When he first saw the photographs of Iraqi prisoners suffering abuse at the hands of American soldiers, Kenneth Roth was shocked but not surprised. Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based human rights organization. In March -- a month before CBS News and the New Yorker revealed details of abuses by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq -- HRW issued a report alleging that U.S. troops had engaged in the similar mistreatment of detainees in Afghanistan.
The White House and the Pentagon have tried to portray the incidents of abuse in Iraq as isolated episodes, the work of a few misguided soldiers and officers. In an interview aimed at Arab television viewers on Wednesday, President Bush explained that, in a democracy, "everything is not perfect" and "mistakes are made."
But Roth and other human rights activists see a pattern here, and they say it's not an accidental one. Roth says the abuses in Iraq are part of a "systemic problem" that arises from the U.S. government's approval of "stress and duress" interrogation techniques and its failure to crack down on soldiers and intelligence officers who go too far.
"This is not simply a few rotten apples at the bottom of the barrel," Roth says. Rather, he says, what happened in Iraq is the inevitable result of a "culture of permissiveness" that started in the highest offices in Washington and has now spread to the jail cells at Abu Ghraib.
Roth set forth his concerns about U.S. interrogation techniques earlier this week in an open letter to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. In it, he called on the Bush administration to make "dramatic, and systematic, changes in the treatment of prisoners held by the United States around the world, both to ensure compliance with U.S. legal obligations, and to repair the damage these abuses have caused to the credibility of the United States."
Salon spoke with Roth by telephone Wednesday.
You've seen the photographs from Abu Ghraib. What do they tell you about what was happening there?
One of the most interesting things about the photos is that they were taken at all. The soldiers in the photos seem to be so relaxed, almost relishing the abuse that they were meting out. That strikes me as evidence that this was not some clandestine, rogue operation, but that these soldiers thought they were acting with the acquiescence, if not the overt consent, of their superiors.
Now, I guess there's a question of whether those superiors were within the prison chain of command or the military intelligence chain of command. But these soldiers were not acting as if they had anything to hide. And that, to me, suggests a more systemic problem.
Do you believe that the "systemic problem" is one of inattention to what individual soldiers are doing on the ground, or that U.S. troops have been directed to engage in the abuse of prisoners?
The soldiers, through their attorneys, have said that they were directed to "soften up" the detainees. So in this particular case, it sounds like they were directed.
But it's worth noting that Abu Ghraib isn't the only place where allegations of this sort have come out. Human Rights Watch has interviewed a number of people who have been detained at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, the principal U.S. detention facility in Afghanistan, and we received very similar accounts -- not the overt sexual abuse, but stripping detainees naked, dousing them with water, lengthy sleep deprivation, various forms of abuse.
What makes me believe this is a systemic problem ... is that it seems to be reflective of the so-called stress-and-duress interrogation techniques that the Pentagon and the intelligence services have adopted as what they view the appropriate way to interrogate detainees.
What is the appropriate way to interrogate detainees?
There are those who would say, "These people destroyed the World Trade Center" -- putting aside, for the moment, that these aren't those people -- "and there's nothing we could do that would be too harsh if it will prevent another attack."
International law and domestic law are absolutely clear: You can never torture a detainee regardless of the circumstances, even in the midst of a war. Similarly, you can never engage in cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment ... My fear is that the military has clearly gone over the line. Our understanding is that the military has adopted a 72-point matrix of different forms of stress that can be imposed upon a detainee as part of "stress and duress" interrogation techniques...
I haven't seen the matrix. But we understand it to describe different kinds of stress that can be put on a detainee -- how much sleep deprivation, how much sensory deprivation, how much sensory overload, what kind of handcuffing you can use -- a variety of different ways of putting pressure on a detainee to try to force him or her to cooperate with an interrogator. Obviously, while there is always some pressure inherent in being questioned or detained, this idea of ratcheting up the pain in various ways is a dangerous process that, I fear, almost inevitably will bring the U.S. government over the line into the area of prohibited cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment.
But imagine for a moment that you're an interrogator, and that you have in front of you a person who has information about an imminent attack on the United States. What would you do to get that information?
That is the classic "ticking bomb" scenario that proponents of torture always bring forward ... But what we've found is that it puts you on a slippery slope that leads to extensive torture. If you can use torture against somebody who today you believe knows where the ticking bomb is, why not use torture on the person who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows where the ticking bomb is going to be in two weeks?
But again, if you are that interrogator, what do you feel comfortable doing to obtain the information you need?
I was a federal prosecutor in a prior life, and I actually dealt with a domestic terrorism case. It's something I've confronted. In these situations, you can offer incentives, you can do plea bargaining, you can engage in very tough questioning. And in fact, witnesses flip. Witnesses cooperate. And all you need is one on the inside, and then you can open everything up.
There are lots of ways you can put pressure on a detainee simply by describing the situation that they're in -- the consequences that are going to result from cooperating and from not cooperating, in a strictly legal sense.
In December, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski told the St. Petersburg Times that conditions at Abu Ghraib were so good that, for the Iraqis being held there, "living conditions now are better in prison than at home." Could she really have been that clueless about what was happening under her command?
I know that she's trying to simply blame military intelligence. I don't fully accept that. If she was the commander of the prison facility, she had not only the power but also the responsibility to ensure that international standards on the proper treatment of prisoners were respected in every part of that facility...
But it was a shared responsibility. She had a duty to ensure that the soldiers under her command respected the basic humanity of the prisoners. But the interrogators also had a responsibility to not be giving orders or suggestions to soldiers to engage in this kind of mistreatment.
An investigation should go up the various chains of command. One clearly has to go up in the direction of Karpinski. The other has to go up the intelligence chain of command.
Last June, President Bush issued a statement in which he vowed that the United States would lead the way in the "worldwide elimination of torture." Has the president done enough to try to prevent the sort of abuses that occurred at Abu Ghraib, or has he created a culture that encouraged them?
There has been a culture of permissiveness with respect to interrogations that goes all the way to the top, including to Donald Rumsfeld. You see it first of all at Guantánamo, where the Bush administration basically ripped up the Geneva Conventions -- simply refused to apply absolutely straightforward provisions of the Geneva Convention with respect to who is a prisoner of war, what kind of hearing are they entitled to, things that were followed in other wars with enemies who were comparably hated.
The Bush administration just refused to apply these straightforward provisions. That automatically sends a signal that international law is not going to bind the United States in fighting its war on terrorism.
Second, [the administration has been slow to act] even in cases where there clearly has been abuse in the interrogation process. For example, in the cases of the two people who died in U.S. custody at Bagram Air Base about two years ago now, who were declared by the U.S. military [medical] examiner to be cases of homicide, still to this day there is no public accounting of what happened to the people who were responsible for those homicides.
What should Bush do now to send a different message -- or do you think he cares?
The President seems to care in the sense that this is a public relations disaster in the Arab world and elsewhere, so he seems determined to at least use a P.R. strategy here.
In a television interview aimed at Arab viewers, he said Wednesday that the photographs from Abu Ghraib do not reflect "the America I know."
Well, fair enough, but that's not enough. The issue is, why did this happen? It's not enough to say it's a few bad apples, or for Rumsfeld to say that this isn't torture. Until the Bush administration recognizes that there are systemic causes of this abuse, and indeed that the abuse itself may be systemic, they're not going to tackle the problem.
Is there any way of knowing how widespread the problem really is? Do we know, for example, what the conditions are like for detainees being held by the U.S. military at Guantánamo Bay?
There are serious concerns about Guantánamo. The people who are leaving, who we have been able to interview, tend to be the low-level people. One huge gap we have in our knowledge about the entire detention system -- whether it's Guantánamo, Bagram, Abu Ghraib or the miscellaneous undisclosed detention facilities that supposedly exist -- is that we have no idea how the so-called high-value detainees are being treated. When the low-level people -- the nobodies who are released because they're of no value to the United States -- when they complain of treatment that clearly crosses the line into prohibited areas, you can only imagine how the high-value detainees are being treated.
What is known about where they are and the conditions under which they're being held?
For the most part, they seem not to be at Guantánamo. Whether they are at Bagram or at other facilities, we just don't know. One of the things we're pushing the Bush administration to do is to admit where all of its detention facilities are. The Red Cross has access to Guantánamo. But if there are undisclosed detention facilities where the Red Cross doesn't have access, that's an absolute invitation to the worst form of abuse.
One thing we've learned in looking at dictatorships around the world is that, when people disappear, that's when the worst atrocities are committed. And in effect, we have a system of disappearance that the United States is running today, where people are picked up, sent off to detention facilities, and nobody even knows where they are. Their detention may not even be acknowledged unless it happens to be picked up by the press.
Predictably, Congress is divided along partisan lines about how to respond to the abuse at Abu Ghraib. Many Democrats want an investigation; many Republicans don't. Is there a role for Congress to play here?
There is a desperate need for congressional oversight. There should be an investigation as well as hearings. It is clear that the Bush administration is not adequately policing itself. The administration has known since probably December that there was a serious problem here, and it simply covered it up. It took some steps to address it by recommending court-martials against the six soldiers involved, and Karpinski was relieved of her command. But there is no evidence that the Bush administration looked seriously at the interrogation methods that were being authorized for use by the CIA, by military intelligence and by private contractors.
It was hard to miss the irony this week. As we heard more about the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, we learned that Thomas Hamill -- the American contractor taken hostage in Iraq -- was treated well by his captors. Pvt. Jessica Lynch was also apparently treated well during her captivity in Iraq. Is there a case to be made that the Iraqi "evildoers" are treating Americans better than Americans are treating some Iraqis?
I don't know that I'm in the position to make that case. But let me make two points. One is that the duty to avoid torture or cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment is an absolute duty. So even if the other side is violating that rule, the United States still has an absolute duty to abide by it. And indeed, failure to abide by it is a criminal offense punishable any place in the world.
That's one thing to remember. Second, when we have rules like this, it's not simply for fighting against what may be a largely lawless insurgency in Iraq. One has rules because they apply around the world. The United States should be very reluctant to lower the bar on international standards. Imagine a future war with, say, China over Taiwan. The Chinese government is already beginning to question whether the laws of armed conflict are really just Western impositions, whether these are things that should bind China as well. In a possible future war, if American service members are taken into Chinese custody, you don't want to give the Chinese government an excuse to start mistreating them in detention under the theory that Donald Rumsfeld already authorized these "stress and duress" interrogation techniques.
So this is not only a matter of living up to American values of treating others properly. There's also a direct element of self-interest in this. American service members are going to suffer if Bush and Rumsfeld essentially vitiate the basic norms of the Geneva Conventions and other elements of international law.
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About the writer
Tim Grieve is a senior writer for Salon based in San Francisco.