You are herecontent / Truth about Torture
Truth about Torture
By Michael Hirsh
07 November 2005 Issue
A courageous soldier and a determined senator demand clear standards.
Army Capt. Ian Fishback is plainly a very brave man. Crazy brave, even. Not only has the 26-year-old West Pointer done a tour in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, he has had the guts to suggest publicly that his boss, Donald Rumsfeld, lied to Congress. After making headlines a month ago for alleging that systematic interrogation abuses occurred in Iraq-and that the Pentagon was not forthright about it-the plain-spoken Fishback went back to Fort Bragg, N.C. He is now practicing small-unit tactics in the woods for a month as part of Special Forces training. After that, he hopes to fight for his country once again overseas.
Fishback's courage in taking a lonely stand may be paying off. Inspired by his example, "a growing critical mass of soldiers is coming forward with allegations of abuse," says Marc Garlasco of Human Rights Watch, the New York-based activist group that first revealed Fishback's story. One of them is Anthony Lagouranis, a Chicago-based Army specialist who recently left the military. He supports Fishback's contention that abuses in Iraq were systematic-and were authorized by officers in an effort to pressure detainees into talking. "I think our policies required abuse," says Lagouranis. "There were freaking horrible things people were doing. I saw [detainees] who had feet smashed with hammers. One detainee told me he had been forced by Marines to sit on an exhaust pipe, and he had a softball-sized blister to prove it. The stuff I did was mainly torture lite: sleep deprivation, isolation, stress positions, hypothermia. We used dogs."
Fishback has also won a devoted and powerful ally in Sen. John McCain, who says that the captain's tale "is what I view as the tip of the iceberg in the military today." Fishback's account has proved to be a prime exhibit in McCain's long-running feud with Rumsfeld over conduct of the Iraq war. In a long letter to Congress obtained by NEWSWEEK, Fishback told McCain and others in Congress that when the Defense secretary testified before Congress in the aftermath of the 2004 Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, Rumsfeld did not accurately represent what was occurring in Iraq.
Fishback said that many of the brutal practices shown in the Abu Ghraib photos-which the Pentagon called the work of a few rogue soldiers "on the night shift"-were actually "in accordance with what I perceived as U.S. policy." After he heard Rumsfeld testify in May 2004 that the U.S. forces were following the Geneva Conventions in Iraq, Fishback wrote: "I was immediately concerned that the Army was taking part in a lie to the Congress, which would have been a clear violation of the Constitution." Based on what he saw, Geneva rules for prisoner treatment were not being followed, he says. And for 17 months, a frustrated Fishback tried to get a clear answer about what standards were being used- consulting his superior officers, Army lawyers, even a professor of philosophy at West Point, Col. Daniel Zupan. He says he never got an answer. A devout Christian, Fishback held soul-searching discussions with fellow officers in Bible class about what he should do. In the end he went to Human Rights Watch for guidance.
Like Fishback, McCain has grown keenly frustrated by the lack of clarity in the Bush administration's interrogation policies. The Arizona senator, a former POW who was tortured in Vietnam, is now battling the administration over an amendment he has attached to the new defense appropriations bill. It would set down, once and for all, what is allowed in interrogation rooms. In simple, clear language, the two-and-a-half-page amendment forbids cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment "regardless of nationality or physical location"-and defines such treatment as the same as that which is prohibited under the U.S. Constitution. In a rebuke to President George W. Bush last month, the GOP-controlled Senate voted 90-9 to approve the McCain amendment.
The Bush administration has consistently maintained that it is not U.S. policy to abuse prisoners. But Bush has threatened to veto the entire appropriations bill if it contains McCain's language-all in an effort to preserve the right to treat prisoners in whatever way the president decides is necessary. Last week Vice President Dick Cheney, with CIA Director Porter Goss in tow, met with McCain to try to persuade him to exclude the CIA from any restrictions. The administration also sought to cut out the term "regardless of physical location," McCain said in an interview. The Washington Post, in a harsh editorial, later branded Cheney "the vice president for torture." Cheney's spokeswoman, Lea Anne McBride, said she had no comment on the McCain meeting. CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Dyck also declined to talk about it. But John Yoo, a former Justice Department official who drafted an August 2002 memo that justified rough methods, said last week that the administration should continue to treat terrorists differently overseas because they "do not operate according to the Geneva Conventions."
Critics, many of them inside the military, say Yoo and other administration hawks have never understood that U.S. observance of Geneva rules is not dependent on what the enemy does. As McCain puts it: "This isn't about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies." He says the administration could make things worse than they already are by putting a law on the books that will, in effect, authorize abusive practices at overseas facilities. "We aren't going to allow any weakening of language," McCain told NEWSWEEK. If the present bill is vetoed or watered down, he adds, "we will certainly put it on another piece of legislation. I think we could get 90 votes tomorrow." Even at senior levels of the Pentagon, some officials are uneasy about the administration's opposition to the McCain amendment. "The uniformed military is appalled by Cheney's stand," says a Pentagon official who would talk only if he were not identified.
For a year and a half now, the administration has sought to make the Abu Ghraib scandal go away. When questioned about abuses, the Pentagon regularly cites the sheer numbers of punishments it has administered to U.S. personnel-230 cases in all, including jail sentences, demotions and other nonjudicial discipline.
But Defense officials rarely point out that no senior officers or civilian officials have been charged since Abu Ghraib. Other officers say they too are seething over the lack of accountability at senior levels. Colonel Zupan, the West Point philosophy teacher, says he himself should have acted when he was deployed in Afghanistan and heard of similar abuses. "I didn't raise my eyebrows about it," he said. "I think it was wrong of me. And if I didn't, as a field officer, then how are we going to be too harsh on an enlisted soldier?"
The Army has sought to paint Fishback as a lone malcontent. Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman, says the Army Criminal Investigation Division was investigating the captain's allegations. He calls Fishback's long letter "verbiage" and says he had no comment on the questions raised about Rumsfeld's veracity. But NEWSWEEK has obtained corroboration for Fishback's central point in the Army's own files. According to papers released by the Defense Department in September in response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, supporting documents for an inspector-general probe in July 2004 show that abuses were much more widespread than the Army acknowledged. In one IG document, an Army sergeant testifies that putting detainees in stressful positions and pouring water on them "seemed to be something all interrogators" in the Fourth Infantry Division were doing.
Before heading into the Fort Bragg woods this week, Fishback told NEWSWEEK that he doesn't want to talk to the media now. "I will just say: I support clear standards in accordance with American values," he said. Judging from the firestorm he started, he may someday get them.