SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Tara McKelvey is the author of the new book Monstering: Inside America’s Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War, which tells the story of the Abu Ghraib scandal and, more broadly, examines the pattern of detainee abuse in Iraq. McKelvey, a senior editor at The American Prospect and a research fellow at the NYU School of Law’s Center on Law and Security, lives in Washington, D.C. I recently asked her six questions about what she learned while researching her book.
1. The general story of the abuses at Abu Ghraib has by now been well covered. What has the media missed?
The media only focused on the photographs. They missed the fact that the abuse was systematic and that the worst things were not even shown in the pictures. That’s what my book is about: what happened beyond the frame of the Abu Ghraib photos. Thousands of detainees have gone through U.S.-run facilities in Iraq, but thousands more—anyone held for less than fourteen days—were never registered or tracked. Human-rights reports and interviews I conducted show that some of the worst abuses took place at short-term facilities—a police station in Samarra, a school gymnasium, a trailer, and places like that, where individuals were held for up to two weeks. It’s also important to remember that reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as numerous military documents, show that 70 to 90 percent of the detainees had no information that would have been useful to the troops.
2. Who is ultimately responsible for the abuses?
If there’s a smoking gun, it’s in the hands of John C. Yoo. He worked at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, and he’s the guy behind the August 1, 2002, memo that said interrogators could do what they wanted as long as the intensity of pain inflicted was less than “that which accompany serious physical injury such as death or organ failure.” It created conditions that allowed for almost any sort of physical abuse. So guys like Yoo and Timothy Flanagan, who was deputy White House counsel under Alberto R. Gonzales, discussed techniques like stress positions and sleep deprivation that were approved for high-level Al Qaeda suspects—and those techniques were used on Iraqi civilians. I had a heartfelt conversation with Flanagan and told him what I had heard from Iraqis: that these techniques had been used on men, women and children in Iraq. He feels bad about it; I know he does. But the fact is that he and Yoo and some of these other people from the best law schools and universities in this country were the ones who came up with the legal definitions that allowed for the abuse to happen.
3. What was Donald Rumsfeld’s role?
Rumsfeld has had a very lackadaisical attitude towards the Geneva Conventions. On February 8, 2002, he said, “The reality is that the set of facts that exist today with respect to Al Qaeda and Taliban were not necessarily the kinds of facts that were considered when the Geneva Conventions were fashioned.” On May 4 of 2004, after the pictures from Abu Ghraib were published, he told a journalist that the Geneva Conventions “did not precisely apply” in Iraq. There has also been testimony from people who say Rumsfeld got nightly briefings about what was gathered during interrogations.
4. Have those guilty of detainee abuse been held accountable?
More than 260 soldiers have faced punishment for detainee-related incidents since October 2001. Of those, nine individuals, all except one below the rank of captain, have been sentenced to time behind bars. Keep in mind, that’s just the military; meanwhile, there are about 100,000 contractors in Iraq, almost as many as there are troops. But only one contractor has been punished for a detainee-related crime, and that was in Afghanistan. Not a single contractor in Iraq has been punished. I doubt all those contractors are angels; we know, for instance, that several were implicated in the Abu Ghraib scandal—but those cases never went anywhere. This is not just a prison scandal. It’s a huge blow to America’s image and it’s something we’ll be dealing with for generations.
5. What do you think of former CIA director George Tenet’s recent comments in which he defended the use of tough tactics against detainees?
Tenet has said in interviews that we didn’t employ torture, that everything was authorized, and that the attorney general told us the techniques did not amount to torture. This goes back to John Yoo, who along with others broadened the definition of what was allowable. Some of the stuff, like “stress positions,” seems benign. But it covers a lot of ground. It means you can be kept crouching and not allowed to move for 45 minutes, but then they can move you into another stress position. There’s one stress position, called a “Palestinian Hanging,” which was apparently pretty common at Abu Ghraib. Your arms are pulled behind your back, and you’re hung from your arms. I interviewed a ghost detainee who was put in that position and he said it was incredibly painful. One detainee, al-Jamadi, died after being put in that position. We don’t know if these techniques are still allowed. Officially they say “no,” but we have no idea.
6. You got an exclusive print interview with Lynndie England. What was your impression of her?
Part of her defense was that she was a compliant personality but in fact, as I discovered, she’d been a whistleblower. She had worked at a chicken processing plant in Moorefield, West Virginia, and had walked off the job to protest lousy assembly line practices. Less than a year later, a PETA investigator went into the plant undercover and filmed incredibly horrific acts of animal abuse. It made it into the national media, which called it a “mini Abu Ghraib.” When she told me she’d quit her job over the conditions at the plant, I was surprised. She had stood up to what she thought was wrong. Lynndie England—and all of the people at Abu Ghraib—had the option to say “no” to the abuse. There was a combination of events that allowed the detainee abuses to happen, it wasn’t just administration policy or Lynndie’s psychopathic boyfriend, or any one thing. I was so shocked about the abuse when I first heard about it from Iraqis, and I wondered how such horrible things could happen. But by the time I’d finished the book and saw how everything had come together, the abuse seemed almost inevitable.
More from Ken Silverstein:
Perspective — October 23, 2013, 8:00 am
How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy
Postcard — October 16, 2013, 8:00 am
A trip to one of the properties at issue in Louisiana’s oil-pollution lawsuits
For the past three years my dosimeter had sat silently on a narrow shelf just inside the door of a house in Tokyo, upticking its final digit every twenty-four hours by one or two, the increase never failing — for radiation is the ruthless companion of time. Wherever we are, radiation finds and damages us, at best imperceptibly. During those three years, my American neighbors had lost sight of the accident at Fukushima. In March 2011, a tsunami had killed hundreds, or thousands; yes, they remembered that. Several also recollected the earthquake that caused it, but as for the hydrogen explosion and containment breach at Nuclear Plant No. 1, that must have been fixed by now — for its effluents no longer shone forth from our national news. Meanwhile, my dosimeter increased its figure, one or two digits per day, more or less as it would have in San Francisco — well, a trifle more, actually. And in Tokyo, as in San Francisco, people went about their business, except on Friday nights, when the stretch between the Kasumigaseki and Kokkai-Gijido-mae subway stations — half a dozen blocks of sidewalk, which commenced at an antinuclear tent that had already been on this spot for more than 900 days and ended at the prime minister’s lair — became a dim and feeble carnival of pamphleteers and Fukushima refugees peddling handicrafts.
One Friday evening, the refugees’ half of the sidewalk was demarcated by police barriers, and a line of officers slouched at ease in the street, some with yellow bullhorns hanging from their necks. At the very end of the street, where the National Diet glowed white and strange behind other buildings, a policeman set up a microphone, then deployed a small video camera in the direction of the muscular young people in drums against fascists jackets who now, at six-thirty sharp, began chanting: “We don’t need nuclear energy! Stop nuclear power plants! Stop them, stop them, stop them! No restart! No restart!” The police assumed a stiffer stance; the drumming and chanting were almost uncomfortably loud. Commuters hurried past along the open space between the police and the protesters, staring straight ahead, covering their ears. Finally, a fellow in a shabby sweater appeared, and murmured along with the chants as he rounded the corner. He was the only one who seemed to sympathize; few others reacted at all.
Number of U.S. congressional districts in which trade with China has produced more jobs than it has cost:
Young bilingual children who learned one language first are likelier than monolingual children and bilingual children who learned languages simultaneously to say that a dog adopted by owls will hoot.
An Oklahoma legislative committee voted to defund Advanced Placement U.S. History courses, accusing the curriculum of portraying the United States as “a nation of oppressors and exploiters.”
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
“He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.”