When We're the Evildoers in Iraq

President Bush is again refusing to take responsibility for any of the horrors happening on his watch. This time it is the abuse of Iraqi prisoners carried out by low-ranking military police working under the direct guidance of military intelligence officers and shadowy civilian mercenaries. Our president launched this war with the promise to the Iraqi people of "no more torture chambers and rape rooms. The tyrant will soon be gone." What went wrong?

The president has called the now-exposed pattern of violence an isolated crime performed by "a few people." Yet the Pentagon's own investigation of the incident shows that not only was the entire Abu Ghraib prison out of control, it was the MPs' immediate military superiors who "directly or indirectly" authorized "sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses" of the prisoners as a way to break them in advance of formal interrogations.

"Military intelligence interrogators and other U.S. government agency interrogators actively requested that MP guards set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses," says the report. The report, completed in March and kept secret until it was revealed on the New Yorker website Friday, also stated that a civilian contractor employed by a Virginia company called CACI "clearly knew his instructions" to the MPs called for physical abuse.

Furthermore, in a statement released Friday, Amnesty International reported that in its extensive investigations into human rights in post-invasion Iraq, it "has received frequent reports of torture or other ill treatment by coalition forces during the past year," including during interrogations, and that "virtually none of the allegations of torture or ill treatment has been adequately investigated by the authorities."

Recall that a key excuse for the U.S. invasion was to ensure the safety of Iraqi scientists and others in the know so that they might feel free to reveal the location of weapons of mass destruction or evidence of Saddam Hussein's potential ties to Al Qaeda. Shockingly, some of those scientists are now in coalition prisons, even though the weapons clearly don't exist.

In this context, of course, it makes sense that U.S. interrogators would feel enormous pressure to use any means necessary to verify the absurd claims made so aggressively by the president and his Cabinet before the war. Far from the jurisdiction of the U.S. legal system, they apparently felt quite free to approve techniques clearly banned by war crimes statutes.

Yet, astonishingly, weeks after the Pentagon's own damning internal report on the torture at Abu Ghraib, and several days after CBS' "60 Minutes II" broke open the story worldwide by showing those horrific photos, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld still had not been briefed on the report, a spokesman said Sunday. Similarly, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, admitted Sunday that he hadn't yet bothered to read the 53-page report filed by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, even though he had successfully requested that CBS delay its "inflammatory" broadcast. This shows far more concern for public relations than for finding out the truth.

How could it be that the top officials responsible for the military were not themselves interested in keeping abreast of the investigation -- even after the story had exploded into a global scandal?

After all, an ambitious promise to bring democracy and the rule of law to Iraq became the ex post facto rationale for the invasion, once it became clear that the earlier claims of weapons of mass destruction and Hussein ties to Al Qaeda were a fraud.

So it should have been a clear and high priority to make certain that Iraqi prisoners incarcerated in Hussein's most infamous prison did not receive the same brand of "justice" the dictator had been doling out for decades. That they did is now a deep and dirty stain on the reputation of this nation.

Yes, it's great that we are still worlds away from being Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia or Hussein's Iraq.

We are a free society in which, it is hoped, truth eventually comes out, and thanks to what seems to be one brave whistle-blowing soldier and a responsible officer to whom he reported the torture, these crimes have come to light. Those are the acts of true heroes, and we should be proud of them.

Yet, before we go overboard in celebrating our virtues, let's admit that Americans too can be "evildoers," especially when we embrace, as the president consistently has done, the terribly dangerous idea that the ends justify the means.

The ultimate cost of a foreign policy based on blatant lies, and that equates military might with what is right, is that the brute in all of us will not inevitably lie dormant.

Robert Scheer writes this weekly column for The Los Angeles Times and is coauthor of "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq" (Seven Stories Press/Akashic Books, 2003).

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