The Abu Ghraib detainee-abuse controvesy has the potential, if the media don’t show some self-restraint, to undermine the U.S. and coalition efforts to complete the successful liberation of Iraq. The reporting has fueled the rage, leading the opponents of the war, and of President Bush, to smell blood in the water. It is repeatedly being charged that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and the Pentagon, had kept this story hidden from Congress and the President until CBS came into possession of the first set of photos of the harassment and humiliation of the detainees.
But there is a paper trail, and it shows something very different. It shows that some in the media were aware of the problem and the efforts by the Pentagon to solve it. In fact, there have been numerous reports about this since January, but no one saw it as a scandal. Instead, it was a developing story.
One reporter who has stayed on this story is CNN’s Barbara Starr. On January 21, she reported that “Sources have revealed new details for the Army’s criminal investigation into reports of abuse of Iraqi detainees?U.S. soldiers reportedly posed for photographs with partially unclothed Iraqi prisoners?a senior Pentagon official said the investigation is focused on Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.” Starr further reported that Rumsfeld and the top brass had been fully briefed from the start, and were on top of the matter.
On March 20, Starr reported that six U.S. soldiers were charged with offenses related to the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, including assault, cruelty and indecent acts. She added that the allegations involve soldiers who took photographs of Iraqi prisoners that show the prisoners partially clothed and physical contact between soldiers and detainees.” Similar stories appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post.
This story was not given a high priority by anyone except the military, which was carrying out an internal investigation while proceeding with criminal charges, reprimands and suspensions. It wasn’t until General Antonio Taguba’s report of his investigation was seen by reporter Seymour Hersh, and the shocking photos were seen on CBS’s Sixty Minutes II, that the story became a “scandal,” and claims surfaced that Rumsfeld and the military had been orchestrating a cover-up.
Clearly much of what went on in Abu Ghraib was wrong, stupid and counterproductive. The apologies from Bush and Rumsfeld reflect the higher standard to which America holds itself. Significantly, the Taguba report reveals that many of these detainees who were mistreated were among the worst prisoners. Some had started riots and attacked the guards with rocks and feces. While not justifying the brutality, it may help to understand it. Plus, it can’t be forgotten that the prisoners were being interrogated so that information could be obtained which could save American soldiers’ lives. It would be helpful if more reporters made this simple, basic and factual point. There are 135,000 American troops in Iraq trying to complete the successful liberation of Iraq. Why have the media forgotten about them?