Word games, a favorite pastime in Washington, don't seem so playful during times of war.
Recent statements from the Pentagon seemed to echo denials from an earlier era - Watergate. They began when Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker reported that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had personally approved a secret program for interrogating detainees that festered into the prison abuse scandal in Iraq.
Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita responded by calling Hersh's article "outlandish, conspiratorial, and filled with error and anonymous conjecture."
"This story seems to reflect the fevered insights of those with little, if any connection to the activities in the Department of Defense," he wrote.
In translation, he's saying: "Hey, that Hersh is nuts!" Except for one seemingly small instance, however, Di Rita did not directly rebut Hersh's report - though it makes the case that Rumsfeld is culpable for the physical and emotional abuse endured by Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. troops. Newsweek has since published similar findings, though its tone was more restrained.
Similar rhetorical tactics have influenced how the press chose to cover troubling news in the past. When men paid by President Nixon's campaign were caught breaking into Democratic Party headquarters in 1972, Nixon's press secretary, Ron Ziegler, called the episode "a third-rate burglary attempt." Later he denounced the Washington Post's Watergate coverage as being "based on hearsay, innuendo, guilt by association."
The "that's nuts" approach worked - at least for awhile. Much of the rest of the media initially took its cues from Ziegler's dismissiveness. Many newspapers referred to the Watergate break-in as a "caper," as though it were a college prank.
A similar approach
Rumsfeld also used misdirection - a "look at this hand, not that hand" approach - to brush off questions about whether U.S. troops had tortured prisoners in Iraq. Rumsfeld told reporters: "My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture ... I don't know if ... it is correct to say what you just said, that torture has taken place, or that there's been a conviction for torture. And therefore I'm not going to address the torture word."
Yet it's not hard to see torture in some of the pictures obtained and published so far by the media of abuses at Abu Ghraib. And the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and a subsequent international protocol of 1984, both of which have been signed and ratified by the U.S. government as law, do address the torture word. The 1984 document states:
"The term 'torture' means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him ... or intimidating or coercing him."
The U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996 makes such conduct by a member of the U.S. armed forces a "war crime" punishable by fine, imprisonment or, in cases resulting in death to the victim, the death penalty.
By definition then, it doesn't matter whether the prisoners were innocent or had taken up arms against the coalition forces, or whether the inmate photographed wearing a hood and attached to electrical wires was actually in danger of being electrocuted. Detailed allegations of sodomy, assault and unjustified homicide, if proven accurate, seem even more clear-cut. All these actions appear to fit the definition of torture.
The intense media attention on the Abu Ghraib pictures - while critical - also means that additional credible accusations of other instances of abuse by American troops may be receiving less scrutiny than they deserve. Gathered by reporters and human rights workers who interviewed detainees, these reports include allegations of abuse in prisons in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
So far, the press has been reluctant to attach the word "torture" to the alleged treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other U.S.-run detention centers. The hesitance is understandable, and viewed from at least one vantage point, admirable: American troops are facing courts martial, and the U.S. legal system - even under the military - presumes innocence until a guilty verdict is rendered.
None of this necessarily says that the U.S. troops under investigation acted with approval or knowledge of senior officials, or that the deaths of captives will prove to be criminal, or that the abuses even remotely approached those under Saddam Hussein's regime. But Rumsfeld has, at least for domestic consumption, warded off a term that carries oppressive weight.
The defense secretary is a veteran of the Washington game who knows how to use language carefully. More than two years ago, he declared that prisoners held in Afghanistan were not entitled to the safeguards of the Geneva Conventions, but that troops would observe "the spirit" of the conventions. By describing the prisoners this way, he explicitly placed them outside international protections - while seeming to champion human rights. The mainstream media - especially television - gave the issue slight coverage.
Only after CBS' 60 Minutes II broadcast the images from Abu Ghraib, and Hersh obtained an internal Pentagon memo documenting the abuses at the prison, did the condition of prisoners receive wide public scrutiny. On NBC's Today Show, Rumsfeld said that the military had been open about the investigation: "There was no secret about it. They went right before the world in Iraq and told the Iraqi people, the American people, everyone, 'Be on notice. There have been these charges made.'"
But the public statement released in mid-January simply said that Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez had ordered an investigation "into reported incidents of detainee abuse at a coalition forces detention facility." The media were kept in the dark about details of the allegations for several months, as were leading members of Congress.
Reporters and editors need to demand a higher standard of transparency than that shown by the Defense Department. Hersh's charges warrant a more complete rebuttal or, failing that, a thorough response. Rumsfeld should be pressed on why the conduct of U.S. troops do not constitute torture.
And, despite their role in later bringing the story to light, the media should not have simply shunted bland announcements about topics as important as prisoner abuse to the back pages of newspapers and brief mentions in television news roundups without pushing for more information with a lot more persistence.
Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.