Mark Danner interviewed by Dave Gilson
When the Abu Ghraib scandal boiled over last spring, it looked, briefly, as if it would cause a major shakeup — if not in how the Bush administration was fighting the war in Iraq, then at least within the administration itself. But soon enough, election season arrived, and the issue all but faded into the background. That doesn’t mean we’ve heard the last of Abu Ghraib. Far from it, says journalist Mark Danner. “I don’t think this thing is over by any means.”
In his new book, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War On Terror, Danner explores the origins and aftermath of the administration’s post-9/11 decision to “take the gloves off.” The book collects several articles written for the New York Review of Books over the past year, offering a mix of reportage — Danner was one of the first reporters to arrive on the scene of the bombing of the Red Cross headquarters in Baghdad in October 2003 — and a close reading of the nearly 500 pages of official documents related to the Abu Ghraib scandal that make up its bulk. The documents, some of which are published for the first time in Torture and Truth, make for gripping, if disturbing, reading. Danner admits that most Americans are unlikely to delve into these papers with the seriousness they did another official account of terror-fighting gone wrong, the best-selling 9/11 Commission report. “These are difficult issues,” says Danner. “They make people uncomfortable.”
The documents illustrate how the Bush administration constructed its rationale for ignoring prisoners’ rights, and how that decision played out, with appalling consequences, in Iraq. “I think it’s a lesson for every American to see how a democracy can arrive at the point where it commits these kinds of crimes,” Danner says. “It’s there in the documentary history.” Exhibit A is the “torture memo” issued by the Justice Department in early 2002 at the request of President Bush’s legal adviser (and nominee for attorney general) Alberto Gonzales, which concluded that “under the current circumstances, necessity or self-defense may justify interrogation methods that might violate” U.S. laws prohibiting torture. A few pages later, Iraqi prisoners give hair-raising depositions of their time in American captivity. Such first-hand accounts, says Danner, reveal how the “euphemistic world” of the Bush bureaucracy translated into “real pain and real suffering on the ground.” As some of the Abu Ghraib guards go on trial, and fresh stories of abuses in Guantanamo and Iraq come out, it remains to be seen whether any of this will trickle up the chain of command. As Danner wonders, “Is there a way to connect uniforms to policy makers?” A regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and a staff writer at the New Yorker, Danner has been reporting on international politics and human rights for two decades. He is the author of the The Massacre at El Mozote, an investigation into atrocities committed by the Salvadoran army, and The Road to Illegitimacy, about the 2000 Florida recount. Many of his recent articles are available at his website, markdanner.com. He spoke with MotherJones.com from his home in New York City.
MotherJones.com: No one’s really talking about Abu Ghraib right now, and the new Red Cross report about abuse “tantamount to torture” at Guantanamo was barely a blip. Why don’t Americans care more about this issue?
Mark Danner: I think this isn’t really a question of public opinion, but of the government not having instituted any process of formal investigation that can really get at the broad issues of treatment of prisoners and torture. This isn’t an accident. What you have here actually is a strategy from the Bush administration to contain what could have been a scandal that could have brought down senior officials and could have lost them the election. After the disclosure of the photographs in late April, they put in place a plan of action designed to contain the scandal. Essentially, you had a chain of responsibility that began on the ground level at Abu Ghraib with soldiers who actually were abusing and torturing detainees and stretched up into the White House, ending ultimately with the president himself. Each of the investigations put in place looked at several links in that long chain. None of them actually was able, or even empowered, to look at the entire scandal and the entire chain of responsibility. Only Congress or some kind of special prosecutor would have been able to do that. And because Congress was in Republican hands, the administration was able to quash any such broad investigation. Now, all of that is deeply regrettable, but I don’t necessary think it means the public doesn’t care about it. It simply means that the government is in the hands of one party and that one party has been extremely disciplined and effective in containing the scandal from the beginning.
MJ.com: Given that administration officials have managed to insulate themselves from this, do you think that there are any future revelations or developments that would expose them to some sort of consequences?
MD: You cited the Guantanamo report. I think there will be more news about that. And soon they’re going to have trials in Texas of Charles Graner and several other of the soldiers involved in the abuse itself. There are ongoing investigations within the military, the results of which will be made public at some point in the next couple of months. So I don’t think this thing is over by any means. The interesting thing is going to be how it evolves. The Red Cross report suggested that [the administration] made decisions about how to interrogate people, and it’s now a matter of public record. You also have a rather large number of deaths in detention, which varying estimates put between 40 and 50 people in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are also criminal processes underway in some of those deaths. So there is a legal process underway. The question is, how will it relate to the political — is there a way to connect uniforms to policy makers? So far, these people have been very clever, as I said. Part of this depends on how the Democrats plan to play it.
MJ.com: Could John Kerry have made more of this during the election, and do you think that would have resonated?
MD: I think the Democratic Party was perfectly willing to take the political work that was accomplished by the photographs in the scandal, which in effect reduced President Bush’s approval rating by somewhere between 5 and 10 points last spring; but I don’t think they were willing to run with it. And because [Kerry] was running away from the charges that he had criticized Americans in a time of war for committing atrocities, he was singularly ill equipped to use the Abu Ghraib issue. So I think they stayed away from this and just kept it at arm’s length. It’s a politically defensible position. But I obviously would have strongly preferred that the Democrats and Kerry himself take this as a major issue.
MJ.com: Looking at the reaction in the Middle East and Iraq, do you think the Bush administration has done anything to mitigate the terrible PR it got — and is getting — from the prisoner abuse revelations?
MD: No, I don’t. One of the remarkable things about this whole affair is that it’s been spectacular propaganda damage to the United States. It supplied a brand image for American repression: I’m talking about the hooded-man image, which now is recognizable all over the Middle East and the Islamic world as a symbol of the United States and the horrors it inflicts on Muslims. Osama bin Laden, had he gone to Madison Avenue and asked for an advertising image for jihad — even the best firm couldn’t have come up with anything better than those images. One of the interesting things about the invasion and the occupation — and indeed, the U.S. efforts in the Middle East since 9/11 — is the complete incompetence of so-called public diplomacy. The American belief that all you have to do is communicate better is singularly unfounded in this case. It’s not only that people have been incompetent and the efforts have been a disaster; it’s also that the underlying case is difficult to make. The United States is occupying Iraq and waging a fairly brutal occupation.
MJ.com: In your writing, you focus a lot on the language that’s been used to justify or downplay torture, particularly the euphemisms the administration has used, like “sleep adjustment” for sleep deprivation. Can you talk more about the use of such language and the role it plays?
MD: One of the virtues, if you can call it that, of the Abu Ghraib scandal is that we’ve been offered a window into the realm of government decision-making having to do with interrogation and torture. And so we enter this — one has to call it Orwellian, to use a much overused word — realm of euphemism in which keeping somebody awake for 72 hours, or making them stand on a box and telling them they’ll be electrocuted if they move, or handcuffing them high up on a cell door so that they lose all feeling in their arms, are somehow “sleep adjustment.” You have this panoply of euphemism in which procedures that are painful, psychologically damaging, and physically debilitating are described in ways that suggest they are not harmful and they’re simply “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Some of the news media have adopted these euphemisms and refuse to call things what they are. It’s a general harshening of the public perception and the public sensitivity to what should be an appreciation for human rights.
MJ.com: In the documents, one of the figures that comes up in the debates regarding torture and international law is Alberto Gonzalez. How significant was his role in shaping the administration’s policy?
MD: He was clearly the president’s point man for dealing with the issue of interrogation and torture in the administration. It was his role to guide the decision that eventually resulted in withholding Geneva Convention protection for prisoners in Afghanistan. So far as we know, he drafted the president’s letter determining that such protection would be withheld. He also seems to be the person who elicited from the Department of Justice the so-called torture memo, which attempts to give an extremely narrow definition of torture. The memo also asserted that the president has the power to order anything he wants. It’s a remarkable assertion of executive power in the face of laws which explicitly forbid torture. It essentially asserts a view that it is only illegal if the president says it is, which is kind of a royalist view of power that is dramatically in contrast with the historical view of the U.S. as a republic, frankly. I think there are very few people in the administration who are as important in all of these decisions as Gonzalez. One of the big questions will be when he comes before the Senate, to what degree these matters are raised and whether the Democrats take the opportunity to take these questions before the American people.
MJ.com: Senator Patrick Leahy is already on the record saying he likes Gonzalez personally and thinks he is “no Attila the Hun.” It sounds like he may be ready to give him a pass.
MD: Well, I think the Democrats are defining what kind of opposition they’re going to be. Are they going to take the point of view of, “This guy’s gonna be approved, so why give him trouble?” Or are they going to take the point of view that there was immense wrongdoing here and one of the people responsible for it is now before them, facing their scrutiny to assume the position as the highest law enforcement officer in the country?
MJ.com: During the internal debate in the administration on whether to follow the Geneva Convention, Colin Powell weighed in on the side of following it. What is your understanding of Condoleeza Rice’s position on that issue, either at the time or currently?
MD: Her fingerprints are not very prominently displayed in these documents. But we know that various officials of the National Security Council went to Abu Ghraib and were there specifically to find out what was going on with interrogations. So there are pretty direct connections between what happened at Abu Ghraib and the NSC staff. Whether there’s any documentation that leads to Rice, I simply don’t know. It hasn’t emerged yet.
MJ.com: You were last in Iraq in November 2003. Back then, you reported on the growing insurgency, the mounting death toll, the U.S. military’s inability to control events on the ground. A year later, are you surprised by how any of these trends have played out? MD: When I arrived in Iraq in October 2003, there were 17 attacks a day from insurgents on American forces. The last figures I saw a week and a half ago [said] there were 150 attacks a day. The fact that the insurgents have not only been able to sustain themselves, but grow tenfold during the last year, is a real statement about their resiliency and also about the failures of the occupation and the political weakness of the Americans in Iraq. That these people can sustain themselves without a jungle to hide in, without mountains to hide in [means] they’re essentially sustaining themselves by hiding among the people. It’s not all downward. Clearly, the military is learning something about fighting them. There have been gains in restoring electrical services, in restoring telephone services. And it is true that large parts of the country are relatively quiet, notably the south, which by the same token is a political success.
MJ.com: Speaking of more traditional insurgencies, I want to ask about your experience reporting on El Salvador and the guerilla war there. Obvious differences aside, do you see any parallels with Iraq?
MD: The dynamics of insurgencies are fairly similar. These are political wars. There is no military victory that is completely isolated from a political victory. It’s all politics in the end. In order to win a guerilla war you have to acquire the trust of the population. The U.S. so far has not had that in Iraq, and it was the same in El Salvador. That insurgency was able to last for a very long time and the war was ended not by a military solution but by a political one. Insurgencies have been defeated, but it’s hard, and it takes a long time. Salvador took a decade or more, and it was very bloody. Whether the United States has the willingness to be engaged in Iraq for a decade, I don’t know. You also had a very similar struggle over information in Central America in the 80s. Different, but in its basic lines — the U.S. government wanting to put the best face on things and substantially distorting what was going on, and the press trying to show the realities — those parallels are strong.
MJ.com: In your book, you write, “It is possible that [the] moment of defeat could come and go and we will never know it.” I’m wondering if you think that moment has already happened. And if so, what you think it was.
MD: I was talking really about a kind of moral defeat. It’s become a kind of cliché that, if in the struggle against terror, we forget our values, the terrorists will have been victorious. My question is, what do we mean by this? What exactly would constitute our having lost this battle and making changes in the way we live and our attitudes towards human rights and civil liberties that would actually constitute a kind of defeat? It’s hard to think of something more obvious than American troops and American intelligence officers torturing prisoners. And doing it not only as an act of desperation in the field, but doing it as a matter of policy which has been developed at the highest level of the administration. My question is, when we say the terrorists cause us to dispense with our values — our belief in human rights, our adherence to laws we have passed that commit the U.S. not to torture — if we have abrogated those, doesn’t that constitute the victory of the other side that we talk about? And if it doesn’t, what is the line you have to cross so that it does?