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.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



October 2015

Lives by Omission

Lifting as We Climb

Cattle Calls

Getting Jobbed

view Table Content


“One of the peculiar things about economic inequality is that the people who are most articulate about it are not poor, while the poor themselves have said little, at least in print, about their situation.”
Photograph © Reuters/Brendan McDermid
“It would be nice to get through this review without recourse to the term ‘writer’s writer.’ The thing is, in the case of Joy Williams, I have seen the cliché made flesh.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
“Miniatures originated in Persia and were brought to the Indian subcontinent when the Mughals conquered it in the sixteenth century. They could take on almost any subject: landscapes or portraits; stories of love, war, or play.”
Painting by by Imran Qureshi.
“The business of being a country veterinarian is increasingly precarious. The heartland has been emptying of large-animal vets for at least two decades, as agribusiness changed the employment picture and people left the region.”
Photograph by Lance Rosenfield
“Rosie and her husband had burned through their small savings in the first few months after she lost her job. Now their family of five relied on his minimum-wage paychecks, plus Rosie’s unemployment and food stamps, which, combined, brought them to around $2,000 per month, just above the poverty line.”
Illustrations by Taylor Callery

Ratio of children’s emergency-room visits for injuries related to fireworks last year to those related to “desk supplies”:


The ecosystems around Chernobyl, Ukraine, are now healthier than they were before the nuclear disaster, though radiation levels are still too high for human habitation.

The Islamic State opened two new theme parks featuring a Ferris wheel, teacup rides, and bumper cars.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Subways Are for Sleeping


“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today