Torture and Truth

When graphic photographs of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib were released to the press, the acts they depicted were promptly condemned by members of the Bush administration, which attributed responsibility for the abuse to a handful of low-ranking officers. In the six months since those images triggered an international outcry, a wealth of evidence has been leaked contradicting the Administration s version of events. But despite overwhelming proof that the use of torture had been explicitly endorsed at the highest levels of government, no thorough investigation has been launched and no senior officials have been held to account.

At an OSI Forum in New York on October 21, 2004, Mark Danner, author of Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror (New York Review of Books, 2004), asserted that this failure of accountability is political. OSI President Aryeh Neier moderated the forum.

Danner, a longtime staff writer at The New Yorker and a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, pointed out that, in the case of Abu Ghraib, the media did its job in exposing wrongdoing, but it is the institutions that traditionally are supposed to correct such abuses that have fallen short. Despite front-page articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post outlining the links between Abu Ghraib and Washington, the government, controlled by one party, has refused to conduct its own report and the story has lost traction.

Torture and Truth examines the ongoing debate in government documents and internal memos over the role of the Geneva Conventions and the use of torture in the war on terror. According to Danner, these documents show that what happened at Abu Ghraib was not an aberration, but instead the direct result of policies that promoted the use of psychological and physical abuse. Further, the events at Abu Ghraib followed precedents set in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where detainees were not afforded protection under the Geneva Conventions and interrogations sometimes led to their death. Under great pressure to obtain actionable intelligence, military intelligence officers routinely employed practices such as hooding and sexual humiliation the methods of torture captured in the Abu Ghraib photographs to get prisoners to talk.

Abu Ghraib, Danner said, is a story of how the government can manage the release of information. When the torture photographs were published, he said, it seemed likely that members of the Bush administration would be forced to resign. The chain of command was investigated only piecemeal, however, and the Administration has so far succeeded in deflecting blame through intimidation and obfuscation.

Danner believes the torture photographs, though the propulsive element in the Abu Ghraib scandal, have since served to obstruct any real examination of what they represent. The scenes of torture and humiliation, captured with soldiers personal digital cameras, has been dismissed as the work of a few sadists. As a string of low-ranking officers are sent to prison for what they did at Abu Ghraib, the real scandal, according to Danner, has yet to be addressed.

Date: October 21, 2004
Time: 7:00 p.m.

OSI-New York

Mark Danner and Aryeh Neier