Center for American Progress

Cover-Up of Abu Ghraib Torture Puts Troops at Risk

Cover-Up of Abu Ghraib Torture Puts Troops at Risk

The horrific pictures of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib – Saddam Hussein's infamous torture chamber – sadden and infuriate all Americans.

While these revelations have exploded on the world stage in the past two weeks, and are likely to worsen as new evidence emerges, it is now clear that senior military and Bush administration officials did not adequately train the soldiers and civilian contractors assigned to the prison and were aware of alleged prison abuses in Iraq as early as November 2003.

Senior officials did nothing either to deal with the charges when they emerged or to strategically plan for the explosive fallout the images have produced around the globe, especially in the Arab world. This failure to deal immediately and decisively with these allegations goes all the way to the top. It is a severe dereliction of duty that has unnecessarily exposed U.S. fighting men and women to increased danger in Iraq, increased the probability of terrorist attacks against Americans, and further harmed America's image abroad.

Some are already comparing Abu Ghraib to the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War where more than 500 innocent civilians were killed by American troops on the morning of March 16, 1968. On the surface, the allegations at Abu Ghraib appear less serious, although equally disturbing.

But like My Lai, the real story of Abu Ghraib lies in the potential cover-up of human rights abuses, the lack of adequate training for military personnel, the failure of senior American military and government officials to conduct a swift and thorough public investigation, and the failure to prepare for the sweeping impact the allegations had in the court of world opinion.

It took more than a year for the full story of My Lai to surface. When it did, American support for the Vietnam War – already shaken by the Tet Offensive – took a dramatic turn for the worse and the reputations of the U.S. military and government were irreparably harmed.

We are likely to see a similar conclusion to the Abu Ghraib situation.

We now know that Major General Antonio Taguba produced a 53-page report detailing alleged torture in Abu Ghraib for Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, senior commander in Iraq. Sanchez received this report in February 2004 – two months before the first graphic photos of abuses were shown publicly on 60 Minutes II.

Taguba's report documents numerous instances of "sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses at Abu Ghraib" dating from October to December 2003.

More damaging, three months before Taguba's report was produced, Major General Donald Ryder filed a similar warning of potential human rights violations in Iraqi prisons and in Afghanistan. nd the International Committee of the Red Cross has been warning the Bush administration of these same problems for more than a year.

It is now clear senior military and administration officials – including General Sanchez, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and President Bush – were aware, or should have been aware, months ago that serious problems existed in how American service members were treating enemy soldiers in Iraq.

Despite these early warnings – and the potential explosiveness of torture allegations in Iraq and across the Middle East – the Bush administration and U.S. military commanders did nothing to aggressively investigate and punish offenders and had no plan to deal with the fallout.

Their strategy for handling public reactions here and in the Middle East amounted to little more than asking CBS News to forego publishing the graphic photos of torture and humiliation.

When the photos were published everyone from President Bush to General Myers appeared dumbfounded. On May 2, 2004, three weeks after becoming aware that CBS had the photos, General Myers amazingly claimed he had not read the Taguba report, saying, "It's working its way to me." Secretary Rumsfeld as well stated he had not read the full report even days after the photos first aired on television.

At a time when U.S. troops were facing rising violence in Iraq, the failure to deal with these explosive charges immediately and decisively violates the tenets of leadership and places our soldiers on the ground, and other Americans in the Middle East, in severe danger – an unjustifiable neglect of duty under any scenario.

The dangers include:

  • More Iraqis and Arabs in the Middle East will rise up and fight harder against the perceived injustices and hypocrisy of American forces occupying the region.
  • American soldiers captured in the future will be at greater risk for similar torture and abuse.
  • Diplomatic efforts to repair America's image and restore confidence in our motives and intentions will be hindered or worse, viewed as disingenuous.
  • Osama bin Laden will use the alleged abuses and potential cover-up to recruit new terrorists for generations.
  • The peace in Iraq may be permanently lost and the war on terrorism set back for years.

President Bush and senior military commanders assure us that the perpetrators of these abuses will be fully investigated and punished for their actions. But disciplining some lower ranking military personnel is not enough. While we must wait for the full details to emerge, it is difficult to avoid concluding that the failures extend all the way to the top.

The highest levels of the U.S. military, the Defense Department, and the White House must be held accountable for putting our troops at greater risk and diminishing America's moral authority across the globe. As widely discussed last week, resignations of senior officials, up to and including the Secretary of Defense, should be in order.

Beyond accountability, all remaining pictures and evidence should be released as soon as possible; the U.S.-administered prison system in Iraq must be opened to international inspection immediately; an international Permanent Committee for Monitoring Prison Conditions should be established to formally oversee the prison system in Iraq; and the new Iraqi Ministry of Interior should establish a citizen's liaison to compile and keep a centralized database of all detainees in prisons so Iraqis can locate their families.

America's long-term credibility is on the line. President Bush must do everything possible at this point to restore trust, ensure transparency, and prove to the world that America truly is a beacon for democracy and freedom.

Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington and served as Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan Administration. John Halpin is Director of Research at the Center for American Progress.

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Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow

John Halpin

Former Senior Fellow; Co-Director, Politics and Elections