No Comment — May 4, 2009, 10:26 am

The Scapegoats

It’s typical in Beltway political discussion now to refer to demands for accountability for Bush Administration officials involved in the introduction of the torture program as “scapegoating.” This is a strange use of the word, which usually refers to the process of pushing blame off on a powerless, weak person. You do not “scapegoat” people at the pinnacle of power. Of course, the dean of the Beltway bloviators, David Broder, is not limited by the confines of common usage. But Broder and his ilk also forget how the Bush Administration itself used scapegoating as a first line of defense. As soon as the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Bagram landed on the airwaves, the Rumsfeld Pentagon began attacking individual soldiers wearing their nation’s service uniform as “hillbillies” and as “bad apples.” The verbal attacks turned into courts-martial, which were skillfully arranged in Fort Hood, Texas. Pentagon Public Affairs officers disseminated press kits and encouraged reporters to come cover the show. America was dispensing justice to the authors of the abuse at Abu Ghraib.

Except it wasn’t. The torture memos, the flowchart of decision-making reaching into the White House, and the Senate Armed Services Committee report make clear that the abuses at Abu Ghraib occurred as the proximate result of decisions taken at the top of the Bush Administration. Indeed, the Army’s chief investigator of the abuse, Major General Antonio Taguba, put a very fine point on it in June 2008: “There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question is whether those who ordered torture will be held to account.”

So what about all those grunts who in fact got scapegoated? The Times (London) reports:

Twelve guards at Abu Ghraib were convicted on charges related to the abuse, which included attaching leads to naked prisoners, terrifying them with dogs, beatings and slamming them into walls. The wall-slamming was a technique authorised by Justice Department officials at the time, who also said that the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding was not considered to be torture.

Charles Gittins, a lawyer who represents Charles Graner, the ringleader of the guards who is serving a ten-year sentence, said that the memos proved his long-held contention that Graner and the other defendants, including his former lover Lynndie England, could never have invented tactics such as stress positions and the use of dogs on their own. “Once the pictures came out, the senior officials involved in the decision-making, they knew. They knew they had to have a cover story. It was the ‘bad apples’ led by Charles Graner,” Mr Gittins told The Washington Post.

Now some of the enlisted personnel convicted are seeking to have their convictions overturned on the grounds that the techniques they used were approved.

What are their prospects? The evidence is increasingly clear that, though they may indeed be guilty of the offenses charged against them, they were offered up as scapegoats. More senior figures at Abu Ghraib, such as Colonel Pappas and Lieutenant Colonel Jordan, wound up escaping any serious accountability. Why? The answer may well be that Pappas and Jordan knew things about the involvement of senior command that they could wield in their defense. The grunts had no access to such information.

One measure of the ultimate fairness of any justice system is whether it affords equal access to the poorest and weakest members of society. The whole story of torture accountability in the United States so far is a radical subversion of that notion. The weak and powerless figures at the bottom of the food chain are tried, condemned, and made into public examples. The great and powerful figures who secretly make policy for the government behind closed doors escape any form of accountability and have newspapers around the country who rush to defend them from “scapegoating.” It’s perverse.

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More from Scott Horton:

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