Before you assess blame for torture, remember Sabrina Harman

Before you assess blame for torture, remember Sabrina Harman

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Sabrina Harman | Image: Screen shot - Navy Released image
Sabrina Harman | Image: Screen shot - Navy Released image

WASHINGTON, December 14, 2014 – Do you remember Sabrina Harman? Probably not. She was a Specialist in the 372nd Military Police. Apparently, she wanted to be a police forensic photographer when she got out of the military.

Well, that was pretty well eliminated as a career path after she was sentenced to six months in a Navy brig and a bad-conduct discharge after her photos of Abu Ghraib made it into the press. Pity that her training to be a manager of a Papa John’s Pizza hadn’t included the Geneva Conventions. After all, one of the reasons that the 372nd took those photos was, since they were neither trained in interrogation nor, in fact, in guarding a prison, was to try and make sure they were doing the right thing.

This is from an article by Phil Gourevitch in a 2008 issue of The New Yorker,

“The officer in charge of the block at night, Corporal Charles Graner, said that he made a point of showing his photographs to officers higher up the chain of command, and that nobody objected to what they saw.”

One of the officers he showed these terrible photos was his captain (a former window blind salesman) who sent him a note,

“You are doing a fine job. . . . You have received many accolades from the M.I. units here.”

All those accolades from Military Intelligence must have warmed Graner’s heart as he did six and a half years in Fort Leavenworth.

Yes, the United States Government meted justice out to the citizen-soldiers of the 372nd, after all, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in his memoirs:

“These acts could not have been authorized by anyone in the chain of command, nor could they have been any part of an intelligence-gathering or interrogation effort. Rather they were the senseless crimes of a small group of prison guards who ran amok in the absence of proper supervision.”

I’m not even going to make a joke about “unknown unknowns” since it’s now very clear that the entire intelligence establishment—including Rumsfeld’s Military Intelligence–was well aware of the use of what the prosecutors at Nuremberg used to call “the third degree” although in German it’s better translated as “enhanced interrogation.”

OK, OK. I’m not going to call Don Rumsfeld a Nazi. I will call him incompetent instead.

What’s so terrifying about the revelations of widespread torture by the CIA (known in the Abu Ghraib cell blocks, where they were constant visitors, as ‘OGA’—Other Government Agency) is the sheer incompetence of it all. Sadly, it goes right along with a war where the attack was made with “the army you have and not the army you want,” without sufficient armor for the vehicles our troops rode in, and without a clear plan of what to do after the invasion was over.

Well, there was a clear plan, as a matter of fact almost a half dozen clear plans, but they were actively rejected and ignored because Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith and the leaders of this invasion were living in a cartoon world where the best outcome was always inevitable.

Here was the Vice President’s prediction three days before the invasion.

RUSSERT: If your analysis is not correct, and we’re not treated as liberators but as conquerors, and the Iraqis begin to resist, particularly in Baghdad, do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly, and bloody battle with significant American casualties?

CHENEY: Well, I don’t think it’s likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators…

The use of torture came about by a very similar and equally stupid way of thinking: if the professional interrogators in the military and the FBI refuse to use these techniques, let’s find someone who will. The techniques are right so the interrogators must be wrong.

Enter Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, a pair of psychologists who had never performed an interrogation in their lives. Their experience lay in operating the military’s SERE program (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape), which uses old enemy techniques from the Korean War to give troops a taste of what to expect if they fall into the hands of cruel and lawless nations.

Who would have thought that they would succeed in turning the United States into a cruel and lawless nation? And for only $81 Million.

Under the cartoon view of the world where Good Guys can break the law because, well, they’re Good Guys; those in charge had to reject the “experts.” After all, FM 34-52, the US Army Field Manual for Intelligence Interrogation (1992) states:

“…US policy expressly prohibit[s] acts of violence or intimidation, including physical or mental torture, threats, insults, or exposure to inhumane treatment as a means of or aid to interrogation.”

The primary reasons given for this wimpy attitude is that it’s illegal under the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Military Code of Justice, may put the lives of captured fellow troops and civilians in danger, is unnecessary, and ends up with “unreliable results.” However, the deciders in this farce had a better example.

Heck, it always worked for Jack Bauer.

Poor Jack. In only 5 days, he performed 67 acts of torture—more than one per hour. It must have been exhausting but it always worked; a little electricity or a knife in the right place and the answer would pop right out.

Well, not so much. In 2006, the dean of West Point and three of the best interrogators in the military and at the FBI, flew to California to beg the writers and producers of “24” to cut it out because it was adversely affecting the training of interrogators. You see, in the cartoon world, it’s OK because you’re always right, the guy in front of you always has the right information, and the ticking time bomb always gets stopped.

Real life is different; in a 2007 New Yorker article on “24,” one of the FBI’s top interrogators—a veteran of twelve thousand interrogations–said “only a psychopath could torture like that and not be affected. You don’t want a guy like that in your outfit.”

Now that the Senate Intelligence Committee has released it’s report—showing that torture was used, torture was used hundreds of times, and torture was stupid because it never elicited any useful facts—we are faced with a choice we’ve had to face many times before.

Are we going to be a nation where incompetent (but patriotic) people commit crimes against political opponents (Watergate,) or turn 1960s Laos into a free fire zone (Kennedy,) or infiltrate and provoke other Americans who are exercising their right to free speech (COINTELPRO,) or think of revolution as some sort of exciting crusade (Weathermen,) or keep non-people prisoner forever in a prison camp that sort of doesn’t exist (Gitmo?)

Finally, are we going to put a bunch of blue-collar low-ranking soldiers in prison for the crime of taking photographs and allow their superior officers, the command structure above them, and the civilian command at the Pentagon and in the CIA to walk away without so much as a reprimand?

I’m afraid I know the answer but I always feel I should at least ask the question.

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Terry Irving
Terry Irving is an American four-time Emmy award-winning writer and producer. He has won three Peabody Awards, three DuPont Awards and has been a producer, editor or writer with ABC, CNN, Fox and MSNBC. He was in Washington DC in 1973 for a few weeks until deciding on career where he ended up riding a classic BMW R50/2 for ABC News during Watergate. Carrying that news film was the beginning of a 40-year long career that has included producing Emmy Award-winning television news, writing everything from magazine articles to standup comedy and developing many of the earliest forms of online media. Follow Terry on Twitter @TerryIrving; On Facebook or at his website