Politics & Policy

Thug At The Prison

To understand what happened at Abu Ghraib, consider the goon ringleader.

The conspiracy theorists and Bush haters who won’t be satisfied until high Bush-administration officials have been implicated in the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal should be asking: Which Pentagon official authorized the brutality at Pennsylvania’s Fayette County Prison? Because, in a sense, that is where the scandal has its roots. That is where Army Spec. Charles Graner, the star of so many Abu Ghraib abuse photos, first got the idea of beating up prisoners, and with no evident instigation from Donald Rumsfeld.

As we learn more about him, Graner appears to be a thoroughgoing goon. There will be at least one of those in every organization of 2.6 million, the size of the contemporary military including active-duty forces and reserves. In fact, there will be at least one in every group of 135,000, the size of the current force in Iraq. The answer to why Abu Ghraib happened begins–much though Bush critics would prefer it otherwise–with Charles Graner.

If he was acting in accord with signals from the top of the Bush administration at Abu Ghraib, what then explains the rest of his thuggery throughout the years? Did Paul Wolfowitz, the intellectual architect of the Iraq War, order him to spray mace in a fellow guard’s coffee at Fayette County Prison? Did Stephen Cambone, the Pentagon’s intelligence chief, tell him to put razor blades in a Fayette County prisoner’s food, as he is alleged to have done? Did head of Pentagon planning Douglas Feith suggest that he threaten to kill his wife and bang her head against the floor?

Not likely. Some people are weak, cruel, or angry–without having been made so by the Bush administration. Graner appears to be all three. As writer John O’Sullivan has put it, in the Abu Ghraib scandal, it’s Jerry Springer meets Saddam Hussein. A recent Washington Post profile details the sad trajectory of Graner’s life–the suspicion that his wife was unfaithful while he was serving in the first Persian Gulf War, employment at a U.S. prison noted for its brutality, the breakdown of his marriage and multiple restraining orders against him from his former wife.

For those hoping for a broader prison scandal, there was this uncomfortable fact about the new batch of Abu Ghraib photos published by the Washington Post a few weeks ago: Graner was, again, there in many of them. Either he was the Zelig of Abu Ghraib, unaccountably getting into the picture whenever someone was abusing an Iraqi, or he was the ringleader of much of it, exactly as the military has maintained.

Among the pictures that have led to criminal charges, there is only one where members of military intelligence are visible. It is the notorious shot of three naked men shackled together on the floor. The picture is horrifying, but had nothing to do with interrogation policy or the interpretation of the Geneva Conventions. The men were being punished for allegedly raping a boy at the prison.

Yes, there was poor leadership at Abu Ghraib. There were interrogation techniques that were harrowing–solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, and the like. It is possible that military intelligence officers will still be implicated. But there’s no indication that the stomach-turning photographed abuse was ordered from on high as a method of interrogating prisoners.

“Lawyers Decided Bans on Torture Didn’t Bind Bush,” read a recent eye-popping headline in the New York Times. But when the story moves from an account of the legalistic musings of administration lawyers to the interrogation techniques actually approved by senior officials, it gets less sensational. Rumsfeld approved harsh techniques against a Saudi detainee suspected of being part of the Sept. 11 plot, the Times reports, “including serving the detainee cold, prepackaged food instead of hot rations and shaving off his facial hair.”

This is a far cry from stacking naked Iraqi detainees on top of each other, a far cry from the work of Specialist Charles Graner.

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.


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