Responding to the most serious questions we confront as a nation, the Bush administration can routinely be expected to hide, obfuscate and deceive. If credible information indicates that high-ranking government and military officials permitted and even encouraged the horrific abuse of foreign detainees, the administration assures us that a few bad soldiers can be blamed. If honest statistics indicate that the “war on terror” is achieving less than advertised, the administration buries the report in which those numbers are traditionally published.
Twice within a single week, in a telling coincidence, the administration displayed its dogged commitment to concealment. On April 15, the State Department admitted that it plans to withhold the data on terrorist incidents compiled for the annual, Congressionally mandated report, Patterns of Global Terrorism, which the department must release at the end of the month. And on April 22, the Army celebrated the first anniversary of the exposure of the Abu Ghraib scandal by announcing that an internal investigation had “exonerated” four senior officers responsible for military prisons in Iraq, despite previous findings of culpability.
In neither instance was the government’s soothing voice believable. In both instances, independent voices spoke out almost instantly to discredit the government’s bland assurances. In a free society, lying still incurs at least that much risk.
The Army’s effort to limit prosecution to a group of enlisted personnel-and to discipline only a single officer, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski-was thoroughly rebutted by a new report from the diligent, nonpartisan monitors at Human Rights Watch. Their detailed, 95-page report-titled Getting Away with Torture?-was released on April 24. It’s well worth reading in its entirety (www.hrw.org reports/2005/us0405/), but its essential message is that while justice is brought to bear on the miscreants at the bottom, a “wall of impunity” protects those at the top.
“Evidence is mounting that high-ranking U.S. civilian and military leaders-including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former CIA Director George Tenet, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, formerly the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Major General Geoffrey Miller, the former commander of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba-made decisions and issued policies that facilitated serious and widespread violations of the law,” the report charges. “The circumstances strongly suggest that they either knew or should have known that such violations took place as a result of their actions. There is also mounting data that, when presented with evidence that abuse was in fact taking place, they failed to act to stem the abuse.”
Generals Sanchez and Miller are among the officers whom the Army inspector general just exonerated; and, of course, the President has publicly praised (and rehired) Mr. Rumsfeld, while awarding the Medal of Freedom to Mr. Tenet. To restore honor and integrity, Human Rights Watch recommends appointment of a special counsel and independent commission to investigate torture, apportion responsibility, report findings and prosecute when warranted.
As for State’s annual terrorism report, which has been issued every year for decades, the department’s spokespersons insist that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice omitted the usual numbers about incidents and casualties for purely bureaucratic reasons. Those numbers will henceforth be compiled and analyzed by the National Counterterrorism Center. But the spokespersons couldn’t say when or whether those figures will ever be released to the public and the press.
The real reason for withholding the numbers, according to independent experts, is that they don’t support the boasts of the Bush administration. Larry C. Johnson, a former counterterrorism official at the C.I.A. and the State Department, reported on his Web log that the raw data already has leaked out-and didn’t look very good.
What the State Department terms “significant incidents” rose from 175 attacks in 2003 to 655 in 2004. Nearly one-third of those incidents occurred in Iraq, but that total only includes attacks on foreign aid workers and American civilians-not on Iraqi civilians or U.S. military personnel.
As Mr. Johnson explained, the State Department “didn’t want to have to explain to the press why they’re ‘winning’ the war on terror, but the numbers are the highest ever in the 37 years since they’ve been reporting the data. If terrorist incidents had dropped 50 per cent, do you think they’d be eliminating the report?”
Last year, the same State Department report hailed the administration’s triumphs against terrorism. Ranking officials held a special press conference, with colorful charts and graphs, to announce its cheery findings. Unfortunately, the report turned out to be so badly marred by wrong statistics and false conclusions that then-Secretary Colin Powell withdrew the document and had it rewritten. The real numbers were considerably less uplifting-which seems to be true this year, too. So now the government will simply withhold the data.
The Bush administration clearly doesn’t believe that the American public can handle the truth about terror and torture. What we have to ask ourselves is why they’re so confident that we will accept anything less.