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The General Speaks


Seymour Hersh furthers his remarkable coverage of the Abu Ghraib story in next week’s New Yorker. He gives us a portrait of Major General Antonio Taguba, whose report on detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib played a key role in breaking the scandal open. Taguba’s career ended–because he did exactly what he was instructed to do, with competence and integrity.

We know much of this story, of course. There are details regarding Donald Rumsfeld, who comes across as the same man here that I’ve heard in accounts from Pentagon insiders. (Essentially, as a jerk.) He’s convinced of himself, he knows what he knows, he’s not interested in listening to anyone who doesn’t tell him exactly what he expects to hear. And he’s almost invariably wrong. He’s mocking, rude, degrading, and crass in his interaction with his own general officers. And he’s a congenital liar (yes, the phrase that William Safire used for Hillary Clinton; it didn’t really fit then, but here’s the perfect place for it.) Moreover, he lies in formal testimony before Congress on subjects of vital concern to the entire country – about the conduct of the war, about the introduction of torture and detainee abuse, about the instructions he gave to his generals and what they told him.

Still, the most distressing thing is his interaction with general officers. It seems that to be liked by Rumsfeld, you needed to be a worthless sycophant who places keeping Donald Rumsfeld happy above all other things – particularly including service to the country and fidelity to its values. The story also contains some confirmation of illegal conduct associated with intelligence operations, and the White House’s obsession with covering its own trail and scapegoating others – especially CIA agents.

The big item here, however, is the White House’s conscious decision to evade Congress by failing to make reports that were required. Let’s not forget – we’re talking about a Republican Congress at the time in question. In a sense, the White House has utter contempt for the Republican Congressional leadership. And the public joined them in that assessment.

An aggressive congressional inquiry into Abu Ghraib could have provoked unwanted questions about what the Pentagon was doing, in Iraq and elsewhere, and under what authority. By law, the President must make a formal finding authorizing a C.I.A. covert operation, and inform the senior leadership of the House and the Senate Intelligence Committees. However, the Bush Administration unilaterally determined after 9/11 that intelligence operations conducted by the military—including the Pentagon’s covert task forces—for the purposes of “preparing the battlefield” could be authorized by the President, as Commander-in-Chief, without telling Congress.

There was coördination between the C.I.A. and the task forces, but also tension. The C.I.A. officers, who were under pressure to produce better intelligence in the field, wanted explicit legal authority before aggressively interrogating high-value targets. A finding would give operatives some legal protection for questionable actions, but the White House was reluctant to put what it wanted in writing.

A recently retired high-level C.I.A. official, who served during this period and was involved in the drafting of findings, described to me the bitter disagreements between the White House and the agency over the issue. “The problem is what constituted approval,” the retired C.I.A. official said. “My people fought about this all the time. Why should we put our people on the firing line somewhere down the road? If you want me to kill Joe Smith, just tell me to kill Joe Smith. If I was the Vice-President or the President, I’d say, ‘This guy Smith is a bad guy and it’s in the interest of the United States for this guy to be killed.’ They don’t say that. Instead, George”—George Tenet, the director of the C.I.A. until mid-2004—“goes to the White House and is told, ‘You guys are professionals. You know how important it is. We know you’ll get the intelligence.’ George would come back and say to us, ‘Do what you gotta do.’ ”

Failing to take responsibility for its decisions – a hallmark of the Bush Administration.

But in the end this is a personal account of Antonio Taguba, a remarkable officer of unquestioned integrity and ability. The fact that a person of his character fails in the Rumsfeld Pentagon tells us pretty much everything we need to know about Rumsfeld and his leadership qualities.

“From the moment a soldier enlists, we inculcate loyalty, duty, honor, integrity, and selfless service,” Taguba said. “And yet when we get to the senior-officer level we forget those values. I know that my peers in the Army will be mad at me for speaking out, but the fact is that we violated the laws of land warfare in Abu Ghraib. We violated the tenets of the Geneva Convention. We violated our own principles and we violated the core of our military values. The stress of combat is not an excuse, and I believe, even today, that those civilian and military leaders responsible should be held accountable.”

These are important words that need to be read and contemplated carefully by those in authority in America today. We are just at the start of the path of accountability now.

I expect that in the coming months we will be hearing from a number of American generals who served and commanded on the ground in Iraq. What we will hear will, I expect, be very similar to the account of General Taguba. It will eviscerate the flood of lies that were cranked out by the Pentagon’s propaganda machine – both by Larry DiRita and his helpers and Rumsfeld’s shameless media flaks at the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the National Review, and a shrinking number of other publications. Their shameless lies and scapegoating were never actually plausible. But the time is here to sweep them away, focus on the truth, and hold those responsible for this tragedy to account.

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