The Big Idea

Abuse Week

Behind Bush’s latest assault on the press.

Is this our biggest problem in Iraq?

On May 16, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan expressed outrage over Newsweek’s story that a U.S. military report was going to acknowledge that guards at the Guantanamo Bay detention center had tried to put a copy of the Quran down a toilet. “The report had real consequences. People have lost their lives,”McClellan said. “Our image abroad has been damaged.” The next day, after Newsweek had fully retracted the story, McClellan added that the magazine had a responsibility to “help repair the damage” to our reputation in the Muslim world.

Let’s see. A mistake … lives lost … America’s image abroad damaged. Does any of that sound vaguely familiar? A few instances do spring to mind. Newsweek didn’t have anything to do with them. McClellan’s boss did.

Item: The Bush Administration endorsed poorly sourced and documented reports by Iraqi defectors that Saddam Hussein possessed and was continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear ones. On the basis of this mistake, Bush led the country into a war, which may or may not be justified depending on your point of view but which almost certainly would not have happened otherwise. So far, approximately 1,600 American military personnel, at least 2,000 Iraqi police and guardsmen, and upwards of 20,000 civilians have died as a direct result. America’s reputation for speaking truthfully and acting in accord with international norms was flushed down the latrine, with very real consequences, including for our effort to contain nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea. Unlike the Newsweek story, the administration’s WMD screw-up was not a good-faith error or the result of simple sloppiness and haste. As the recent Intelligence Commission report showed, the findings of the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, and Energy Department stretched the evidence for Iraqi WMD, which was then misused and oversold by former CIA director George Tenet and Vice President Dick Cheney, among others.

Item: At prisons in Afghanistan, U.S. military personnel employed interrogation techniques that are indistinguishable from torture, including “stress positions,” sleep deprivation, intimidation by ferocious dogs, and various forms of humiliation. According to Human Rights Watch, there have been at least six deaths in U.S. custody in Afghanistan, four of which have produced military indictments for murder or manslaughter. In Mother Jones,Slate’s Emily Bazelon wrote in detail about two of those cases at the Bagram base, where prisoners were evidently beaten or tortured to death. Beyond the prison walls, the open-ended detentions and abuses in Afghanistan served to undermine America’s reputation for fair play, adherence to international standards of legality, and decent treatment of prisoners. These abuses may have contributed as much to the recent anti-American riots in Afghanistan as anything in Newsweek.

Item: American military personnel tortured, sexually humiliated, and apparently caused the death by torture of at least one inmate at Abu Ghraib, managing to make the Iraqi prison even more notorious under our management than it was under Saddam Hussein’s. Mistakes at Abu Ghraib included extensive and offensive sexual humiliation, such as forcing male prisoners to masturbate, parading them around naked in front of women guards, and photographing them in degrading postures. Again, unlike Newsweek’s error, these were in no way “honest” errors at any level. The abuses were the foreseeable consequence, if not the intentional result, of standards and policies promulgated by the Justice Department and the Pentagon, including a ruling that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to prisoners held there, and the authorization of specific interrogation techniques. The jihadists who murdered the American civilian Nick Berg said they were doing so in retaliation for Abu Ghraib. The abuses caught on camera there have done incalculable harm to America’s image around the world and handed an enormous propaganda victory to those hostile to the United States.

Item: Here are some things that Scott McClellan does not dispute happening at the Guantanamo detention center: A female interrogator removed some of her clothes and sat in the lap of a detainee who was a devout Muslim; a female interrogator smeared a detainee’s face with what she told him was menstrual blood and said the water would be turned off in his cell, so he would be unable to wash; a female interrogator grabbed a prisoner by his genitals; an interrogator gagged with duct tape a prisoner who wouldn’t stop chanting Quranic verses; commanders requested permission to use water torture on detainees to make them think they were suffocating; interrogators intimidated prisoners with vicious dogs. The scandalous mistreatment at Guantanamo, along with the denial of any legal rights to detainees, has done enormous damage to America’s reputation for respecting human rights and abiding by the rule of law.

None of this is said to excuse a piece of bad journalism by some good journalists. (Disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co., which also owns Newsweek.) But let’s be clear: Newsweek hardly bears sole responsibility for rioting deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which were fomented by anti-American agitators and reflect both a pathological religious fanaticism and anger over many other issues. What’s more, Bush’s flacks are in no position to prosecute this case. When it comes to torturing inmates to death, sexually humiliating prisoners, and otherwise doing our best to outrage the religious sensitivities of devout Muslims, Scott McClellan has nothing to say. But faced with an erroneous charge that an American guard might have insulted a copy of the Quran, he turns livid and demands satisfaction. There’s something of a pot-and-kettle problem here.

But the problem with the Bush administration excoriating Newsweek’s insensitivity to Islam isn’t just hypocrisy. There’s a larger issue of bad faith and an underlying lack of appreciation for the necessary role of a free and independent press. With increasing forcefulness, Bush has tried to undermine the legitimacy of the media, or at least that subculture within it that shows any tendency to challenge him. When the Bushies say there ought to be more of a check on the Fourth Estate, they aren’t really asking for more care and accuracy on the part of journalists. They’re expressing frustration that they still have to put up with criticism at all.