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Lessons from Abu Ghraib

Nicholas Johnson

Guest Opinion
The Daily Iowan
May 11, 2004

Two lessons from the Abu Ghraib prison abuses deserve more attention. (1) It's all too common for institutional administrators to be more concerned with public relations than with responsible oversight. (2) Given this fact, it's literally un-American when our media are intimidated or silenced -- whether from government censorship or self-censorship.

The Army may be stretched thin. There may have been inadequate training and supervision. But there's little doubt torture-without-physical-evidence is sometimes used before interrogation by Military Intelligence and CIA. reports that, "Much of what Americans now do in Iraq comes right out of the CIA's Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual, published in 1983." This seems to be confirmed by Gen. Antonio M. Taguba's detailed report, available since March, which acknowledges the Americans involved were ordered by superiors to "set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses."

After 9/11 President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that Geneva Convention rules wouldn't always apply in the "war on terrorism." Reports of these very abuses were sent them for months. Rumsfeld confirmed they talked about them in January.

The International Red Cross, Human Rights Watch, and others complained for over a year to American officials high and low. Iraq Civil Administrator Paul Bremer expressed serious concern. And similar reports surfaced from Afghanistan and Guantanamo.

It is simply not credible to characterize what happened in Iraq as a few unsupervised youngsters out of control.

Given that Red Cross spokesperson Antonella Notari has said, "The photos are certainly shocking, but our reports are worse," how can one account for the administration's failure to respond to those reports?

As Secretary Rumsfeld testified before the Senate, "It is the photographs, the people running around with digital cameras."

The problem, in short, was the public relations impact on American citizens (and possibly the president's re-election), and on Iraqis' "hearts and minds." The problem was not our pre-interrogation techniques, the problem was the pictures of those techniques. No cameras, no problem.

Before we get too shocked about this administrative response we need to reflect. Just how unusual is it?

Think back over publicized scandals involving deaths in hospitals, unsafe products, journalists' fraudulent stories, tobacco companies' lies, sexual abuse in the church, manufacturers' toxic dumps, or universities' athletic programs. How often have they involved facts well known to top administrators for some time? Or, if not known, facts that would have been known with even rudimentary monitoring and management information systems?

Without media coverage, whistle blowers are often ignored, even when they propose solutions. Remember the repeated warnings that contractors' practices risked setting the Old Capitol dome on fire? Recall Ralph Nader's proposal, many years before 9/11, that terrorists' hijacking of airplanes could be prevented by strengthening cockpit doors?

There are lessons for all institutional administrators from Abu Ghraib. Don't think you get the big bucks just for favorable public relations. Substance matters. Ethics matter. Human dignity matters.

Moreover, in our self-governing society citizens must know what's going on. Imagine if the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs had been successful in their secret efforts to prevent CBS' broadcast of the photos. After all, CBS earlier bowed to pressure not to broadcast the program about Ronald Reagan.

Sinclair recently insisted the ABC affiliates it owns not carry the "Nightline" program honoring our war dead lest it harm Bush's re-election. Clear Channel banned the Dixie Chicks' songs after one of the group criticized Bush. Disney is refusing to distribute Michael Moore's new award-winning film because it might distress the Bush family.

Given that administrators often either don't care about, or want to suppress, what the public needs to know, courageous media are essential.

Once we have to listen to the BBC and read the British Guardian to know what's going on in our own country, let alone the rest of the world, we're in much deeper trouble than that caused by a few photos from prison.
Nicholas Johnson, a former Director of the War Shipping Authority and Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law and can be reached through