As New Afghanistan Commander Sails Toward Confirmation, Key Torture Questions Go Unasked
General Stanley McChrystal, the media darling/special ops ogre of the Bush era is no stranger to movement. During his yearlong fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations in 2000, he would rise at the crack of dawn every morning to run 12 miles from his home in Brooklyn to his office in Manhattan. Before that job, he bounced from West Point to Fort Bragg to South Korea to Saudi Arabia, building his military credentials and sharpening an intellect so intense, colleagues dubbed him "scary smart." As he prepares to dart out of the special ops shadows and into the boots of Gen. David McKiernan, the recently fired head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, it's worth listening for the rattle of skeletons McChrystal will be dragging behind him.
First up is the issue of torture. McChrystal has been linked to an operation called the Terrorist Screen Center (TSC), which was located at Camp Nama in Iraq. The institution was one of several Saddam-era torture centers converted into U.S. "interrogation facilities" by special ops forces under the general's command. A 2006 Human Rights Watch report documents extensive prisoner abuses at Nama, including sleep deprivation, the use of extreme heat and cold, sexual humiliation and simulated drowning. One soldier quoted in the report describes the torture of a detainee believed to be an Al-Qaeda financier:
He was stripped naked, put in the mud and sprayed with the hose, with very cold hoses, in February. At night it was very cold. They sprayed the cold hose and he was completely naked in the mud, you know, and everything. [Then] he was taken out of the mud and put next to an air conditioner. It was extremely cold, freezing, and he was put back in the mud and sprayed.
This happened all night. Everybody knew about it. People walked in, the sergeant major and so forth, everybody knew what was going on, and I was just one of them, kind of walking back and forth seeing [that] this is how they do things.
Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, McChrystal was vague about his stance on prisoner abuse. Though he initially said, "I do not, and never have condoned mistreatment of detainees, and never will," he added later that he was pleased with the interrogations he had witnessed. "The constant improvement took us from what I believe was acceptable and legal to something I became much more proud of over time in terms of the operation," he said.
Additionally, McChrystal's assertion that he "stayed within the legal framework" of detainee treatment "as it improved" is tangled in its own set of peculiarities: The framework of which he spoke -- authorized by none other than Donald Rumsfeld -- is likely the same template of state-sponsored torture handed down by the Bush Administration during that time. Though McChrystal said he punished soldiers guilty of mistreatment "if the fact was substantiated," the set of laws against which he measured his actions were not, as he said, improving; they were becoming more brutal.
Finally, there's evidence to suggest that McChrystal knowingly violated international law. In an article published in the August 2006 issue of Esquire, the same soldier interviewed in the 2006 Human Rights Watch report points out that McChrystal denied Red Cross workers access to prisoners at Nama -- a violation of Geneva provisions.
"Once, somebody brought it up with the colonel. 'Will they ever be allowed in here?' And he said absolutely not. He had this directly from General McChrystal and the Pentagon that there's no way that the Red Cross could get in -- they won't have access and they never will. This facility was completely closed off to anybody investigating, even Army investigators."
The Pentagon eventually disciplined 34 American soldiers for their actions at sites like Nama. But after 70 percent of the computer records necessary to carry out other litigation were "lost," many cases had to be dropped.
The Pat Tillman Case: "I would do this differently if I had the chance"
The second skeleton, completely overlooked in Tuesday's confirmation hearing, involves assassination legacies. The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), led by McChrystal, contained within it a distinctive assassination unit that reported directly to Dick Cheney. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, this unit was responsible for the elimination of "high value" targets in a dozen countries. The day after McChrystal's appointment was announced, Hersh explained to Gulf News Cheney's method of rationalizing the killings. "In Cheney's view this isn't murder, but carrying out the "war on terror," " Hersh said. "And in the view of me and my friends, including people in government, this is crazy. The vice president is committing a crime. You can't authorize the murder of people."
"The former head of JSOC has just been named the new commander in charge of the war in Afghanistan, which is very interesting to me," Hersh added.
Unsurprisingly, George W. Bush told the Washington Post in 2008 that JSOC "is awesome."
As if that all weren't enough, McChrystal was responsible for mischaracterizing the death of Pat Tillman -- the Arizona Cardinal cum Army Ranger who died at the hands of fellow U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan in 2004. Just after writing a Silver Star citation for Tillman, who McChrystal claimed died "in the line of devastating enemy fire," McChrystal sent a secret memo to top generals in which he indicated the chances of Tillman's death by fratricide were high. In the memo, McChrystal warned of "public embarrassment" if the president publicly honored Tillman as a hero slain by enemy forces.
Tillman's father Pat Tillman Sr. recently criticized McChrystal for the mishandling of his son's death. "I do believe that guy participated in a falsified homicide investigation," Tillman told AP on May 12. Mary Tillman has also said it is "imperative" that McChrystal be rigorously questioned before his formal appointment.
In Tuesday's hearing, McChrystal apologized to the Tillman family for "confusion" surrounding the death of their son. "I'm very sorry for that," he said.
"I would do this differently if I had the chance again," he added later.
Occurring just days after President Obama vowed to block the release of Abu Ghraib rape photos he called "not particularly sensational," the confirmation of Stanley McChrystal represents the latest installment in a disappointing jumble of Bush-era policy inheritances. The brutalities that transpired under McChrystal's watch must be accounted for. If Obama refuses to acknowledge McChrystal's skeletons, they will end up in his closet.