Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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This from Reuters ...

New images of Iraqi prisoner abuse contain awful scenes of violence and sexual humiliation, members of Congress said after a viewing on Wednesday that one lawmaker likened to a descent into "the wings of hell."


"There were some awful scenes. It felt like you were descending into one of the wings of hell and sadly it was our own creation," said Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat. "And when you think of the sadism, the violence, the sexual humiliation, after a while you just turn away, you just can't take it any more."

That's gotta be 'rings of hell'. Right?

Like in Dante?

I suspect it's the reporter's goof. But who knows?

Late Dante Studies Update: I'm told by a reporter on the scene that Durbin did indeed say 'rings' of hell, as one might have expected. The Reuters correspondent seems to have misheard. Where are E.D. Hirsch and Allan Bloom when we need them!?!?!

Okay, I think the wheels are now officially off this car. The Baltimore Sun quotes Colin Powell as saying that "we kept the president informed of the concerns that were raised by the ICRC and other international organizations as part of my regular briefings of the president, and advised him that we had to follow these issues, and when we got notes sent to us or reports sent to us ... we had to respond to them, and the president certainly made it clear that that’s what he expected us to do."

Powell further said that he, Rice and Rumsfeld kept Bush “fully informed of the concerns that were being expressed, not in specific details, but in general terms.”

Not only does that contradict what the White House and the president have said. It contradicts the testimony of one of Don Rumsfeld's principal deputies from only yesterday.

When asked by Sen. John Warner whether the ICRC's concerns had made their way to the Secretary's level, Stephen Cambone replied: "No, sir, they did not. Those reports -- those working papers, again, as far as I understand it, were delivered at the command level. They are designed -- the process is designed so that the ICRC can engage with the local commanders and make those kinds of improvements that are necessary in a more collaborative environment than in an adversarial one."

I've been hearing for days that the State Department at the highest levels (i.e., not a few lefty FSOs in the bureaucracy, but authorized at the highest levels) has been leaking like crazy against the civilian leadership of the Pentagon on this story.

And here we have it right out in the open. Powell isn't exactly saying the White House or the president is lying. What he's doing might fairly be described as walking up to the black board, writing out "2+2=" and then letting us draw our own conclusions.

Now, Powell's critics will argue that this is his standard operating procedure: distancing himself from bad news with a shrewd campaign of leaks and carefully phrased attacks, which give the targets of the attacks no clear place to grab on to. And they'd be right. That is classic Colin Powell, a master Washington insider.

But that doesn't mean it's not true. And at a certain point -- though you'd imagine we'd already reached that point -- having the Secretary of State openly contradicting the Secretary of Defense and the president on a matter of such grave concern to the country is a situation that simply cannot last.

The first sentence in the Post's lead editorial for Wednesday: "The Bush administration still seeks to mislead Congress and the public about the policies that contributed to the criminal abuse of prisoners in Iraq."

As I said earlier today, I don't think I can remember a more shameful spectacle in the United States Congress, in my living memory, than the comments today of James Inhofe, the junior senator from Oklahoma. Clearly, it is part of the RNC talking points now to shift the brunt of the media storm from the abuses themselves to the political storm they've created. But no one that I saw at least rose more naturally to the effort than this man. No one else's heart seemed so matched to the deed, with his snarls at "humanitarian do-gooders" (i.e., the Red Cross) trying to monitor compliance with the Geneva Conventions.

America's greatest moments in the last century came when she tempered power with right and toughened, or sharpened, the edges of right with power -- World War II, then the post-war settlement that framed the Cold War are the clearest, though certainly not the only, examples.

But here you have Jim Inhofe lumbering out of his cave and on to the stage, arguing that we can do whatever we want because we're America. Inhofe's America is one that is glutted on pretension, cut free from all its moral ballast, and hungry to sit atop a world run only by violence. Lady Liberty gets left with fifty bucks, a sneer, a black eye, and the room to herself for the couple hours left before check out.

Yet there was a much brighter side to these hearings on Tuesday. For all the dishonor Inhofe brought on them, I was struck by how much of this is being carried by Republicans -- in particular, John McCain, John Warner and, perhaps most strikingly, Lindsey Graham.

Graham has become some mix of the star and the conscience of these proceedings because of his specialized knowledge as an Air Force JAG and his ability to see that this goes beyond partisan politics, threatening as it does not only America's honor, but (in a way someone like Inhofe could probably never understand) also her power.

Graham got it exactly right today when he said: "When you are the good guys, you've got to act like the good guys."

Another way to put this might be to say that being the good guys is about what you do, not who you are. That's a truth that the architects of this war, in subtler but I suspect more damaging ways, frequently failed to understand.

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.