For the sake of democracy, public deserves full disclosure on Abu Ghraib

By Stephen Kim

The Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal has been devastating to the reputation of the U.S. armed forces stationed in Iraq in the eyes of the international community, tarnishing those men and women who have served courageously and honorably. Yet the Department of Defense’s behavior in handling the aftermath of these abhorrent abuses also represents a serious breech of trust between the government and the American people. As more details about the initial discovery of the prison abuses arise, we are learning that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other administrators, although not engaged in an active cover-up, calculatedly disregarded the public’s right to know. Government officials have failed to adequately disclose how and when the abuses came to light, how widespread they were, and how the army and the administration responded to them. While complete transparency of information in a time of war is impossible, the American people are still entitled to an adequate and accurate understanding of the kind of war that the Pentagon is waging on their behalf.

As far back as October of last year, inspectors of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) at Abu Ghraib noted abhorrent and inhumane mistreatment of prisoners. In February, The Wall Street Journal published excerpts from an ICRC report highlighting these abuses, which date back as far as May of last year, and made the information available to coalition forces. A spokesperson for the ICRC also suggested that the committee’s president, Jakob Kellenberger, personally complained about the cases to top U.S. officials while in Washington for a mid-January meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Even more disturbingly, the spokesperson suggested that the complaints were made because improvements had not been seen even after officials in Baghdad had been informed of the situation.

In his testimony to the Senate Armed Forces Committee last Friday, however, Rumsfeld suggested that there had been adequate and complete disclosure of what had been reported to army command. “By the 15 and 16 [of January] an investigation had been initiated and the Central Command’s public affairs people went out and told the world—they told everyone in the world,” he testified. Yet, as the now-infamous pictures of abuse were about to be released by CBS’s 60 Minutes II, General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tried unsuccessfully to delay the broadcast. After the airing, President Bush declared that he only saw the photos for the first time on television. Given these inconsistencies, how can Rumsfeld or anyone else claim that the world has been given a complete and accurate understanding of the full extent of the abuse, who was responsible, and what is being done in response? If the senior officials that met with Kellenberger in January were indeed informed, why are they only decrying the abuses now that the media has made public the horrific pictures? Pentagon and administration officials are simply not providing a sufficient and consistent account.

Yes, it is an election year, and many have claimed that those playing up the scandal are only seeking political gain. Some have even questioned the need to release the large number of additional photographs depicting American abuse of POWs. “I don’t know what is to be gained,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas. Another Republican, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, has even criticized the outrage over those photos which have already been publicized: “I am also outraged that we have so many humanitarian do-gooders right now crawling all over these prisons looking for human rights violations while our troops, our heroes, are fighting and dying.”

What these critics seem to gloss over is the fact that this year the American people are being asked to pick the next administration that will define and dictate future U.S. involvement in Iraq. To make that momentous decision, we are entitled to a fair and reasonable disclosure of how this current administration and its Defense Department have handled American interests in Iraq. It is the American people who are embodied by the actions of our armed forces, both for the good and for the bad, and we are entitled to know just how we are being represented, even by the reprehensible actions of a few. And we are entitled to know if those at the helm of the war effort clearly failed in their obligation not only to respond swiftly to what was going on but also to inform the American public.

Rumsfeld, President Bush, and the rest of the administration cannot merely highlight the accomplishments of their war and the heroism of people in uniform, but must also acknowledge the existence of unmeritorious actions as well. Failure to do so is tantamount to presenting the people with a profoundly distorted and propagandized view of the nature of the war they are being asked to support. President Bush is fond of saying the U.S. represents a bastion of democracy in the world. If that description is truly accurate, and if we are to truly vindicate American reputation in the world, the Pentagon and this administration must hold itself accountable to all that has happened at Abu Ghraib.