Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has declared that there will be a thorough investigation of the recent U.S. destruction of a hospital in Afghanistan that killed 22, including 12 of the medical staff, with more than thirty still missing in the rubble. The hospital, run by Geneva-based Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders), had informed the U.S. headed international military force of both its location and its activities in order to avoid becoming a target for either side in fighting around Kunduz but that apparently was not enough. The U.S. military command in Afghanistan approved the bombing, which reportedly included multiple attacks from a C-130 gunship and lasted over half an hour, though there is some confusion over what constituted the “threat” that was being responded to, MSF claiming that there were no Taliban militants anywhere near their building either using it for shelter or as a firing point. Both MSF and some senior United Nations officials regard the attack as a war crime. President Barack Obama uncharacteristically apologized for a “mistake” though he took pains not to blame the U.S. military.
Ashton might be a brilliant physicist but he has never been a soldier in spite of his long service in the Department of Defense. I don’t doubt his good intentions when it comes to declaring United States government willingness to let the chips fall where they may but he has no idea what he is up against. The uniformed military will stonewall, run circles around him and work hard to construct a narrative that ultimately blames no one but the Afghans for what happened. In the unlikely event that they fail in that, a soldier at the low end of the process will be punished with a slap on the wrist to demonstrate that military justice works while pari passu protecting the senior commanders. And the report will not even appear until long after Kunduz is forgotten. At that point Congress and the White House will have no stomach for going after our valiant warriors so the buck will ultimately stop with a toothless report that accomplishes nothing at all.
The Secretary of Defense, who reportedly had a dual major at Yale that included medieval history, might well consider the historical precedents for his initiating an investigation. He should appreciate above all that the “A” word that must never be spoken inside the United States government is “accountability,” which is by design as the government must never be made to look bad. Without demanding accountability even meticulous investigations into possible war crimes have no meaning and are literally not worth the paper they are written on.
Carter’s historical review might well start with the massacre of more than 500 civilians at My Lai during the Vietnam War, which was only investigated by the army after journalist Seymour Hersh got hold of the story, leading to the current practice of embedding journalists to control the narrative. More recently there was Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison operated by U.S. forces and intelligence agencies in 2003. Systematic physical abuse of prisoners was widespread, to include rape, anal penetration with foreign objects, being hung from hooks, and even murder. Much of the evidence for the abuse was documented by photos and videos made by military personnel who supervised the process. The “enhanced interrogation” procedures used were sanctioned by Lieutenant General Richard Sanchez, who commanded U.S. forces, and were also endorsed by memos from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The White House maintained that the Geneva Conventions protecting prisoners and the International Convention Against Torture, to which the United States was a signatory, did not apply in Iraq.
The “thorough investigation” of the crimes committed at Abu Ghraib resulted in courts martial of a number of low ranking servicemen and women, only two of whom received short prison sentences. At the higher levels there were only administrative penalties and the demotion of General Janet Karpinski, who was in charge of all the prison camps in Iraq. Karpinski has insisted that she was scapegoated as the command structure above her had explicitly authorized the interrogation techniques.
An after-the-fact Pentagon ordered review of the prison and its procedures conducted by Major General Antonio Taguba concluded “That between October and December 2003, at the Abu Ghraib Confinement Facility (BCCF), numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees.” For his pains, Taguba was himself investigated after the report was leaked to the public. He observed “I’d been in the Army thirty-two years by then, and it was the first time that I thought I was in the Mafia.” He was subsequently ordered to retire, a typical response of punish the messenger whenever the Pentagon decides that it has been embarrassed.
The White House denied and later sought to downplay the Abu Ghraib story. In 2004 President George W. Bush finally apologized after the evidence of war crimes became indisputable, saying that he was “sorry for the humiliation.”
CIA interrogators, as well as Israeli “advisers,” were also involved in the torture program at Abu Ghraib and reportedly killed at least one prisoner. But the Agency simultaneously had its own show running at a network of “black site” secret prisons in Europe and Asia, some of which were operating under the same procedural rules on “enhanced interrogation” that prevailed in Iraq. Prisoners were waterboarded, which simulated drowning, sometimes repeatedly. At least one prisoner died from freezing to death and others were subjected to “rectal rehydration.” The interrogators were advised that only procedures leading to “organ failure” were prohibited.
Jose Rodriguez, at the time CIA’s Deputy Director for Operations, ordered destroyed the video tapes that had been made of many of the interrogations, arguing absurdly that they could be used by enemies of the United States to identify the interrogators. He was more motivated, one should assume, by protecting his own circle of senior officers by destroying the evidence, which one might consider a successful outcome from his point of view.
The December 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee’s report reveals that no CIA officials have ever been reprimanded or held accountable in any way for using torture to interrogate detainees: “CIA officers and CIA contractors who were found to have violated CIA policies or performed poorly were rarely held accountable or removed from positions of responsibility. CIA managers who were aware of failings and shortcomings in the program but did not intervene, or who failed to provide proper leadership and management, were also not held to account [and] accountability recommendations were overruled by senior CIA leadership. As detailed in the study, there was no accountability for personnel responsible for the extended detention of individuals determined by the CIA to have been wrongly detained.”
Subsequently, the only known CIA participant in the “enhanced interrogation” regime to be punished was John Kirakou, imprisoned after exposing the existence of the program in 2007.
George W. Bush, even defended the interrogations in advance of the Senate report’s release last year, calling the CIA officials connected to it “patriots.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who pledged that if he had to do it all over again he would, reviled the report as “full of crap,” a “terrible piece of work” and “deeply flawed.”
More recently, a gaggle of retired senior CIA officials, most of whom were participants in the torture program, produced their own response to the Senate allegations. It is a short book called Rebuttal: The CIA Responds to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Study of Its Detention and Interrogation Programs.
The CIA’s response goes something like this: the Senate report on torture was written by Democrats who were out to get the Agency and is therefore little more than a partisan hatchet job that targeted some senior officers. The book includes multiple assertions that the senators and their staffers willfully ignored things like “context,” which means that anything was permissible as everyone was terrified that a terrorist group based in Afghanistan was about to existentially threaten the United States.
As some of the book’s co-authors, to include former Director George Tenet, his deputies John McLaughlin, Jose Rodriguez, and Mike Morell, as well as the current Director of Central Intelligence John Brennan, were part and parcel of the process approving and implementing the enhanced interrogation procedures, one would have to believe that they have a lot to answer for. But instead of accountability we now have a book sugarcoating how and why the United States chose the dark side, a book written in expectation that a considerable hunk of the public will continue to believe that torture not only works but also that it is perfectly acceptable when a nation is “under stress” as it was after 9/11.
Both the public and the authors would prefer not to consider that opening the door to torture as official policy provides justification for Washington’s actual enemies to do the same when they capture a U.S. citizen, something that every American traveler abroad might consider before setting out. And one might also marvel at a book by the CIA (which reviewed and approved the text) propagandizing its point of view on torture, something that is illegal as the Agency is forbidden from seeking to influence domestic opinion in the U.S.
Only in the United States would a book justifying torture written by a group of former senior government officials be taken seriously enough to find a readership or publisher, which is something that Ashton Carter should perhaps consider before he launches his investigation. No one was held accountable for what were indisputably war crimes committed with the complete approval of the U.S. government going all the way up to the White House level. And today many of the perpetrators are regarded as heroes.
As it is a given that no senior official or officer in the United States government will ever be held responsible for anything, instead of calling for an investigation Ashton Carter might just as well respond “Sure we bombed that hospital. What are you going to do about it?” Or even better “Accountability? That’s just a word that begins with ‘a.’”