May 31, 2005

Recommended Reading

Phil Carter has contributed to a "new interactive jurisprudence feature" on the detainee torture/abuse scandals up at Slate. I might not have called it "torturepalooza" (perhaps a tad glib!) but it certainly appears a very solid resource for those interested in accessing additional information in one convenient location.

Speaking of, don't miss this must-read post on the whole prisoner abuse scandals either. It's really sad that such a judicious post gets so many torture apologists up in arms in comments. Sad, but unfortunately not surprising any more. That worries me. But I am heartened there are conservatives like Jon Henke out there fighting the good fight on this issue. Truth be told, it sometimes feels a bit lonely. And it shouldn't. Investigating and/or writing about the murder of prisoners in U.S. military custody is not unpatriotic, is not an attack against the military, is not a cheap, partisan broadside against POTUS. It's about defending the basic moral values and legal norms underpinning our society. The fact that this is even mildly controversial among ostensibly serious people is quite astounding to me.

Posted by Gregory at May 31, 2005 05:36 AM | TrackBack (8)

General, er, now Colonel Karpinski was fired; and demoted. Fired in Jan. 2004, after the 0ct-Dec 2003 mess at Abu Ghraib, under her control.
I find this appropriate, proportional, and good.

You are absolutely right that the US military should investigate abuse, torture, and murder -- and that there should be some consequences.

When we've heard for a YEAR, almost every day, about Abu Ghraib, and torture, and how bad the USA is -- and Amnesty International calls Gitmo a "new Gulag", then you might be wrong when you say:
"Investigating and/or writing about the murder of prisoners in U.S. military custody is not unpatriotic, is not an attack against the military, is not a cheap, partisan broadside against POTUS."

If the purpose is to improve the military, it's patriotic. You claim it's your purpose and I respect your desire But I fear you complain too loudly about Unreal Perfection not being achieved -- how many in custody murders should be expected in a "good" system; not the perfect Zero, which is unreal?

If the purpose is to get the American people to decide that the Iraq war is wrong, like the Vietnam war, then the purpose is, essentially, to support the Islamist terrorists, and to support the murder of American soldiers.

Neither Amnesty nor Dan Rather nor Cronkite nor any anti-war activist that I am aware of has accepted that they were successful in getting the US to leave Vietnam AND thus somewhat responsible for the Killing Fields afterwards.

Please consider developing some metrics about how bad is "bad", and what the proper procedures should be.

If you think it means Rumsfeld should resign/ be fired -- than I think you're too supportive of the pro-terror anti-American side.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at May 31, 2005 09:38 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Lt. Pantano was recently cleared of the murder of two Iraqi terror suspects in his custody. His story is very interesting, including his response to 9/11 and subsequent events in Iraq. Full military due process and investigative justice was carried out, as was proper.

A far cry from the terrorists tactic of cutting off heads for the video camera with subsequent re-broadcast ad nauseum on al Jazeera, al Arabiya, and multiple internet sites.

You know, when so many other things are happening, some of them quite good, to focus on the microcosm of enemy deaths in confinement to the exclusion of all else is infantile and counter-productive--that is if you truly wish for a democratic spring in arab and muslim lands.

Posted by: Bernarde Pleshan at May 31, 2005 01:04 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Gracious, where were Grey and Pleshan when the Soviets needed apologists? Because I think I've heard these arguments before---I just never thought I'd have to hear them on behalf of the United States of America.

Posted by: Anderson at May 31, 2005 04:01 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


I'm not a "torture apologist." My view, based largely on what I've been able to gather from the British experience in Northern Ireland, is that torture probably does not yield any useful results; combine this with the fact that sadists are certain to find their way around or into even the strictest of processes, and you have a formula for abuse. So bravo to those journalists who have exposed this, and let's hope that the Bush admin has reconsidered this ineffective, unwise, morally tainted policy.

However, it's difficult for any objective observer to disagree that the saturation coverage of this topic, which after all is only one of many aspects of the war, has been disproportionate to its true significance. A stain on our reputation? Sure. A setback in the hearts and minds campaign? Of course. But this is not more significant than the results on the battlefield or in the ballot box. Even though there is some minor linkage between these issues -- perhaps the notoriety of Abu G has made our political efforts more difficult -- I've yet to see that linkage made clearly, with anything like a good faith effort to analyze with any real precision exactly where and how the military and political efforts have suffered.

It's much more likely that Abu G and the other torture scandals have had a severe impact only on WESTERN opinion, and will not in any significant way alter the course of the struggle in Iraq or Afghanistan. In short the SATURATION coverage -- as opposed to reasonable, tempered coverage in accordance with the events' real significance for the war -- represents the revenge of the media class on the Bush admin.

To understand where I'm coming from, please step away from the heat of this issue and imagine it's 1944. Would it have been appropriate for the NY Times and the BBC to report the execution by the Allies of 500 SS prisoners? How about the Red Army's raping spree -- acc to Robert Conquest, they raped ~2 million German women in 1944-45 -- as it swept westward toward Berlin?

Of course coverage of both of the above would have been merited. And repeated stories investigating each Allied military's refusal to punish the guilty.

But the question, again, is one of scale, of the prominence and amount of space and ink devoted. My question then is whether it would have been appropriate to give *more* coverage to the Allies' abuses -- execution of prisoners, mass rapes -- than to the Allies' fortunes on the battlefield and in the political arena. My own view, which the historians will validate, is that the latter deserve much more attention from journalists and citizens than do the former.

Please try to take a longer view here. There's a bit more to the march of history than is to be found in the bleatings of the east coast / euro media elite.

is probably an d be more inclined to agree with you if the amount of coverage of the abuses were more proportionate to their significance. Given the saturation coverage, it's hard not to conclude that the objective is to embarrass Bush rather than to

Posted by: thibaud at May 31, 2005 05:36 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Honestly, thibaud, I think you have this backwards.

First of all the coverage of the prisoner abuse issue has fallen well short of saturation. More importantly, though, is the response to it from the President (silence) and the Secretary of Defense (dismissal), added to that of the Army (pursuit of criminal charges against enlisted personnel and junior officers while holding one token -- in more ways than one -- general responsible for anything.

Deep into the era of the Me Generation Presidency, some people still haven't grasped that what the Bush administration cares most about is George. W. Bush. The concern at the White House is not what happened at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, but rather with insulating the President from having to accept any responsibility -- or answer any questions -- in connection with this awkward subject. Donald Rumsfeld, who throughout his career has never been accused of putting anyone besides Donald Rumsfeld first, has naturally followed the same approach.

Naturally the reaction to this in some quarters has been unsympathetic. I am not myself too concerned about the threat to this President from questions relating to the prisoner abuse issue might divert him from his habitual goofing off on vacations and campaign tours undertaken mostly because he really likes campaigning. Nor do I really care if Sec. Rumsfeld, whose carelessness and inattention did so much to make this disgraceful scandal possible, has to spend some of his doubtless valuable time repairing the damage. Incidentally if a few long and otherwise honorable Army careers were tarnished because the military finally concluded that someone above the rank of captain bore some responsibility for unacceptable treatment of prisoners, I wouldn't lose any sleep over that either.

This President and his Secretary of Defense are not victims of anything. No one is defending America against apologists for terrorism by endorsing the idea that they are no more responsible for the prisoner abuse scandal than they are for last December's tsunami.

Posted by: JEB at May 31, 2005 08:02 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


If I understand your argument, in addition to your bizarre straw man about "defending America against apologists for terrorism", you make two points, one that should be pretty easily validated with hard data, the other more subjective. To your first point:

"First of all the coverage of the prisoner abuse issue has fallen well short of saturation"

Really? Where are your data points?

Rather than load hyperbole on top of your assertions, let's try doing a little quantitative, fact-based research, shall we? Search the NY Times archives for articles with "Abu Ghraib" in the article summary since March 1 2003 and you get 337 articles, of which 322 concern US abuses. Not enough for you, eh?

btw, a search during the same period for articles whose summaries contain "zarqawi" yields 19 results.

One other curiosity: if you search again, this time going back to 1996, you'll note dozens upon dozens of editorials concerning US abuses since May 2004, but not a single editorial in the period 1998-March 2003, when John Burns, Ian Fisher, Thom Shanker and others were reporting on Saddam's executions at Abu G and elsewhere.

Given that the Times could have just as easily played up Saddam's far more egregious violations - about which the Times's star reporter filed multiple dispatches - there has clearly been an editorial decision to highlight US abuses at Abu Ghraib.

As to your second point, that this over the top coverage is a necessary coutnerpoint to the admin's success in "insulating the President from having to accept any responsibility", you're setting up yet another straw man. FWIW I don't believe Bush has taken sufficient responsibility for this scandal. Perhaps he should have fired Rusmfeld; I don't know.

But this argument clearly implies that you feel that the Times, in printing 322 articles on US Abu G violations, is performing a valuable public service of holding Bush accountable for his - what, sins? crimes? errors?

You and I can disagree as to whether this effort is worthy and undertaken in good faith. I'll assume that it is. But I would ask, again, as to whether these good intentions are not also misguided and distracting us from other stories that are at least as signficant. Instead of 322 Abu G scandal stories and 19 Zarqawi stories, would it not be prehaps slightly more appropriate to have, oh, let's say a 2:1 ratio?

That is, maybe 50 stories on Zarqawi's organization, m.o., funding, successes and failures generally, and maybe only 100 Abu G stories? Don't you think that the public's understanding of the course of the war and its ability to assess Bush's handling of it would benefit from perhaps a few more in-depth, solidly researched articles on the nature of the "insurgency"?

Why exactly is it necessary to have a 16:1 ratio of Abu G to Zarqawi coverage?


Posted by: thibaud at May 31, 2005 09:11 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


I don't know if it is saturation, but I have to agree that we lack balanced coverage of the war. Still, I think Greg is right to focus some light on the subject. It is not his fault that others have covered it so much more often, and of course badly. My following comments are not directed at you, but many I have read here over the last year.

It is sad Greg that to strive and look at politics as fairly as one can, a difficult task, is so traumatic for so many. You have been one of the most consistent voices out there in trying to analyze the Bush administration honestly, its virtues and its flaws. This is a thankless task which leads you to be painted a stooge by the Bushitler crowd and an unpatriotic ally of terror and fascism by others. The idea that this administration and the people in it are not hopelessly stupid, corrupt and incompetent, nor wholly courageous and virtuous is a political view too few people can accept of their political allies or enemies. I hope you can stand the slings and arrows. You may be wrong, but your critics are typically wearing blinders.

However, I cannot resist laughing at this: “some people still haven't grasped that what the Bush administration cares most about is George. W. Bush.” Hah! Boy what a surprise. The sad thing is that that statement, while being true, probably applies less to this administration than almost any in the last century. Bush has been more willing to get out ahead of the public than any other President since the thirties at least. Even Reagan generally had the public behind him which made controversial stands more sustainable. Clinton? Well after Hillary Care’s collapse every decision was filtered through more focus group sifting than flour for a cake. Slam Bush’s policies if you want, call him a compromiser and overly focused on getting elected over taking principled stands, but please don’t try and get me to swallow that there is anything unique in that. By the standards of Clinton, pre 2000 Gore and the jilted John Kerry, Bush is a paragon of steady principled stands at his own political cost. What is sad is that the bar has been set so low.

Bush and Rumsfeld’s handling of this has been shameful. Let us turn up the heat. I do ask that those standing with us at the burner realize how much of this is a shame predating this administration (such as renditions) and only looks worse because we have a larger chance to mistreat than under Clinton. The scale, not the substance is what has changed. I also would point out that as we trot out the guillotines we should also realize how unique this is, the other nations we might look to for guidance on standards have generally behaved worse, and in the past so have we. So as we adopt these higher standards to which nobody else including our prior selves held themselves (except those nations who have had no opportunity to exercise such atavistic impulses) which our rhetoric suggests we must, let us next turn our gaze upon France, the UN and the whole thuggish rabble in the Middle East and Africa who have been far more barbarous both recently and over the last few decades.

That is not an apologia; it is a condemnation of man’s inhumanity in general. I hope we can be the exception and cleanse ourselves; everyone shouldn’t be surprised when we cannot. Myself? While the abuse has been worse than I had hoped, it is no more than I feared, and in general our troops have exceeded my expectations. The history of our military in the past shows we should have seen much more to lament, and we have been amongst the most noble. Compared to our allies and enemies our record is quite laudable, both in the past and now.

Still we cannot hold ourselves to the standards of our past or others, our standards should be higher. We should also apply those standards to our allies, and those associations we participate in, such as the UN and its member nations. Somehow I don’t think hauling France out on the carpet of public opinion is what many of these critics want to do, but I for one am looking forward to it. The same goes for the assorted rapists, pirates, and Mafioso who all too often have hijacked the UN peacekeeping forces.

I’ll step off my soapbox, but we will not change our standards enough to meet my tastes until more of the world does the same. War does that, standards fall as body counts rise; we need allies at least who have standards high enough to credibly help us restrain them and ourselves. Our enemies will probably not help us at all.

Posted by: Lance at May 31, 2005 09:40 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Fair enough (faire un oeuf?), Lance. I agree totally with you that "our standards should be higher." But this goal is not furthered by saturation coverage causing a very noticeable suppression of other storylines that are at least as important.

This diminishes the credibility of the Times as the "paper of record." Instead it increasingly resembles a UK-style partisan broadsheet, one that on some days is little different from a blog. Which would be fine if we had Britain's political culture, in which the media are now as influential and important as the politicians (in some ways more so). But the inevitable result of PissKoran and All Abu G, All the Time will be the collapse of the MSM's credibility with people of good sense and good faith like yourself. And further division of the country into different micro-markets for truth, ie political blocs, each of which listens to and constructs its own reality.

Is this really what Pinch and Bill Keller want?

Posted by: thibaud at May 31, 2005 10:14 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I appreciate the detailed responses.

With respect to Lance's remarks, when I wrote above that we were deep into the era of the Me Generation Presdency I did not mean by "deep" just over four years, and I was not referring primarily to positions taken on legislation. I also don't regard ending up defending a position one has blundered into as exemplifying courage of any kind.

I'm not clear whether thibaud's NYT search dredged up 322 different stories on prisoner abuse since March, but accept his observation that that newspaper has published many more stories about this subject than about the terrorist Zarqawi, or about Saddam Hussein's crimes while in power. So what?

First, it ought to be clear to anyone that newspapers require sources for their stories; the NYT's sources in the former Baathist regime and the current insurgency are probably not that good compared to its sources in the American government. Secondly I don't quite see that the NYT by itself is that representative of the media most Americans get their news from.

Neither of these observations, though, address the main point, which is that Zarqawi is just a dirty Arab savage, and Saddam Hussein is another. You'd be quite right to think I don't consider violations of our standards by our people to be the same kind of story as whatever people like that get up to. In fact, I'd be glad if you could work out a way to search the NYT for stories questioning whether trying to democratize a culture that throws up lots of people like Zarqawi and Saddam is not a fool's errand.

Finally, all this relates to the press coverage of the prisoner abuse scandal. I am more concerned with why the scandal in its multiple dimensions happened in the first place, why only low-level enlisted and commissioned personnel have been held responsible, and why we should think that the highest officials in our government should have looked on abuse of prisoners as something like a natural disaster that they bore no responsibility either for preventing or for doing anything about later.

Posted by: JEB at May 31, 2005 11:09 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Point taken about the relative ease of covering the US military vs Zarqawi, though I'm sure you'll agree that this isn't much of a defense. I too am concerned with why the scandal happened and what responsibility our leaders will assume for it.

But how are the above concerns furthered by 322 articles on one scandal? JEB, what level of coverage do you think is appropriate to this story? If not 2:1 AbuG:Z-man, then maybe 3:1? Even 4:1 would imply either 4x as many Z articles or 1/4 as many AbuG articles in the NYT - in any case, a huge decrease in NYT coverage for Abu G. Then again, maybe you think 322 Abu G articles constitutes fair and appropriate coverage. What number's appropriate in your view?

If the goal of this is mainly to force Bush into a humiliating climb down, or to gain Rumsfeld's head, then it's time for another approach. This one's obviously not working.

As for me, to paraphrase Camus I should like to love justice and win this war. I do not believe that the over-the-top, saturation coverage of this injust treatment of detainees is going to help us achieve these two objectives. I believe that had the Times' editors not flooded the zone, as the infamous Howell Raines used to say, on AbuG the American public would be much more receptive to their critiques of Bush. As it is, it's hard for people of good faith not to view this as a political grudge match, and a distraction from the war effort.

Posted by: thibaud at May 31, 2005 11:43 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

People of good faith might be inclined to doubt that the major issue in the prisoner abuse scandal is how The New York Times has covered it. I suppose it depends on how one looks at the world.

Posted by: JEB at June 1, 2005 02:15 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Trivia: Google's news search for Zarqawi at the New York Times shows 27 in May alone, and 57 featuring Abu Ghraib. I don't know how thibaud got 19 since March (the NYT's own search shows me 48 articles for the past 90 days), but Google's search shows a MUCH less significant disparity between these numbers.

Posted by: Bitter at June 1, 2005 03:53 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Some may view this as an insult -- some a compliment -- but I can't help thinking the main factor affecting what stories large publications run is "draw", or what the top editors think people will (pay) to read. Sure, some day-to-day decisions sway on individual partisan decisions, but overall the focus is on attracting and keeping readers - which we all know they've not managed to figure out a way to do.

I think on that basis a larger amount of "sensationalist" pieces on AG and its repercussions is not surprising at all (assuming that's the case)... using Occam's Razor I think the balance sheet is the ultimate arbiter.

Posted by: TG at June 1, 2005 04:42 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Bitter" -

That's the wrong search approach. Google seeks the keyword anywhere in the article. The search that I did was for the keyword in the *summary* of the article or op-ed, which yields a much more precise estimation of the number of articles that are *focused on* Abu Ghraib or Zarqawi.

Frankly, I was astonished to see 337 Abu Ghraib-focused articles in the NYT's archives since March 03. However, scan the results and you'll see that this is indeed correct. In May of 2003, for instance, there was at least one article every day.

TG -

Bingo. This is consistent with the new Pinch/Keller strategy of catering to the Times' hardcore loyalists. Read the BusinessWeek interview with Bill Keller from this January:

Keller answers a question about quality journalism with an embarrassingly candid revelation about the Pinch NYT's marketing strategy:

"What most papers do when they want to extend their reach is they go out and interview all the people who don't subscribe and say, "What would you like?" and then they try to dumb down or spice up their paper to pander to that audience. That's what produced the kind of McNuggetization of a lot of local and regional papers in America.

"The Times' approach was exactly backward. What they did is **focus on the most loyal subscribers and identify their characteristics.** And then they went out and tried to find more people who are like those people."

Keller spins this as taking the high road, avoiding "dumbing down" of the content. But he's really describing the abandonment of the "paper of record" in favor of a narrowly partisan journal.

No better way to cater to your Bush-hating core readership than to flood the zone with All Abu Ghraib, All the Time.

Posted by: thibaud at June 1, 2005 07:55 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Thibaud: I agree, a full text search doesn't find the same thing as a summary search. But I think it's relevant that there are more articles that mention Zarqawi than there are *about* Zarqawi. A lot of the recent Abu Ghraib articles in the last few weeks have been about disciplinary action against the people involved: concrete facts and events. There's not nearly so much going on which directly concerns Zarqawi at the moment, except to mention him in passing in the context of insurgent attacks.

Posted by: Bitter at June 1, 2005 11:41 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

CNN plans a new channel devoted entirely to 24 hour coverage of Abu Ghraib and the mistreatment of prisoners there and at Guantanamo.
I look forward to the upcoming TV series on CBS, "Abu Ghraib." It will be filmed in Canada and feature many top film stars who emigrated to Canada when George Bush was elected president. You just can't get enough of Abu Ghraib.

Posted by: Mildeaux at June 2, 2005 01:28 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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