Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Clothing himself in shame, Sen. Inhofe on Abu Ghraib: "I'm probably not the only one up at this table that is more outraged by the outrage than we are by the treatment ... These prisoners, you know they're not there for traffic violations. If they're in cellblock 1-A or 1-B, these prisoners, they're murderers, they're terrorists, they're insurgents. Many of them probably have American blood on their hands and here we're so concerned about the treatment of those individuals."

Of course, according to American military intelligence officers who spoke with the ICRC, 70% to 90% of the detainees in Iraq were there by mistake.

Another example of how liberal democracy can't be spread by the most illiberal elements in American society.

According to CNN, McCain walked out during Inhofe's statement.

I took some time this evening to read the newly-released International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) report on prison conditions in Iraq. The report is dated February of this year and covers visits to various prisons and detention centers from March to November of last year.

What does it show?

Over recent days we've gotten accustomed, I think, to an escalating rate of shame and outrage each day. It just keeps getting worse and worse. With such heightened, or as the case may be, lowered expectations, I think it's possible to read the report and conclude it's not quite as bad as one might have expected. But in the process of not being quite as bad as one might expect, it actually deals a pretty devastating blow to any claim that the infamous pictures are examples of low-level jailers run amok.

In brief, the report argues that many innocents were arrested in dragnet type operations. Initial arrests were often rough and frightening to the people whose houses were broken into. And the military had no good system of notification for the families of detainees. This resulted, as the report terms it, "in the de facto 'disappearance' of the arrestee for weeks or even months until contact was finally made." (p.8)

The sense I got from the report was that this was as much as anything a matter of disorganization and poor planning. Still, the net effect was to have people's family members simply disappear with no idea of what had happened to them for weeks or even months.

Descriptions of initial arrest and detention are often harrowing and brutal. But, for better or worse, many of them don't seem that different from what you might see on an episode of Cops. That's not meant to make light of it -- just to give a sense of what we're talking about.

Once you were arrested, and after you went through a period of interrogation, you were usually placed in a standard detention facility run by military police that was reasonably well run and complied with standard Geneva Convention standards. To the extent there were problems they were due to personality conflicts between particular prisoners and guards or individual bad apples. And those problems were usually cleared up pretty quickly by higher-ups in those jails. That's the conclusion of the report.

The key is what happened during interrogation to high-value detainees.

The key passages come early on. For instance, on page 7, "In most cases, the allegations of ill-treatment referred to acts that occurred prior to the internment of persons deprived of their liberty in regular internment facilities, while they were in the custody of arresting authorities or military and civilian intelligence personnel." Once prisoners were transferred to "regular internment facilities, such as those administered by the military police, where the behavior of guards was strictly supervised, ill-treatment of the type described in this report usually ceased."

Even more to point, on pages 3 and 11, the report states that "ill-treatment during interrogation was not systematic, except with regard to persons arrested in connection with suspected security offences or deemed to have an 'intelligence' value." (itals added)

Look further into the report and you see that the kind of "ill-treatment" they're talking about is pretty much like the stuff we've been seeing in those pictures. The fact that this only seemed to happen while most prisoners were in the interrogation phase, and then generally to the ones who Military Intelligence thought might have really choice information, tells you that this wasn't a matter of a breakdown of authority or rogue sadists (though those were probably in the mix too) but rather a matter of organized policy.

I don't think there's any other way to make sense of what the report contains. Why else would the pattern of 'ill-treatment' be so focused and consistent?

In the crudest terms, it makes sense. What the ICRC termed "threats and humiliations [and] both physical and psychological coercion, which in some cases was tantamount to torture" (pp. 3-4, 11) was reserved for use as an aide in interrogations, and mainly for the interrogations of detainees thought to have particularly valuable information.

The key passage is probably on page 11 where it states that "methods of physical and psychological coercion used by the interrogators appeared to be part of the standard operating procedures by military intelligence personnel to obtain confessions and extract information. Several military intelligence officers confirmed to ICRC that it was part of the military intelligence process to hold a person deprived of his liberty naked in a completely dark and empty cell for a prolonged period [,] to use inhumane and degrading treatment, including physical and psychological coercion, against persons deprived of their liberty to secure their cooperation." (itals added)

The list of frequently used methods of 'ill-treatment' is on page 12 and among other things includes beatings of various sorts, threats of various sorts -- including further 'ill-treatment', "reprisals against family members, imminent execution or transfer to Guantanamo" -- being paraded around naked, being photographed in humiliating positions, etc.

On page 13 and 14 there is again the use of threats of execution, mock execution, threats of reprisals against family members, etc. Through the report, we hear again and again the threat of being sent to Gitmo.

(As bad as all this was, the one thing you really wanted to avoid was falling into the hands of the Iraqi police where the sort of treatment described above was seemingly more intense and boundless and mixed with corruption. So, for instance, you might undergo mock execution and threats to have your wife and daughters raped. And then if you didn't pay the bribe, they'd turn you over to the Americans with claims that you were some sort of hardened terrorist who surely had prized information, etc., perhaps bin Laden's valet or videographer or something.)

In short, the ICRC report doesn't state in specifics the sort of stuff we've seen so far in pictures. But it does describe this sort of stuff in general terms and argues that this was standard procedure used to extract information from the sort of people we'd most want to get information from -- people suspected of being insurgents and others deemed to have 'intelligence value.'

As much as the low-level folks who did the humiliating and the 'softening up' should be held to account, you can certainly see why they and their families would be outraged beyond imagining that all of this was being blamed on them.

The president's stylized expressions of outrage and disgust are further revealed, I believe, as play-acting, like his feigned outrage over the outing of Valerie Plame by one of his top advisors and his pretended efforts to discover the culprits.

More echoes of the search for the 'real killers'.

President George W. Bush at the Pentagon: "Mr. Secretary, thank you for your hospitality, and thank you for your leadership. You are courageously leading our nation in the war against terror. You're doing a superb job. You are a strong Secretary of Defense, and our nation owes you a debt of gratitude."

Sy Hersh, in The New Yorker: "Secrecy and wishful thinking, the Pentagon official said, are defining characteristics of Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, and shaped its response to the reports from Abu Ghraib. “They always want to delay the release of bad news—in the hope that something good will break,” he said. The habit of procrastination in the face of bad news led to disconnects between Rumsfeld and the Army staff officers who were assigned to planning for troop requirements in Iraq. A year ago, the Pentagon official told me, when it became clear that the Army would have to call up more reserve units to deal with the insurgency, “we had call-up orders that languished for thirty or forty days in the office of the Secretary of Defense.” Rumsfeld’s staff always seemed to be waiting for something to turn up—for the problem to take care of itself, without any additional troops. The official explained, “They were hoping that they wouldn’t have to make a decision.” The delay meant that soldiers in some units about to be deployed had only a few days to prepare wills and deal with other family and financial issues."

When President Bush says Don Rumsfeld is doing a "superb job" you really have to shudder to think what we'd have in store for us if the guy came off his winning streak.

Clearly, the president's political advisors have told him that his political fate is tied to Rumsfeld's. And on that judgment I think they're right. But certainly there are ways to keep someone on the job without submitting the English language to this sort of brutality, this ... abuse, shall we say.

Then there is the increasingly precious two-step -- perhaps fetishization -- of the photos. This from the Associated Press ...

The president was shown a "representative sample" of photos, including pictures not yet seen by the public, a senior defense official said, adding that some showed humiliation of prisoners and "improper behavior of a sexual nature," the official said.

Citing ongoing investigations and privacy concerns, McClellan refused to describe the still images, including some that were taken from videotape. And McClellan repeatedly sidestepped questions about whether the president thinks they should be publicly released.


The Pentagon agreed to send as-yet unreleased photos and at least one videotape to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. But senators had not determined when or under what circumstances they would be viewed by lawmakers.

Larry DiRita, spokesman for Rumsfeld, told reporters that the Pentagon was discussing arrangements with the committee staff for showing the additional photos and video "in a restricted environment."

I cringe to see these photos come out. But clearly they will come out. And really they should come out.

With all this mumbojumbo about representative <$Ad$>samples, and giving some pictures to congress and not others, and bizarre locutions like "improper behavior of a sexual nature" (that remind you of Clinton's "inappropriate sexual banter", only this time it's not a ridiculous joke), you get the feeling that you're dealing with an addict or a scammer who can't give up BSing even after everyone else can see that the jig is up.

You expect -- or perhaps better to say, you hope -- soon to see the sober, serious grown-up come along, put his hand on the guy's shoulder and say, "It's over" -- perhaps saying it a few more times, with arresting finality, until he understands.

Perhaps a better metaphor is a user at the ugly outset of his own intervention -- the increasingly desperate lies, the bargaining, the lickety-split oscillations between apologies, self-pity and impulsive anger.

An interesting connection. A report on NPR suggests the possibility that Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba's scathing report on the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison may have been affected in some way by the fact that his father, Sergeant Tomas Taguba, was himself a POW in WWII.

In fact, as a prisoner of war, he was part of the notorious 'Bataan Death March'.

Who knows what played into this one man's role in this story now unfolding. But it's hard to imagine this memory of his father's time as a POW didn't play upon his mind at some point in his investigation.

[ed. note: thanks to this blog for calling this to my attention.]

On whether everything will be released at <$NoAd$>once ...

QUESTION: Scott, given that there are these other pictures out there, it's been acknowledged by the Secretary and you just mentioned, why not just release all of the pictures and all of the video clips that exist, just all at once, and stop the dribble, dribble that's, you know, one-by-one -- MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we are in close contact with the Pentagon on those issues, and I think the Pentagon is working to address those issues. QUESTION: Is there discussion that, perhaps, it might be better to just release it all to the public? MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the Pentagon is looking at all those issues. I mean, they have to take into account other considerations, as well. There are ongoing investigations, and the Pentagon has to look at those issues and take those issues into account. QUESTION: Do you think it will be discussed this morning at this meeting? Has the President expressed his view as to whether it should all be released? MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, I think that those are issues the Pentagon is working to address. And we remain in close contact with the Pentagon on those issues. QUESTION: Can you give us a sense of -- I mean, obviously you said the President is -- hasn't necessarily seen them, but he knows what's in the pictures. What is his feeling, at this point, about releasing the pictures? Or is there just still an active discussion going on about whether or not -- MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President has made his views known, in terms of when it comes to the investigations that are ongoing. I think he's stated that. But, again, I think the Pentagon is the one who is working to address these matters. We're going to continue to stay in close contact with them on these issues. But as I said, the Pentagon has to look at other factors, as well, when they're considering these issues. QUESTION: But it will be his decision whether or not to release them, right? MR. McCLELLAN: These are issues the Pentagon is working to address, and they have to take into account other considerations. I think that's the way I would describe it.

More soon.

A telling foreshadowing?

This from George Will's column<$NoAd$> of August 12th, 1999 ...

[Tucker] Carlson reports asking Bush whether he met with any persons who came to Texas to protest the execution of the murderer Karla Faye Tucker. Bush said no, adding: "I watched (Larry King's) interview with (Tucker), though. He asked her real difficult questions, like 'What would you say to Governor Bush?' " Carlson asked, "What was her answer?" and writes:

" 'Please,' Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, 'don't kill me.' "

Hughes, who says Bush's decision not to commute Tucker's sentence was "very difficult and very emotional," says Carlson's report is "a total misread" of Bush. Carlson, who describes Bush as "smirking," says: "I took it down as he said it."

Gary Bauer, then running against Bush for the 2000 nomination, called the Bush's comments "inappropriate, disgusting and profoundly disturbing."

Consider this along with the fact that, as many have noted, the now-President's ire has oddly turned on the photos -- that is to say, the evidence -- seemingly more than the underlying facts.

Just to pass on some added information, about which we'll be saying more. There is chatter in Pakistani intelligence circles that the US has let the Pakistanis know that the optimal time for bagging 'high value' al Qaida suspects in the untamed Afghan-Pakistani border lands is the last ten days of July, 2004.

Andrew Sullivan has a series of damning posts up tonight about the Abu Ghraib scandal. The section that particularly caught my eye was this ...

To have humiliated the United States by presenting false and misleading intelligence and then to have allowed something like Abu Ghraib to happen - after a year of other, compounded errors - is unforgivable. By refusing to hold anyone accountable, the president has also shown he is not really in control. We are at war; and our war leaders have given the enemy their biggest propaganda coup imaginable, while refusing to acknowledge their own palpable errors and misjudgments. They have, alas, scant credibility left and must be called to account.

In fairness, this is a long stream of thoughts that <$Ad$>should be read in toto in order to get his full meaning. He does reaffirm his belief that the decision to go to war was the right one, but only just barely. But I don't think these excerpted words in any way overstate the scope and intensity of his condemnation of the administration.

I haven't been able to read much news in the last thirty-six hours, or at least not as much as usual. So I'm still catching up with the details of today. But when I try to write about this, I have to confess that the words, metaphorically at least, get stuck in my throat.

For myself, it's not so much the horror of what we're seeing itself. Certainly, history is littered with far greater outrages. But how exactly did we find ourselves on the doling out end of this stuff? Morally, how did it happen? And in simply pragmatic terms, since this was a grand gambit for hearts and minds in a region awash in anti-Americanism and autocracy, how exactly did we get here? More than anything, a self-inflicted wound of this magnitude just leaves you speechless.

For someone who considers himself in many ways a hawk and who did and does believe in American power as a force for good in the world (most recently in the Balkans) it is difficult to describe the depth of the chagrin over watching the unfolding of a story which reads in many ways like a parody of Chomskian screeds against American villainy.

As I think is already becoming clear, the responsibility for all of this goes right to the very top -- to the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Vice President and many others. The point isn't that the president ordered or knew specifically that soldiers in Iraq were setting attack dogs on to naked prisoners or all the other outrages we're about to hear of. But going back almost three years these men made very conscious and specific decisions to disregard or opt out of the various international conventions, rules and traditions governing the treatment of prisoners of war and enemy combatants that are intended to prevent such things from happening.

It may be true that in this one MP Unit things got particularly out of hand. But even the instructions from above they and other unit appear to have been getting from superiors were quite bad enough.

Now there are reports of something close to open warfare between the cabinet departments in the administraiton over this. We'll cover all this in greater depth in succeeding posts but the embrace of lawlessness, systematic deception and an almost boundless incompetence have all made this possible. These guys created the climate in which this could happen. And then they were either too disorganized or too indifferent to stop it when things got out of hand.

In the case of the president, it's hard to know what to think. As Jake Weisberg explains here, the president of the United States is just so cocksure, incurious and lazy that I think it's half possible he's never gotten past the gleaming phrases his advisors have given him to make sense of what's happening on his watch. Nor, I think, can we discount the possibility that the president's advisors and the president himself knew enough of what was probably happening -- how their orders were being executed in practice -- not to want to know the details.

Zakaria sums it all up in a few short sentences: "Leave process aside: the results are plain. On almost every issue involving postwar Iraq—troop strength, international support, the credibility of exiles, de-Baathification, handling Ayatollah Ali Sistani—Washington's assumptions and policies have been wrong. By now most have been reversed, often too late to have much effect. This strange combination of arrogance and incompetence has not only destroyed the hopes for a new Iraq. It has had the much broader effect of turning the United States into an international outlaw in the eyes of much of the world."