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May 10, 2004

Iraqi Prisoner Abuse: Almost Certainly Not "Just a Few Bad Apples"

We continue to not especially care about this story. Bad things happen in wartime.

But, since the liberal media will not stop talking about the incidents (incorrectly seeing, yet again, another phantasmal opportunity to politicize an issue against Bush), we'll reluctantly weigh in.

First of all, let's disabuse ourselves of this idea that this was "just a few bad apples." There may be a good reason to claim that -- dishonesty towards the world at large is not only permissible, but required, during war; more on that later -- but let's not fool ourselves. This wasn't "just a few bad apples," and believing that is only going to set us up for heartbreak when the truth comes out later, as it almost certainly will. The press knows how to get to the truth, at least when it feels there's a political advantage in doing so that inures to the benefit of Democrats/liberals.

We've already seen that an unknown officer issued a command to "soften up" the Iraqi prisoners for interrogation. The soldiers engaged in the abuses weren't just abusing their prisoners because they had some sexual need to arrange naked Arabic men in homoerotic poses. They did this because the word came down from on high that they had to get the prisoners into the right frame of mind for questioning, but that they shouldn't use actual physical torment -- or much physical torment -- to do so.

The soldiers involved in the abuse came up with what they thought was the best solution possible under the circumstances-- mild psychological torment and humiliation. The sort of stuff, as they say, that doesn't leave a bruise.

Trouble was, it left a bigger bruise than anyone could possibly have imagined -- in the form of photos and videos.

Here's the trouble with plausible deniability:

If you want to do something you're not supposed to be doing -- i.e., pressuring enemy prisoners using means not strictly allowed by the Geneva Conventions -- you want to do so in such a way that you can't be court-martialed for doing so if (more like when) the truth comes out.

So you give vague orders. You don't expressly tell your underlings to commit illegal acts, but you strongly imply that they should do so. You don't quite say it; you just sort-of say it without saying it.

And then you distance yourself from the situation, so that no one can claim you were supervising the criminal activity.

That might insulate the officers who actually condoned/encouraged this activity from ultimately being prosecuted. But it can lead to a worse-case scenario: that the illegal activity you're encouaging will be performed either so blatantly, or so indiscreetly, that it actually becomes a far more serious scandal than it would have been had you been right there on-site, directing each and every part of the softening-up process.

For example:

The soldiers you tell to soften up prisoners might just get it in their rather stupid little heads that it would be a swell idea to photograph and videotape the most lurid moments of their abuse, documenting their own crimes (!) like the stupidest common criminal videotaping his own act of murder; and then, they might get it into their stupid little heads it would be an even more-swell idea to circulate these photos and videos to everyone on their AOL Buddy Lists.

We know that this operation was not directly supervised by the CIA or military intelligence or anyone, really, with any degree of functioning intelligence or simple discretion. We know this, because if the CIA had been involved, they might have done a committed a whole host of abuses, but one thing's for sure: They wouldn't have allowed the people involved in the abuse to document their own crimes and then email them around like travel-pics from the family's trip to the Grand Canyon. The abuses might still have happened; but we wouldn't know about them.

At least we wouldn't have pictures of the abuses.

We could have taken several different tacts, here.

We could have not aggressively interrogated any prisoners. That would result in no abuse, but also in no useful intelligence, and greater US battle deaths.

We could have aggressively -- which is to say, "illegally" -- interrogated prisoners, but under strict control and supervision. This would most likely have avoided the truth of the interrogations ever coming out in a proveable way, but those performing the actual acts would have had no plausible deniability, and thus no insulation from being court-martialed as patsies. The chance of detection/disclosure under such a system would have approached zero chance; however, in the unlikely event it did all come out, the perpetrators, and those above them in the chain of command, would have had no possible defense.

We would have been better served if our military and political leadership had committed to either of those possibilities. Instead, everyone tried to get cute with it, to fudge it, to have their cake and eat it too, and now we've got pictures of Arab men blowing each other running 24/7 on Al Jazeera.

It has long been the case that it is the low-level operative -- the cop on the beat, the prison guard, the soldier -- who actualy pays the price for the nation's own hypocrisy and indecisiveness on an issue.

Stated policy tends to be both ridiculously politically correct and flat-out contradictory; for example, we want to investigate possible Muslim terrorists aggressively, but of course we don't want to "humiliate" or even bother a single innocent Muslim in the process. These two demands are plainly irreconcilable, but it's not the people making the policy who are charged with actually carrying it out. It's the actual FBI agent in the field who has to choose between one of the two contradictory dictates, and it's he who has to live with the legal and professional consequences for failing to reconcile the irreconcilable. If he's too PC, he lets the terrorists kill people, and he's drummed out of service for being negligent. If he's too agressive, he pisses off CAIR and gets drummed out of service for being "anti-Muslim" or racist.

Same thing in Abu Ghraib. The brass was sending down two irreconcilable commands -- soften them up for interrogation so that we can win the war and save American lives; treat all prisoners strictly according to the Geneva Conventions -- and the brass left it to untrained, poorly educated reserve soldiers -- weekend warriors -- to work out the devilish details of their incoherent policy.

Whichever way the soldiers chose, they were going to fail. Because it's impossible to satisfy both contradictory commands at once.

And thus, it is once again the lowly field operative who gets cashiered or court-martialed, scapegoated for the incoherence of the policy-makers. Actually, strike that -- scapegoated not just due to the incoherence of the policy-makers, but due to the incoherence of the American public generally, which has a very bad tendency to refuse to make up its mind and indulges in childish fantasies that it can have X and Not-X simultaneously.

We might call this unjust and unfair to the soldiers involved. But we're not going to.

Because one thing is undeniable. The stupidity of these people -- the stupid, senseless idiocy of these morons documenting their abuses with a meticulousness rivaling Nazi bureaucrats -- is unforgiveable and has greivously damaged America's fight against terrorism.

And then -- sending them out to friends as "funny vacation photos"!

There may be no express law against being stupid. But there is a hidden, implicit law against this level of gross stupidity, and the snap-happy abusers at Abu Ghraib are about to be convicted under it.

Somewhat-Related Update: Hat tip to Rick for pointing out this digest of the American press' questioning of Scott McClellan on IraqNow.

Did you know that Abu Ghraib was a "concentration camp"? We're so happy that the supremely objective press corps is always around to inform us of things we didn't know.

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posted by Ace at 03:41 PM

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