Gray Areas

Phil Carter has some excellent analysis of Sy Hersh’s latest piece on the Abu Ghraib scandal, which alleges that Rumsfeld and other high DoD officials authorized the use of abusive treatment. The Pentagon is denying these allegations in the strongest terms. My instinct is to trust Rumsfeld more than Hersh at this point, but the truth will certainly come out in the weeks ahead. Clearly, though, it was official policy to allow intense fear and disorientation as a tactic in certain cases.

Phil has some interesting thoughts on the nature of command responsibiliy and the difficulty in refusing illegal orders with which I agree. Still, while from a legal standpoint it’s hard to draw a line between standard tough interrogation techniques like sleep deprivation and “stress positions” and the more severe abuses at Abu Ghraib, it seems to me that there’s a rather bright line morally and psychologically. Keeping someone awake is mean but it’s hardly immoral. Goodness knows, the Army uses what Hersh terms “torture light” in training its own soldiers. I’ve experienced much of it as I’m sure has Phil. Anyone who’s gone to Ranger school, Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, or a Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape course has done it in spades. Sometimes, these hazing rituals shift into abuse when handled by immature or sadistic people. But it’s still a far cry from sexual humiliation and some of the other horrors at Abu Ghraib.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Moe Lane says:

    Anonymous sources, huh? Guess Hersh thought that continuing to have a career in journalism was more important than bringing down Sec. Rumsfeld – and, by proxy, President Bush.

    And that’s the favorable take on this.

  2. Hal says:

    Ah, poisoning the well again, eh Moe?

  3. cas says:

    I would like to know what type of documentation the Army’s investigation has uncovered detailing the charges/allegations of these prisoners. If these were the same b*st*rds who have been planting roadside bombs to blow up the convoys, I would like an explanation from Mr. Hersh and other critics as to why they care more about the treatment of terrorists (what else would YOU call them? “freedom fighters”?) than they do about Americans such as Mr Berg. What exactly was Mr. Berg’s offense again? Oh yeah, he had a US passport…

  4. Moe Lane says:

    “Ah, poisoning the well again, eh Moe?”

    Just reminding you that those heady, intoxicating words being breathed in your ear aren’t actually backed up by anything except Hersh’s say-so. But if that’s your thing, feel free. Just make sure that you wash your hands afterwards.

  5. Hal says:

    Duh. But I guess you were saying the same thing before the war with all the “unnamed sources” regarding the WMD that didn’t exist or the non-existent Al Qaeda connections to Iraq.

    Oh wait, when it fits your world view, it’s okay!

    If he’s completely offbase, then he’ll look like an idiot. But Sy’s record isn’t like Drudges. You may not like what he says but he has a rock solid history of being right.

    Or do you have any examples where he’s been spectacularly wrong?

  6. Hal says:

    BTW, here’s a long piece on Hersh’s carreer by the Columbia Journalism Review.

  7. Moe Lane says:

    “Or do you have any examples where he’s been spectacularly wrong?”

    Not handy. Don’t need ’em, either. Look, Hal, I know that you’ve got problems with reading comprehension, not to mention a distressing tendency to use the current administration as a convenient focus for your innate fears, but this is hardly Sociology 101, let alone rocket science. Sy Hersh has no inherent right to have his pronouncements be trusted without question. If he says that somebody told him something, I want to know the name of the person who told it; if he won’t give it, then he’s got no kick coming if he isn’t believed.

    You may go now.


  8. Hal says:

    Wow! Thanks for taking a serious discussion and turning it to sh*t by climbing on the high horse and slashing out with the velvet glove. Way to prove your point.

    Love ya baby.

  9. Moe Lane says:

    Any time, Hal, any time.

  10. Hal says:

    Moe, how childish. What? Are we going out to the alley to see who’s the real man?

    Anyways, it’s now no longer just based on Hersh’s account. Newsweek has joined in with their own investigations. I guess you will now be saying the same things about John Barry, Michael Hirsh and Michael Isikoff?

    The Bush administration created a bold legal framework to justify this system of interrogation, according to internal government memos obtained by NEWSWEEK. What started as a carefully thought-out, if aggressive, policy of interrogation in a covert war—designed mainly for use by a handful of CIA professionals—evolved into ever-more ungoverned tactics that ended up in the hands of untrained MPs in a big, hot war. Originally, Geneva Conventions protections were stripped only from Qaeda and Taliban prisoners. But later Rumsfeld himself, impressed by the success of techniques used against Qaeda suspects at Guantanamo Bay, seemingly set in motion a process that led to their use in Iraq, even though that war was supposed to have been governed by the Geneva Conventions. Ultimately, reservist MPs, like those at Abu Ghraib, were drawn into a system in which fear and humiliation were used to break prisoners’ resistance to interrogation.

    It’s perfectly fine to point out that articles based on anonymous sources should be taken with more than a grain of salt.

    I assume we’ll be seeing an apology from you regarding the slamming of Hersh now that we have confirmation?

  11. dburbach says:

    ABC and Newsweek, with their own reporting, confirm some of Hersh’s claims.

    ABC also finds that JAG officers were complaining and getting nowhere with OSD, and eventually started encouraging the NY State Bar to try to take action against the Pentagon.

    ABC: JAG Warnings Neglected

    Newsweek talks about secret authorizations for aggressive interogation methods — “tantamount to torture”, their words — and cooperation between the CIA, OSD, and MI in that regard, though in the Newsweek version the CIA comes off worse and OSD better than in the Hersh version, and there is no specific discussion of a special-access program as in Hersh. But still, Newsweek concludes that things go up into OSD and that it’s hard to square the flat denials from Rumsfeld and others with what they have learned.

    Newsweek: The Roots of Torture

  12. Moe Lane says:

    “Moe, how childish.”

    You should talk: you were the one who personalized this. “Poisoning the well again” was the comment, I believe.

    As for the Newsweek article, your article doesn’t offer any named proof that Rumsfeld authorized the Abu Ghraib torments, either.


  13. Hal says:

    Uh, poisoning the well is exactly what you were doing. I can’t help but be personal when you – the person – were doing it. If you don’t like the tag, then don’t do it.

  14. Moe Lane says:

    1). “Poisoning the well” is the presentation of unfavorable information in the attempt to discredit the speaker. What I did was to note that his use of anonymous sources discredited him, and gave as charitable a reason as I could think of as to why. All the others were worse.

    2). You apparently forgot that you added the tag ‘again’, which switches that comment from criticism to attack. Which is your right, of course, but don’t play the innocent. You were, in fact, accusing me of the very thing that you were criticizing me for: suggesting that I was engaged in illogical debating techniques rather than addressing the issue.

    Good day, sir.

  15. Michael says:

    It’s not as if one only has Hersh’s word for these things. Cambone himself admitted, during Rummy’s big testimony day last Friday, that he was responsible for sending Geoffrey “Gitmo” Miller to Iraq to consult on interrogation policy. More about Cambone here. Most of the logic Hersh develops in his piece for the chain of decision-making is readily available to be synthesized from public sources, along with a dash of common sense. Chief contribution of the new article is in its description of the Special Access Programs and their interaction with the Iraq prison system, and yes, given the extraordinary secrecy surrounding the SAPs, somebody’s word is going to have to be taken about them. The preponderance of evidence, though, and the development of the story in the last couple of weeks, mean that Hersh’s word in this instance carries a good bit of weight.

    Reading A1, the NY Times front page project

  16. Moe Lane says:

    Correction: “You were, in fact, engaged in the very thing that you were criticizing me for”

  17. Hal says:

    ??? So what unfavorable information did I first present, other than the unfavorable information that you were – in fact – poisoning the well? And yes, I was chiding you for parading a logical fallacy as sound information. I didn’t say “Moe is a big fat idiot so you shouldn’t listen to his logical fallacy”. I just pointed out that you – you know – were posioning the well.

    Pretzel logic, Moe. Pointing out fallacies is not poisoning the well – by definition.

  18. Moe Lane says:

    “??? So what unfavorable information did I first present, other than the unfavorable information that you were – in fact – poisoning the well”

    Your implication that I had a history of engaging in such behavior, which is certainly “trying to discredit what a person might later claim by presenting unfavorable information (be it true or false) about the person”. That being said, if you wish to withdraw the inferences weighing down that ‘again’ as, shall we say, ‘unintentional?’ – I will certainly withdraw my own, more personalized commentary as happening in the heat of the moment.

  19. Hal says:

    🙂 I shall humbly withdraw the “again”. I will be more vigilant in the future.

  20. Moe Lane says:

    Then I apologize for my own comments re you as being intemperate, unfair and unworthy of this fine weblog.

  21. Re: Sy Hersh’s factual accuracy–Frontpagemag had a piece on him within the past few weeks on the topic. I’m too lazy to link it…but it’s there. Just FYI.

  22. Zayphar says:

    For Hersh’s accusation to be true, Rumsfeld and Cambrone would have had to have perjured themselves in front of the Senate.

    I will have to see some real evidence before I believe they committed a felony by lying under oath. They might dissemble, equivocate, avoid or refuse to answer. But risk imprisonment?

    While I am no a big fan of Rumsfeld, I just don’t believe he would do this.

    Peace and Freedom for an Independent Iraq

  23. James Barner says:

    Moe Lane,

    I can’t believe you. I’ve seen you post with credibility before, many times; suddenly you have a problem with anonymous sources and the very concept of journalists protecting their sources?

    Please explain why these concepts no longer need apply.

  24. Rich Gardner says:

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned the elitist snobbery pervasive throughout the Hersch article. Plus major generalizations.

    For example, why was this quote needed, other than to make NYC mavens feel superior? “Recycled hillbillies from Cumberland, Maryland.” We are talking about a town 3 hours from DC. I invite you to make up a racial phrase to substitute for “recycled hillbillies,” and think about the outcry that would cause. I, probably unlike Hersch and his source, have actually visited Cumberland, and listened to their Friday afternoon jazz concert on the main shopping street (closed to auto traffic). The bigots are those involved in writing the article; there is an agenda here.

    Then we have the “especially humiliating for Iraqi men.” As opposed to whom? Guys in a leather bar in San Francisco? Or members of the Southern Baptist Convention? Hassidic Jews? American POWs?

    For a generalizations, “embittered the American intelligence community” – That is very overarching. Who exactly was embittered? I think the answer is Hersch’s sources.

    And then there is “coöperation ” – what style book are they using? When I try to pronounce that, I sound like someone from the UP of Michigan.

    I don’t like what happened in the prison, but likewise wonder about the agenda of this article, which I think is politically biased. The neocon discussion was really out there.

    I also think there should be an investigation to determine who leaked classified information to Hersch, and they should then be prosecuted, regardless of their level.

  25. patience says:

    Shoot the messenger all you want guys. Rumsfeld created the sap, Cambone executed it, Bush signed off on it.

    To frame this in context for you guys:
    Its not like Rumsfled got a blow job from an intern and lied. He created a secret program whose purpose was to force its subject to give each other blowjobs on digital film so that they would be blackmailed into infiltrate our enemies institutions. Talk about making friends and influencing people!

    There are reems and reems of video and piles of photos in the Military Intelligence archives and piles of documentation on the created, indexed and analyzed under direction of this program. Its all real and this administration has fingerprints all over it. Frankly the public record shows how long and hard they fought to create these types of things, and now the chickens have come home to roost.

    You are correct in indicating interagency pissing matches, but what you miss is the large section within the military and defense department that is fed up with this administration and its petty politics, its fantasy based foreign policy, and its lack of adult leadership. This isn’t just one guy leaking this story. This is the entire Military/Intel/Defense complex vomiting the scum that is in this administration.

    There is no bottom to this scandal.

  26. patience says:

    Here’s the kind of honest people that are fed up with this administration. These guys fought tooth and nail to prevent Copper Green from coming about and were silenced and ignored by the administration.

  27. Tuttle says:

    My instinct is to trust Rumsfeld more than Hersh at this point…

    You sir just might be interested in this bridge I’m looking to sell up in Brooklyn.

  28. melior says:

    Denial is a natural phase to go through. Anger is often next, that’s healthy too. Just try to direct appropriately, at the war criminals who did this and not at the messengers.

    Oh, and when you get to acceptance, there’s a candidate who’s a genuine war hero ready to begin the difficult job of restoring our country’s damaged standing in the world. You can take the first step to redeem your conscience by voting for him in November.

  29. Rico Vermicelli says:

    Shorter Moe Lane:

    “Nyah nyah NYAH nyah! I have my FINGERS in my EARS! I can’t HEAR you!”