Unsatisfactory Answers from General McChrystal | Harper's Magazine

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Unsatisfactory Answers from General McChrystal


Those who expected to hear Stanley McChrystal come clean on what he knows about mistreatment of prisoners in the custody of JSOC units that reported to him in the Iraq war were disappointed. General Petraeus has recently developed a reputation for telling it straight. But his new subordinate for Afghanistan seems to have a penchant for Pentagon circumlocutions.

The concerns have focused on abuse of prisoners in Iraq, where the Pentagon agreed that the Geneva Conventions were fully applicable. Major Matthew Alexander, the Air Force interrogator who led the successful effort to nail the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, put it this way:

“Gen. McChrystal, he was there in Iraq often, and he may have been separated from these things by couple layers [of subordinates] but it would’ve been his responsibility to know what was going on.”

So how does McChrystal respond to these questions? “We must at all times obligation treat detainees humanely… Military necessity does not permit us” to deviate from those obligations, says Senator Carl Levin, reading form McChrystal’s prepared statement. That’s the classic Bush-era bob-and-weave. In the Bush years we learned that “humanely” meant next to nothing: in Bush-speak, as long as you give the prisoner medical attention, a clean place to sleep, and a bowl of lentils, you can feel free to beat him senseless or perform still more hideous tortures. McChrystal’s words are chosen to appear to put some distance between himself and this legacy, but they don’t.

Here’s Spencer Ackerman’s take on the questioning:

“I do not and have not condone the mistreatment of detainees and I never will.” McChrystal said he investigated every abuse allegation. But the interrogation structure was inadequate for his task forces. “We stayed within all the established and authorized guidelines, they were there when I took command,” McChrystal says. He says “constant improvement” turned something “acceptable and legal” into something “I could be more proud of” as time wore on. Concedes that he initially was informed by Rumsfeld’s memorandum authorizing “stress positions, use of dogs and nudity” and said that “some of [those techniques] were used.” He said he was uncomfortable with those authorized techniques and worked to reduce their usage.

It’s long been reported that in the Rumsfeld Pentagon, Undersecretary Stephen Cambone secured a series of special rules of engagement for JSOC units that authorized much more than the practices discussed in the hearing. Those rules, whatever they were, are the “established and authorized guidelines” McChrystal’s talking about. Of course, all of this is a way of reenforcing the conclusions that Levin’s committee already reached with respect to Washington’s direct control over and responsibility for the introduction of harsh techniques in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hopefully one or more of these senators will now press McChrystal for the particulars on those “established and authorized guidelines” that were provided to his JSOC task forces. And perhaps we can also see some evidence for the claim that McChrystal took action to ameliorate the conditions of prisoners by retreating from the use of some of the harsher (and, incidentally, flagrantly illegal) techniques. Even so, like other generals of the Rumsfeld era, McChrystal seems remarkably unaccepting of his command responsibility for what went on. McChrystal entered the hearing room with serious questions hanging over his head, and he said nothing to dispel them.

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