.”

Then he said, “There was a device that another battalion in the 82nd had come up with that you would put a prisoner in. It was uncomfortable to sit in.” And he went to test it out by sitting in it and he decided that it wasn’t torture. I hear this and I am flabbergasted that this is the standard the Army is using to determine whether or not we follow the Geneva Conventions. If I go to JAG and JAG cannot give me clear guidance about what I should stop and what I should allow to happen, how is an NCO or a private expected to act appropriately?

When I talked to [an official in the Inspector General’s office about the policy confusion on what was permitted] he says, “You obviously feel very upset about this, but—I don’t think you’re going to accomplish anything because things don’t stick to people inside the Beltway [Washington, D.C.].” He says, “I worked at the Pentagon and things don’t stick to people inside the Beltway.”

When the Secretary of the Army came [to my training], I addressed him on numerous issues, which I don’t want to go into. One of those issues was treatment of prisoners. I mentioned that I didn’t have clear guidance, and the Secretary of the Army said, “Well, we realized that that was a problem but you are a little bit behind the times. We’ve solved that matter. And I didn’t get a chance to respond to that. I should have, I should have pressed that issue a lot harder. That’s one of my regrets. Just bringing up the issue at all was stressful, but it hasn’t been resolved because there is no clear guidance. And through discussions with other officers the problem is not taken care of. It really is multiple problems. It’s two problems. One is the Army handling interrogations and the other is the relationship between OGA and prisoners and what they can and can’t do.

The Human Rights Watch report continues:

The officer also spoke with multiple experts on the U.S. military Law of Land Warfare, his peers, and his soldiers, all of whom, he said, expressed concern that the Geneva Conventions were not being applied in Iraq. He decided to bring his concerns to the Congress since he felt they were not being adequately addressed by his chain of command. Days before this report was published his brigade commander told him to stop his inquiries; his commanding officer told him that he could not leave the base to visit with staff members of Senators McCain and Warner without approval and that approval was being denied because his commanding officer felt the officer was being naïve and would do irreparable harm to his career.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com