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Pack of Liars

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, December 12, 2008; 12:48 PM

Yesterday's bipartisan Senate report on the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere doesn't just lay out a clear line of responsibility starting with President Bush, it also exposes the administration's repeated explanation for what happened as a pack of lies.

"The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of 'a few bad apples' acting on their own," the report finds. "The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority."

The report notes that in early 2002, not long after the Defense Department legal counsel's office started exploring the application of the sorts of abhorrent practices later documented at Abu Ghraib, Bush signed a memo exempting war-on-terror detainees from the Geneva Conventions. "[T]he decision to replace well established military doctrine, i.e., legal compliance with the Geneva Conventions, with a policy subject to interpretation, impacted the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody," the report states.

And the report concludes: "The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at [Guantanamo]. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely."

In a statement, Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin voiced his contempt for what was essentially an administration cover-up: "Attempts by senior officials to portray [the bad apples scenario] to be the case while shrugging off any responsibility for abuses are both unconscionable and false. Our investigation is an effort to set the record straight on this chapter in our history that has so damaged both America's standing and our security. America needs to own up to its mistakes so that we can rebuild some of the good will that we have lost."

As examples of false statements, Levin offered: "In May 2004, just after the pictures from Abu Ghraib became public, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said that the abuses depicted were simply the result of a few 'bad apples' and that those responsible for abuse would be held accountable. More than seven months later, then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Asked about accountability for detainee abuses, Gonzales said 'we care very much about finding out what happened and holding people accountable.' Neither of those two statements was true."

But Levin could have gone much higher. Bush himself repeatedly and sanctimoniously blamed Abu Ghraib on a small number of low-level perpetrators, even while trying to get credit for what he insisted was a transparent system that held those who were responsible accountable.

Bush, on May 24, 2004, described what happened at Abu Ghraib as "disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values."

On June 1, 2004, he told a reporter: "Obviously, it was a shameful moment when we saw on our TV screens that soldiers took it upon themselves to humiliate Iraqi prisoners -- because it doesn't reflect the nature of the American people, or the nature of the men and women in our uniform. And what the world will see is that we will handle this matter in a very transparent way, that there will be rule of law -- which is an important part of any democracy. And there will be transparency, which is a second important part of a democracy. And people who have done wrong will be held to account for the world to see.

"That will stand -- this process will stand in stark contrast to what would happen under a tyrant. You would never know about the abuses in the first place. And if you did know about the abuses, you certainly wouldn't see any process to correct them."

In a May 18, 2004, interview, Bush told an Iraqi journalist: "I want to know the truth, too. . . . [Y]ou've just got to know that I'm interested in the truth, as well, just like you're interested in the truth."

And by April 6, 2006, after seven soldiers had been convicted, Bush made it clear that his quest was over: "I'm proud to report that the people who made that decision are being brought to justice, and there was a full investigation over why something like that could have happened."


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