By Howard Kurtz Washington Post Staff Writer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2004; 10:29 AM
Has the prisoner abuse scandal peaked?
In purely journalistic terms, the answer would be no. Reporters continue to dig up new information on the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees. Memos and documents have made clear that some of these interrogation tactics have been, if not approved, at least winked at by senior administration officials. Several military investigations are proceeding.
But has the shock worn off? Is this still a front-burner issue for the American people? Or has it become just another mildly disturbing scandal, mere background noise in the roar of an election season?
Or -- and these are not mutually exclusive -- maybe the subject is so painful, and so obviously damaging to American interests, that many folks no longer want to think about it. That they want the matter to just go away, for someone to issue a report and be done with it so we can all move on. That it seems less important at a time when terrorists are kidnapping and decapitating Americans. (Though imagine how we'd react if U.S. detainees were being abused like those at Abu Ghraib).
I started thinking about this after Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum wrote that it was easy to "connect the dots: They lead from the White House to the Pentagon to Abu Ghraib, and from Abu Ghraib back to military intelligence and thus to the Pentagon and the White House. . . . But who will fill in the blanks? Here is the tragedy: Despite the easy availability of evidence, almost nobody has an interest in pushing the investigation as far as it should go."
Applebaum, who writes about earlier Washington Post coverage of Justice Department memo that may have justified the use of torture, cites the White House, Congress and the Pentagon as those who want the whole shebang to vanish. The media may keep pushing the story, but you can't force people to pay attention.
Don Rumsfeld took vigorous exception to the T-word at a briefing yesterday:
"Let me just say this: I have read these editorials 'Torture.' And one after another -- The Washington Post the other day, I forget when it was, just a great, bold torture. The implication -- think of the people who read that around the world. First of all, our forces read it. And the implication is that the United States government has, in one way or another, ordered, authorized, permitted, tolerated, torture. Not true. And our forces read that. And they've got to wonder, 'Do we?' . . . Now, we know that people have done some things they shouldn't do. Anyone who looks at those photographs know that. But that's quite a different thing. And that is not the implication that's out there. The implication that's out there is the United States government is engaging in torture as a matter of policy. And that's not true."
Andrew Sullivan begins by quoting a Post editorial:
" 'In December 2002, Mr. Rumsfeld approved a series of harsh questioning methods for use at the Guantanamo Bay base. According to the Wall Street Journal, these included the removal of clothing, the use of "stress positions," hooding, 'fear of dogs,' and 'mild non-injurious physical contact.' Even before that, the Journal reported, interrogators at Guantanamo forced prisoners to wear women's underwear on their heads. A year later, when some of the same treatment was publicized through the Abu Ghraib photographs, Mr. Rumsfeld described it as 'grievous and brutal abuse and cruelty.'
"So what is it? Defensible interrogation techniques or something for which the Defense secretary has to apologize? Maybe it took seeing the actual abuse for Rumsfeld to realize how vile it is. But he approved many of the methods nonetheless. If people see nothing wrong with doing what was done at Abu Ghraib, then we need to have that debate. And that debate should be public, in front of the world.
"If the Bush administration wants to defend torture in an election campaign, it can go right ahead. But it has no right to change the rules of U.S. military conduct in secret, through a series of memos and improvisation, and then, when the evidence emerges, pretend it was all concocted by a handful of thugs. . . .
"I keep remembering . . . the look on the faces of those creeps humiliating inmates, and the grin on the face of [prison guard Charles] Graner as he posed next to a murdered inmate. They are the faces of people who know they are doing what they are supposed to do. They fear no retribution. 37 inmates have died -- died -- in U.S. custody. Do we think they all caught pneumonia? Mercifully, some in the military upheld their own honor and disseminated the pictures. But what would have happened if we had not seen those pictures? Would torture still be going on? How would we have found out?
"This comes down to a fundamental compact between a government and the people. From all the evidence we see so far, the Bush administration has violated that compact, allowed America's hard-won reputation for decency and fairness to be tarnished, and compromised the moral integrity of the war on terror. What is their explanation?"
In related Rummy news, the Wall Street Journal reports:
"Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld defended his decision to hold a prisoner incommunicado in Iraq last year, taking pains yesterday to separate the incident from the unfolding detainee abuse scandal involving U.S. soldiers.
"Mr. Rumsfeld said he made his decision to hold a suspected combatant out of the sight of international monitors when he was asked to do so last October by George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He suggested, without elaborating, that concealing detainees from Red Cross monitors is done from time to time, despite international conventions that forbid it. 'There are instances where that occurs,' Mr. Rumsfeld said."
Therefore it's okay?
Rummy wasn't the only administration official issuing denials yesterday, as the Los Angeles Times reports:
"One day after the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks reported it could find 'no credible evidence' of cooperation between Iraq and Al Qaeda in targeting the United States, President Bush today held to his repeated declarations that the two were connected.
" 'The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and Al Qaeda, because there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda,' the president said.
"The report by the bipartisan panel undercut one of the primary reasons Bush has given for launching the war against Iraq that drove Saddam Hussein from power 14 months ago. The findings appeared to be the most complete and authoritative dismissal of Bush's repeated assertion."
The New York Times takes a similar tack:
"For most of 2002, President Bush argued that a commission created to look into the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks would only distract from the post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism.
"Now, in 17 preliminary staff reports, that panel has called into question nearly every aspect of the administration's response to terror, including the idea that Iraq and Al Qaeda were somehow the same foe.
"Far from a bolt from the blue, the commission has demonstrated over the last 19 months that the Sept. 11 attacks were foreseen, at least in general terms, and might well have been prevented, had it not been for misjudgments, mistakes and glitches, some within the White House."
Heads up! Dick Cheney goes negative on the NYT in an interview with CNBC's "Capital Report":
"What The New York Times did today was outrageous. They do a lot of outrageous things but the headline, 'Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie.' The press wants to run out and say there's a fundamental split here now between what the president said and what the commission said."
It's an interesting tack, because I've double-checked and the LAT, WP and USAT all had similar headlines. But Cheney insists the press doesn't make clear that the commission was only talking about the 9/11 attacks: "I've watched a lot of the coverage on it and the fact of the matter is they don't make a distinction. They fuzz it up. Sometimes it's through ignorance. Sometimes it's malicious. . . . The fact of the matter is, the evidence is overwhelming. The press is, with all due respect, and there are exceptions, [is] oftentimes lazy, oftentimes simply reports what somebody else in the press said without doing their homework."
Sounds like an exposed nerve has been touched.
OpinionJournal's James Taranto says the press is missing the other torture story:
"The American Enterprise Institute held an unusual video screening Wednesday, and hardly anyone showed up. One who did was the New York Post's Deborah Orin:
" 'The video only lasts four minutes or so -- gruesome scenes of torture from the days when Saddam Hussein's thugs ruled Abu Ghraib prison. I couldn't bear to watch, so I walked out until it was over.' . . .
"We saw part of this video a few weeks back, and indeed it is every bit as horrific as Orin's fellow reporters describe. Our computer crashed about a third of the way through and we didn't have the stomach to start watching again after rebooting. So we can certainly understand why television news outlets would see it as unfit to air.
"As Orin notes, this 'raises a very complex problem in the War on Terror. It's worse than creating moral equivalence between Saddam's tortures and prisoner abuse by U.S. troops. It's that we do far more to highlight our own wrongdoings precisely because they are less appalling.'"
This is what the veepstakes coverage has come to:
"The Note has caused me to interrupt my vacation to weigh in with a nugget of news on Kerry's veep selection process," complains Ryan Lizza of The New Republic.
"Halperin, et. al. report: 'Kerry has told associates that he views the vice presidency as an extremely important institution and wants a person of heft to fill it. Many prominent Democrats agree, that that's why they're floating names like Sam Nunn and William Cohen. Cohen's office has formally declined to say whether he's being vetted, although an assistant to the former defense secretary said she had not heard anything about the process. . . .
" 'Is Kerry actively considering a Nunn, a Cohen, his good friend/potential Secretary of State Joe Biden or others? We can't say for sure, and we really don't think anyone can, at this point.'
"A source close to Cohen says the ex-defense secretary is not being vetted by the Kerry campaign. At this late point in the process, if Cohen's not being vetted, he's not on Kerry's shortlist. And for what it's worth, the Democratic rumor mill is awash with chatter that the vetting process for all the potential candidates is basically over, which, if true, could mean that Kerry is very close to a decision.
"OK, back to vacation. See you after the 4th.
"[Note to web editor: If Cohen gets picked as Kerry's veep while I'm away, please erase all evidence of this item.]"
How many times do I wish I could have done that?
The Note also has this to say: "Influential Democrats, including many key Senators and party operatives, are fans of John Edwards, and an insistent chorus of 'you must choose John, John' has certainly pierced the walls of that swanky inner chamber of his campaign plane.
"The Kerry campaign has used Edwards so effectively as a surrogate that they may have boxed themselves into the corner of having to explain to the Democratic world why they DIDN'T choose him after all."
Now we come to the latest the latest question being batted around the blogosphere: Has Andrew bailed on Bush?
"I read Andrew Sullivan's site fairly regularly, as do lots of people I know," says National Review's Jonah Goldberg. " . . . I respect Andrew, consider him a friend and I respect his influence which is an objective fact regardless of my personal attitudes. . . .
"Whatever his motivations, no one who reads his stuff can deny that he's moved increasingly into the anti-Bush camp, often for reasons that don't seem powerful or at least persuasive enough to match his pro-Bush conviction from, say, this time last year.
"But I must say I was surprised to discover this link from the gay magazine The Advocate. It seems that Andrew had been unequivocal about his opinions on Bush in that publication but not in his blog. In his advocate essay he writes:
" 'But it's time to say something very clearly: Bush's endorsement of antigay discrimination in the U.S. Constitution itself is a deal-breaker. I can't endorse him this fall. Like many other gay men and women who have supported him, despite serious disagreements, I feel betrayed, abused, attacked.' . . .
"Now I disagree with much (but not all) of what Andrew says in his essay. But it's an honest and decent position. Still what baffles me is why, to my knowledge, he's made no reference to this essay or his absolutist position on his site."
Sullivan's response: "I do indeed feel betrayed, as do many other gay people who trusted this president and paid a price in many ways for supporting him. (I've certainly paid more of a price in my own social world for backing this president than Jonah ever has in his.) My only dilemma now is whether to support Kerry or sit this one out. It still is."
Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum sees an opening for liberals:
"Can Kerry do for Bush and the Christian Right what Bush Sr. did for Michael Dukakis and Willie Horton: make them inextricably linked in the public's mind? Sullivan may be an extreme case, but I think he's an example of what could happen if Kerry manages to link Bush strongly with the social intolerance of the Christian Right. When you combine that with his poor performance in Iraq and his lack of dedication to small government, there are a fair number of moderate conservatives who might jump ship to Kerry or -- at a minimum -- at least stay home in disgust.
"One of the longtime arguments of mainstream Republicans has been that the Christian Right doesn't really have much influence on the party, so there's nothing to worry about. Gay marriage, though, is an opportunity to show that that's not true. After all, if Bush is willing to amend the constitution to ban gay partnerships in order to win their votes, what might he do next?"
The subject should be heating up just before the Dems go to Boston.
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