When a picture doesn’t tell the whole story
bj Josh Marshall
In early May, when “60 Minutes” first splashed America’s TV screens with lurid photos of prisoner abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, it seemed a case where a picture really was worth a thousand words, and probably many more.
In the preceding months, in dribs and drabs, and often in foreign or non-mainstream publications, hints had surfaced about what was going on in Iraq’s U.S.-run detention facilities. The Pentagon had even issued a terse notification about its own internal investigation. But the pictures themselves — as stark and unmistakable as they were undeniable — made the story impossible to ignore.
Now, however, those photos are obscuring the story far more than they once illustrated it. In fact, the prison abuse and torture story itself has become a perfect example of how two separate media storylines — ones that clearly contradict each other — can coexist and yet seemingly never cross paths.
Allow me to explain.
On the one hand, we have the debate about the pictures and the perps.
That’s about what that handful of reservists was doing at Abu Ghraib and whether their actions were a product of their own deviance or orders from above. This debate is carried on with fine-grained analyses of the various photos. We try to identify who’s who, who’s standing where in the pictures, and so forth. Then there are television and press interviews with the various players in question and, of course, the courts-martial of the alleged perpetrators.
In this case, the partisan divide is conventional and predictable. Administration advocates argue that abuse was isolated — just a few malefactors who got out of control — while critics claim that it was systemic, stemming from policy choices made at the highest levels of the Pentagon and the White House.
Yet, while this debate is being carried on, we’ve also had a steady stream of evidence (not pictures, but reports, testimony, and other documentary evidence) that makes it fairly clear that the first debate really isn’t a debate at all, or rather, that it’s an open-and-shut case.
Set aside the latest “torture memo” that got John Ashcroft in such hot water up on the Hill this week, or what you may have heard from anonymous sources in Sy Hersh’s articles. Even if we go only by what the administration has itself revealed and confirmed, it is quite clear that everything we see in those pictures was OK’d as a matter of policy at the highest levels or, at a minimum, permitted to take place on an ongoing basis.
What are we talking about?
Let’s start by discussing what’s in the pictures: limited violence against detainees, the use of nudity and sexual humiliation as a means of “softening up” detainees, psychological “torture” like the threat of death (such as the case of the picture of the man standing, arms outstretched, who was told he’d be electrocuted if he fell), and the use of attack dogs to frighten if not necessarily attack prisoners.
Those are the acts contained in those lurid photos. But even from the internal reports and official statements coming from the Pentagon and other branches of the administration, it’s clear that each of these methods was approved and authorized as a way of preparing detainees for interrogations.
First, there was approval for using an enumerated list of interrogation techniques for al Qaeda terrorists housed at Guantanamo and other U.S. facilities. Eventually those techniques — honed in Afghanistan and Guantanamo — were OK’d for use against detainees in Iraq. We even know that the importation of those methods into Iraq probably happened in the late summer and early fall of last year. Most of the techniques mentioned above are specifically mentioned in the list of authorized methods issued by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez in Iraq. The rest are detailed in other memos and reports made public over the last month and would certainly be covered by the new “torture memo” out this week.
As for the nudity stuff, last year when Red Cross officials asked military intelligence officers at Abu Ghraib why so many prisoners were forced to stay in their cells or undergo various forms of interrogation while in the nude, they were told that it was “part of the military intelligence process.’’
The simple truth is that antiseptic discussions of these interrogation techniques just don’t resonate in the way that the pictures do. But it’s all there in the open if we just choose to see it.
Yet the debate over who is responsible for what we see in those pictures continues, even when we have plenty of evidence that the tactics they were using were either specifically authorized by policymakers at the Pentagon or widespread at U.S.-detention facilities commanded by the same folks now prosecuting those reservists in the photos.
Isn’t it about time that we just come clean with ourselves and admit that those half-dozen reservists really probably were just following orders?