New Questions About Abu Ghraib

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, June 18, 2007; 2:12 PM

A New Yorker article is raising uncomfortable questions for the White House about what President Bush knew about the horrific abuse at Abu Ghraib, when he knew it -- and whether he and his top lieutenants bear more responsibility for it than they have acknowledged.

The shocking news and appalling photographs chronicling the sadistic torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. personnel first emerged in April 2004, deeply damaging America's reputation, particularly in the Arab world. Bush responded by expressing disgust at the behavior of a small number of people who, he said, were acting on their own. He said those responsible would be held accountable. And he said he had not seen the photographs before they were made public.

But according to Seymour M. Hersh' s blockbuster story in the New Yorker, Bush was told about the abuse Abu Ghraib long before the photographs went public, failed to respond appropriately -- and may indeed have recognized what happened at Abu Ghraib as the predictable result of administration policy rather than the random act of a few bad apples.

Hersh's story is based on interviews with Antonio M. Taguba, the former two-star general who submitted a scathing (and career-killing) secret report about Abu Ghraib in March 2004. Hersh also concludes that then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld knew more than he admitted and that the abuses were in some cases similar to treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But from a White House perspective, the most significant aspect of Hersh's story is that it threatens to associate Bush with a sordid chapter of the Iraq war from which he has managed to remain largely disconnected by pointing fingers down the chain of command. Hersh's report raises the possibility that those truly responsible for Abu Ghraib have never been held accountable.

Here's Hersh talking to Wolf Blitzer on CNN yesterday: "The question you have to ask about the president is this: No matter when he learned -- and certainly he learned before it became public -- and no matter how detailed it was, is there any evidence that the president of the United States said to Rumsfeld, 'What's going on there, Don? Let's get an investigation going.'

"Did he do anything? Did he ask for a -- did he want to have the generals come in and talk to him about it? Did he want to change the rules? Did he want to improve the conditions?

"BLITZER: And what's the answer?

"HERSH: Nada. He did nothing. . . .

"BLITZER: Here's the White House response. We asked the White House for a response to your article: 'The president addressed this fully. He first saw the pictures on TV and he was upset by them. He called for the investigation to go forward. He found the actions abhorrent and urged the Defense Department to get to the bottom of the matter.'

"HERSH: It's not when they saw the photographs. It's when they learned how serious it was. They were told in memos what the photographs showed."

From Hersh's Piece

Writes Hersh: "Whether the President was told about Abu Ghraib in January (when e-mails informed the Pentagon of the seriousness of the abuses and of the existence of photographs) or in March (when Taguba filed his report), Bush made no known effort to forcefully address the treatment of prisoners before the scandal became public, or to reevaluate the training of military police and interrogators, or the practices of the task forces that he had authorized. Instead, Bush acquiesced in the prosecution of a few lower-level soldiers. The President's failure to act decisively resonated through the military chain of command: aggressive prosecution of crimes against detainees was not conducive to a successful career."

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