Prisoners of Hypocrisy

Anthony Lappé, Guerrilla News Network
March 25, 2003

Viewed on March 26, 2003

"American intelligence agents have been torturing terrorist suspects, or engaging in practices pretty close to torture. They have also been handing over suspects to countries, such as Egypt, whose intelligence agencies have a reputation for brutality."
-- The Economist, London, January 11

You probably haven't heard this said too many times on progressive sites like this one before, and you most likely won't hear it again soon, so enjoy: Donald Rumsfeld is right.

When Iraqi television aired footage of five American POWs being interrogated by Iraqi officials they did in fact violate the Geneva Conventions, as the visibly pissed off Secretary of Defense charged Sunday in interviews with CNN and other networks.

"It is absolutely clear that POWs have to be protected against insult and public curiosity under Article 13 of the [Third] Geneva Convention," Dina Dinah PoKempner, General Counsel for Human Rights Watch, told GNN. "Public humiliation isn't part of humane treatment."

The footage, which also included grisly images of dead American soldiers, aired around the world on the Arab-language Al-Jazeera network. The footage showed a prisoner who identified herself as Shoshana, 30, from Texas. Her eyes darted back and forth as she was interviewed and she held her arms tightly in her lap as she was questioned.

At one point, the camera panned back, showing a massive white bandage wrapped around her ankle. Her voice was very shaky.

The prisoners looked scared. One captive, who said he was from Kansas, answered all his questions in a shaky voice, his eyes darting back and forth between an interviewer and another person who couldn't be seen on camera.

Iraqi TV attempted to interview a wounded man lying down, at one point trying to cradle his head so it would hold steady for the camera.

Geneva Rules

The first Geneva Convention was held in 1864 to adopt a universal code of conduct for nations at war. In 1949 the Third Geneva Convention was signed in an effort to address the many abuses of prisoners and civilians suffered during World War II. It included provisions to protect captured soldiers from being used as propaganda tools.

With images of thousands of surrendering Iraqi troops being treated decently by U.S. and British forces over the last couple of days, it seems the Americans have, at least for now, scored a grim PR victory. Despite claims they are not mistreating the prisoners, the Iraqis appear thuggish.

However, the U.S. is in a precarious position to be complaining about Iraqi war crimes. In the already ignored Afghanistan campaign (which Dan Rather called the "forgotten war" this evening), the U.S. has a dismal human rights record.

In November 2001, it's alleged that Northern Alliance warlord, heroin trafficker and U.S. top-ally Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum rounded up hundreds of Taliban fighters on behalf of U.S. forces and stuffed them into cargo containers.

They were supposed to be headed for Sheberghan prison. But hundreds never made it. They were left to asphyxiate in the air-tight containers. Before dying, many licked each other's sweat, bit off their fingertips or tore into their own arms and legs -- and those of others -- in a desperate search for fluid.

A confidential UN memo leaked to Newsweek magazine in Sept. 2002 quoted a witness saying that 960 prisoners had died and were buried in mass graves near Dasht-i-Laili.

Taliban Johnny's Magic Carpet Ride

Then there's America's most famous "enemy combatant" Taliban Johnny, aka John Walker Lindh. Immediately after being captured following the the brutal prison rebellion at Mazar-e-Sharif, the frail, frightened American jihadist was interviewed by war zone aficionado Robert Young Pelton (who was staying at Dostum's compound at the time). According to an account in the New Yorker magazine, after asking his Special Forces buddies to wait to "shoot him" until he was done, Pelton interrogated the wounded Lindh under the gun of U.S. military personnel. Later the military stripped him naked, taped him to a gurney and threw him in the back of a transport plane back to the U.S. Pelton's interview ran on CNN and was used to convict Lindh for conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals and to provide material support to a terrorist organization. He is currently serving a 20-year sentence.

Gloves Come Off

Further complicating the United States' position on the top of the moral high ground are allegations of on-going mistreatment of Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners at Camp X-Ray, in Afghanistan and other "undisclosed" locations.

In December, the Washington Post ("U.S. Decries Abuse but Defends Interrogations," 12/26/02) exposed how U.S. interrogators at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, and at other overseas sites, have been systematically abusing al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners in a "brass-knuckled quest for information" to uncover future terrorist plots. "Take-down teams," consisting of U.S. Army Special Forces troops, FBI and CIA agents and Northern Alliance troops, blindfold and beat prisoners, throwing them into walls, binding them for long periods in contorted positions and depriving them of sleep for days at a time.

The teams then allegedly "package" some prisoners by hooding them, duct-taping them to stretchers and then flying them to friendly states less picky about the norms of human decency. According to the Post article, approximately 100 prisoners have been sent to basements in Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia for interrogations.

There has been little outcry over these charges because torture as an interrogation technique has largely been embraced by the American establishment.

When Cofer Black, then head of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center, told House and Senate intelligence committees in Sept. 2002 that "there was a before 9/11, and there was an after 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves come off" -- few politicians complained.

Influential Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter wrote in a Nov. 2002 article that while he didn't support legalizing physical torture in the U.S., he did suggest we consider using "legal" forms of psychological torture at home, while "transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies."

Even prominent liberals like celebrity civil rights attorney and death penalty opponent Alan Dershowitz have implicitly recognized a gray area between torture and humane treatment.

But human rights advocates have been clear. In a letter to President Bush, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote: "Torture is always prohibited under any circumstances. U.S. officials who take part in torture, authorize it, or even close their eyes to it, can be prosecuted by courts anywhere in the world."

Rumsfeld has insisted that Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners have been handled humanely. He will not, however, grant them "prisoner of war" status. The U.S. position is they are not part of a "regular" army, and are thus not protected by the Geneva Conventions -- a distinction that allows the Pentagon convenient wiggle-room.

Rumsfeld stated in Jan. 2002, "They will be handled not as prisoners of war, because they're not, but as unlawful combatants. Technically unlawful combatants do not have any rights under the Geneva Convention. We have indicated that we do plan to, for the most part, treat them in a manner that is reasonably consistent with the Geneva conventions, to the extent they are appropriate."

In other words, the law applies to us, only when we feel like it.

Let's hope, for Shoshana's sake, the Iraqis don't share such a flexible interpretation.

Anthony Lappé is Excutive Editor of He has written for The New York Times, New York, Details, and Salon, among many others.

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