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Barack Obama's presidency

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Obama Aids Bush's Torture Cover-up

By Jason Leopold
June 11, 2009

By opposing release of photographic and other evidence of prisoner abuse, President Barack Obama is furthering a long-running cover-up that has protected senior Bush administration officials who set the harsh interrogation policies that led to torture and other misconduct.

In effect, Obama’s reversals on his earlier pledges of openness regarding alleged U.S. war crimes means that he is shutting the door on new internal investigations that might go beyond the truncated inquiries allowed by President George W. Bush and his top aides.

Of the 12 investigations launched in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, not one scrutinized the roles of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or any other senior Pentagon or Bush administration official. The inquiries concentrated instead on the military police identified in the photographs, like Private Lynndie England and Corporal Charles Graner Jr.

Retired Gen. Antonio Taguba, who investigated the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and who issued a critical report, later explained that the focus was kept narrow because investigators were barred from following the evidence up the chain of command.

In a June 2007 interview with New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh, Taguba said he was convinced that higher-ups were responsible for the misconduct, not the “few bad apples” who faced courts martial and sometimes imprisonment after the photos surfaced in 2004 -- showing Iraqi prisoners stripped naked, kept in “stress positions,” threatened with attack dogs and sexually humiliated.

“From what I knew, troops just don’t take it upon themselves to initiate what they did without any form of knowledge of the higher-ups,” Taguba said. “These M.P. troops were not that creative.”

But Taguba said he was only authorized to investigate the military police at Abu Ghraib, and not more senior military officials.

“Somebody was giving them [the MPs] guidance, but I was legally prevented from further investigation into higher authority. I was limited to a box,” Taguba said, adding that the “evasions and stonewalling by Rumsfeld and his aides” were rationalized by the supposed need to protect the CIA.

However, after his report was filed in March 2004, Taguba discovered that even the CIA had concerns about the harsh tactics being used by some military-intelligence interrogators to question so-called “high-value detainees,” Hersh reported.

Hersh cited a secret memo dated June 2, 2003, from General George Casey Jr., then director of the Pentagon Joint Staff, who warned General Michael DeLong at Central Command that “CIA has advised that the techniques the military forces are using to interrogate high value detainees (HVDs) . . . are more aggressive than the techniques used by CIA who is [sic] interviewing the same HVDs.”

Following Guidance

Taguba’s complaints about a cover-up were supported by other evidence. Indeed, MPs who appeared in the controversial photos told military investigators that they were following guidance from Special Forces Psyops and military interrogation teams.

One soldier said the MPs “kept the detainees awake by holding them up or by playing the loud music.” The soldier said Special Forces instructed soldiers that prisoners who were “violent or had information” were “flex-cuffed on their hands, heads covered and not allowed to sleep.”

A female soldier, who appeared in one of the 44 photographs that Obama has decided to keep secret, told military investigators that she didn’t specifically recall why the Iraqi prisoners were “flexicuffed to the bars ... and have sandbags covering their heads.”

But she said “detainees were put in that stress position either because the interrogators felt that the detainee could provide further intelligence, or because the detainee was a disciplinary problem. …  It was always [a military interrogator’s] call to zip-tie them and put them in certain positions."

These statements mesh with testimony from former Army Sgt. Sam Provance, who served as a military intelligence officer at Abu Ghraib for four months starting in September 2003, He was the only one in such a position to blow the whistle on the cover-up that sought to focus blame for the scandal on low-level military police.

“While serving with my unit in Iraq,” Provance said in a statement submitted to Congress, “I became aware of changes in the procedures in which I and my fellow soldiers were trained. These changes involved using procedures which we previously did not use, and had been trained not to use, and in involving military police (MP) personnel in ‘preparation’ of detainees who were to be interrogated.

“Some detainees were treated in an incorrect and immoral fashion as a result of these changes. After what had happened at Abu Ghraib became a matter of public knowledge, and there was a demand for action, young soldiers were scapegoated while superiors misrepresented what had happened and tried to misdirect attention away from what was really going on.”

After going public with his information, Provance said he was threatened by military superiors and forced out of the Army. [See, for instance, Provance’s article at, “Abu Ghraib Film Obscures Truth.”]

Commander’s View

Retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who was commander of U.S. forces in Iraq at the time of the Abu Ghraib scandal, confirmed in a recently published paperback version of his book, Wiser in Battle, that the prisoner-abuse investigations were constrained for political reasons.

"A meaningful and unlimited investigation, which the Bush administration adamantly opposed, would result in an unmitigated disaster," Sanchez wrote. "It would open up Pandora's box and let out a world of evil.”

Sanchez added, “It’s now clear the Bush administration did not tell the truth about the use of torture at Guantanamo Bay, or in Afghanistan and Iraq. … In the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, administration officials worked diligently to deflect responsibility away from them and down to military leadership on the ground. …

“It is also apparent that the White House and the Department of Defense consistently attempted to minimize any further exposure of their actions and, specifically, to prevent a serious investigation into their executive-decision making process.”

Sanchez wrote that “to prevent this [disgrace] from ever happening again” and “to restore America’s moral authority,” the Obama administration and Congress “must conduct more comprehensive investigations across all involved agencies, learn from the findings, and implement permanent changes.”

In a 2004 investigation headed by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, Sanchez said his approval of more aggressive interrogation strategies was in accord with “the President's Memorandum” justifying "additional, tougher measures" against detainees. Sanchez was referring to Bush’s Feb. 7, 2002, memo excluding “war on terror” suspects from Geneva Convention protections.

A bipartisan report released by the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year also concluded that Bush’s Feb. 7, 2002, action memo and subsequent memos from Defense Secretary Rumsfeld led to the abuse of detainees depicted in the Abu Ghraib photographs. But the committee did not pursue the investigation much further.

Arguably, if Obama had followed through on his initial promise to release 44 photographs at the center of a lawsuit between his administration and the ACLU, the additional evidence would demonstrate that prisoner abuse reached far beyond Abu Ghraib and would strengthen the case for finally examining in detail the roles of Rumsfeld and other top Bush officials.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear that after deciding in April to disclose four Justice Department memos rationalizing torture, Obama was stung by the backlash from former Vice President Dick Cheney and other Bush administration defenders.  Since then, the President has opposed release of the abuse photos and other documents related to the interrogations.

Obama claims that further disclosures would only enflame the Muslim world and endanger American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he also has adopted Bush’s long-discredited claim that the mistreatment of detainees was the work of few miscreant MPs.

“The individuals who were involved [in prisoner abuses] have been identified, and appropriate actions have been taken,” Obama said in a statement last month. “It's therefore my belief that the publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals.”

Jason Leopold has launched his own Web site, The Public Record, at

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