In a war that has both catapulted and sunk many careers, the appearance of Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller walking across the front page of The New York Times this week brought yet another player to the international stage.
Miller is the Pentagon's choice to run the prison system in Iraq, and he is charged with the vital task of introducing law, order and decency to a prison system that lacks all three.
This would be a tough task at any time, and is doubly so in the wake of the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Miller must not only clean up the prisons, but also win the trust of the Iraqi people by demonstrating in public, highly visible ways that reforms have been instituted and that Abu Ghraib is no longer a place of arbitrary imprisonment and systematic abuse.
Is he the right man for the job?
At a moment when our nation's credibility is at an all-time low, one would hope so. But Miller's record as commander of the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay (a.k.a., "Gitmo"), his perceived anti-Muslim bias, and his now infamous recommendation that guards in Iraq soften-up prisoners for interrogation, all strongly suggest that he is not that man.
Back on the map after spending the last sixteen months on the Cuban coast in charge of 600 detainees, Miller has already promised to "Gitmo-ize" the operation, according to the outgoing head of Iraq's prison, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski.
Miller went on to say, in a phrase bound to instill confidence in his cultural sensitivity, "We can do this the hard way or we can do it my way."
This is, in fact, Miller's second attempt to "Gitmo-ize" the Iraqi prisons. Last August, top Pentagon officials dispatched Miller with orders to find better ways of extracting intelligence from prisoners. According to the now-famous report by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, Miller's team, using Guantánamo "procedures and interrogation authorities as baselines," advocated using detention operations as "an enabler for interrogation," and insisted that "the guard force be actively engaged in setting the condition for the successful exploitation of internees."
It should come as no surprise, then, that many of the documented cases of prisoner abuse occurred around the time that Miller released this report. It's hard to dismiss this as a mere coincidence.
Miller's record at Guantánamo is also cause for serious concern. Over the past two years, this detention facility has been condemned by the International Committee of the Red Cross and others – particularly in Muslim communities – as an opaque, illegitimate, discriminatory, and quite possibly abusive camp for detainees.
Though Miller cannot be held personally responsible for all of the problems associated with Guantánamo (it was not his decision, for instance, to declare all the inmates "enemy combatants" and deny them their legal rights), as commanding officer he must be held accountable for the culture of secrecy, the charges of anti-Arab discrimination, and the accusations of prisoner abuse.
The emphasis on secrecy and opacity at Guantánamo Bay was established as soon as the first prisoners from Afghanistan and Pakistan arrived. It was promptly decreed that not only the press but Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International would be denied access to the facilities.
Miller justifies this secrecy on the grounds that those being held are suspected terrorists and thus may harbor highly sensitive intelligence. And now the Iraqi and American people have been asked by the White House to place their trust in him. The problem is that Miller's penchant for secrecy went unchecked at Guantánamo, where American commanders can play Col. Kurtz on a rock pile with good views of the Caribbean.
This kind of approach will not work in Iraq, where the only way to win the support of the people is to operate the prisons in the most transparent manner possible. A simple "trust me" from Miller won't suffice. The Iraqis do need to trust, of course – but they need to be able to verify, too.
Earning this trust will be particularly hard in Miller's case, given the allegations of his anti-Muslim bias. One of the few stories to leak out of Guantánamo Bay in the past year involved Miller's persecution of a Muslim prison chaplain, Army Capt. James "Yousef" Yee. Miller accused Yee last year of participating in a spy ring and had him detained for 76 days – a large portion of which was spent in shackles and solitary confinement. When further investigation revealed no compelling evidence of Yee's guilt, the charges were first reduced to mishandling classified information and lying to investigators, and then were dropped altogether.
This startling development raised some very troubling questions about whether Miller was capable of understanding the difference between law abiding Muslims and terrorists. And the Arab community was further enraged when Miller – rather than apologizing for the false accusation and extended detainment – insisted on reprimanding Yee on incidental charges of adultery and possession of pornography. Though again these charges were overturned, a widespread belief that Miller was motivated by an anti-Muslim bias endures to this day.
Finally, Miller's tenure at Guantánamo is haunted by the charges of abuse and torture that have been leveled by several former inmates. They describe shocking forms of physical and psychological duress (beatings, solitary confinement, inadequate medical treatment), as well as sexual humiliation (forced viewing of naked female prostitutes) that would be difficult to believe were they not so uncannily similar to the types of abuse that have been captured on film at Abu Ghraib.
These factors ought to be enough to disqualify Miller from his new post. With so many talented people in the U.S. military, we could certainly find someone who would bring a less tarnished reputation to the job. As it is, we don't know if the Iraqi people will give us a second chance to demonstrate our commitment to preserving basic human rights. It's impossible to imagine getting a third.
Peter Ogden is a researcher at the Center for American Progress.