Abu Ghraib and the Plucky-Reporter Narrative

We’ve all seen the same plot line time and time again. Evil institution does something sinister, but the conscience of one person inside the institution drives the person to leak damning information to a plucky reporter, who bravely publicizes the information, which creates public pressure to investigate the evil institution. Hurray!

This narrative is ingrained into our intuitive understanding of scandals. We assume that any particular scandal unfolded just as the narrative said it should. Given this, it’s easy to see how Matt Welch defaulted to the narrative when reporting on the recent developments in Obama’s hypocrisy on national security. 

Did the Abu Ghraib photos, which illustrated what had already been described in various reports, add to your understanding of the gravity/extent to what we were doing in the world? Yes, I believe it did. Images add value that words cannot convey. The “chilling effect,” too, is nonsensical. If anything, images increase public pressure on the government/military to conduct investigations in the first place (as in fact happened at Abu Ghraib).[emp added]

Except even a casually perusal of the time line of the Abu Ghraib scandal shows that the publication of the staged pictures came months after the military: had launched an investigation, reported the results to the media, pressed charges against both the principals and those in their chain of command, conducted preliminary courts martial against most of the defendants and initiated reforms in the entire detainment system, based on the investigation. 

The plucky reporter and the brave insider don’t even make an appearance in the real events. The role of the plucky reporter was played by the entire planetary media who just yawned when the military publicly released a written report on the abuse investigation in January of 2004. The brave insider turned out to be the uncle of one of the defendants who leaked the pictures that the perpetrators provided in a desperate attempt to create a Nuremberg defense. 

Here’s the real time-line of the scandal:

Jan. 13: Army Spc. Joseph M. Darby, an MP with the 800th at Abu Ghraib, leaves a disc with photographs of prisoner abuse on the bed of a military investigator.
Jan. 14: Army launches criminal investigation of Abu Ghraib abuses.
Jan. 14-15: Gen. John Abizaid, chief of Central Command, tells Gen. Richard Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, of the investigation and says it is a ‘big deal’.
Jan. 16: Central Command issues one-paragraph news release announcing investigation of “incidents of detainee abuse” at unspecified U.S. prison in Iraq.
Jan. 18: A guard leader and a company commander at the prison are suspended from their duties, and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, a senior commander in Iraq, admonishes Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who commanded the brigade.
Jan. 19: Sanchez orders a separate administrative investigation into the 800th. Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba was appointed to conduct that inquiry on Jan. 31.
Jan. 31: Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba appointed to investigate prison abuses.
Early February: Rumsfeld and Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, brief President Bush on the prison abuse investigations.
Feb. 2: Taguba visits Abu Ghraib. Throughout the month, his team conducts interviews in Iraq and Kuwait.
Feb. 26: Sanchez publicly discloses the suspension of 17 military personnel but gives no details.
March 12: Taguba presents his report to his commanders. He finds widespread abuse of prisoners by military police and military intelligence. He also agrees with Ryder that guards should not play any role in the interrogation of prisoners.
March 20: Six soldiers face charges stemming from alleged abuse at the prison. The military announces the beginning of possible court-martial proceedings.
April 4: Internal Army review of prison management recommends administrative actions against several unnamed commanders in Iraq.
April 6: Third Army commander Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan approves Taguba’s report.
April 12: CBS’s 60 Minutes II informs Pentagon that it is planning to broadcast photographs of Abu Ghraib prison abuse.
April 14: Myers calls CBS News anchor Dan Rather to request delay in broadcast, saying the pictures will incite violence against U.S. troops and could endanger the 90 Western hostages held by Iraqi militants. CBS agrees. Myers calls a week later and obtains another delay.
April 28: CBS airs the photos, setting off an international outcry. Bush, Rumsfeld and Meyers say this is the first time they have seen any of the photographs.

Note that one entire day elapsed between the initial report of the crimes and the launch of a major investigation. (Note also the passive explanation of how 60 Minutes obtained the images.) In reality, the plucky reporters did nothing to initiate or drive the investigation. The investigation was already complete , criminal and administrative charges filed and reforms begun long before the media got the story.  

One might forgive Matt Welch for falling into a narrative which glorifies his own profession but to understand what really happened we need to set narratives aside and look at the evidence. The evidence says that far from being the irresponsible and sinisterly secretive institution described in the narrative, the U.S. military uncovered and investigated abuses within itself. (Indeed, almost everything that the media published about the abuses came from the Taguba report which the military issued before the images became public.) Instead of bravely taking the evil institution on alone, the media went along in a big herd doing no investigation of their own. Nor did the resulting public outcry exert much positive influence on the already ongoing improvements in the detainment system. 

Worse, the images created a false impression about events. They were posed photographs created for the stimulation of sadistic perverts. As such, they depicted reality about as much as pornography depicts most people’s sex lives. For example, the iconic image of the scandal depicts a hooded man standing on a box with electrodes attached to his fingers. Based on that image, a lot of people concluded that the perpetrators shocked their victims. They did not. The image is merely a staged shot of cruel practical joke. The man was never actually shocked. Yet the falsehood remains in the public imagination. 

So, in the end, the publication of the images had little positive effect while producing several major negative effects that lengthened the war and cost lives. Even so, the pictures should have eventually seen the light of day. Sunlight and transparency are necessary in all institutions. However, we shouldn’t fall into romantic narratives of how that transparency comes about or the magnitude of its effects. 

8 thoughts on “Abu Ghraib and the Plucky-Reporter Narrative”

  1. Matt Welch has seen what can happen in a government-controlled society but instead of thoughtfully noticing distinctions (and accepting the complexity of an open society) seeks continuity. Seeking is okay, but he might occasinally notice when he doesn’t find them. Perhaps I’m being unfair to him, but I’ve always appreciated part of what he does and long ago became too exasperated to read him.

    A lot of this comes from a vision (honed by much modern media) that people don’t choose to do evil things when given too much power and too little supervision – that evil only comes from top down. This is anti-egalitarian, condescending, and tiresome; it doesn’t understand human nature and it therefore leaves us vulnerable to the real world.

    Your post connects with Lex’s above. Obama assumes that if the guy at the top (him) is good, then America will not be bad. Since America is the powerful father figure that “makes” everyone else do bad things, then all will be well.

    His assumption about himself makes us appreciate our founder’s emphasis in our fallibiity – whether phased in terms of errata, our tendency to value our own self-interest, or (in some cases) man’s innate sinfulnesss. Obama assumes others, of course without the bad example of America, will be the naturally virtuous unfallen they naturally are. It’s bullshit. But more self-righteous than naive.

  2. Too much time has been spent arguing about what is torture and what is not torture. The question can never be properly answered. For example, “good cop/bad cop” routines are an obvious form of torture because they persuade the victim to say something he/she would normally never say.

    Therefore, I think we need a “fruit of the poison tree” approach where the President promises neither he or anyone else will ever act on information that might possibly have been acquired via torture. If its certain the information will not be used, then torture will not be used to gather information.

    For example, if the President learns that terrorists plan to nuke DC in the next 60 minutes, and he suspects torture has been used to obtain the information, then he should suppress all knowlege of the warning and wait for information to reach him from proper investigators. He should also order everyone to stay in DC with him.

  3. The timeline seems to ignore what was not revealed though it was being investigated, and thus revelations at that prison became public and then what was being studied had to be made know:

    a more comprehensive timeline to be found here.

    The problem in chatting about what is and is not torture ought first focus upon what is known to work from what does not work…there seems now some evidence by specialists as to what does and doesn’t.

  4. Fred Lapidies,

    Actually, your timeline appears to be a copy of the one linked to. In both timelines, the military uncovers the abuses, investigates them and brings charges before the media did squat.

    The problem in chatting about what is and is not torture ought first focus upon what is known to work from what does not work…there seems now some evidence by specialists as to what does and doesn’t.

    Oh it works. It works horribly well. It just doesn’t work like it does in the movies were you beat that one critical piece of flawless information out of the bad guy and save the day. Fictional depiction of intelligence work (which face it is where most people get their idea of how it works) depict it as the hunt for the Mcguffin i.e. one piece of information that resolves the whole plot. In real life, intelligence is about assembling myriad seemingly unrelated facts into a coherent picture. It’s about as exciting as accounting and gets portrayed in fiction about as often as accounting.

    So, if you ask an expect whether torture will give you a resolution like a fictional McGuffin, they will honestly say no. People like you will then say, “look torture doesn’t work!” On the other hand, if you ask an expert if you can extract bits and pieces of useful information with torture that you can then integrate with other information to form a useful picture, they will say yes.

    In 1984 Hezbollah kidnapped the CIA station chief in Beruit, William Blake Buckley and tortured him. Within 30 days they managed to roll up our entire human intelligence network in Lebanon based on information that the Iranians ripped out of Blake. Torture simply destroys a person’s consciences control. The CIA established that Soviet trained torturers could extract all possible information from anyone in no more than three days. This is one of the reasons that we stopped requiring pilots and other service people to resist torture. When faced with a truly ruthless enemy, there is simply no point.

    So, the idea that torture doesn’t work is just a means for moral cowards to avoid the consequences of their preening. If they create a fantasy in which torture does not work, then they don’t have to deal with the messy moral dilemmas inherent in deciding whether to use it and to what extent.

    In any case, none of this has anything to do with the adoption of the plucky journalist narrative. The press contributed nothing positive in the episode and the revelation did little if anything to accelerate the reforms already underway. All they did was empower those opposed to democracy in Iraq.

  5. Shannon — I believe that should be William Buckley, not Blake, who was tortured to death by Hezbollah.

    Thanks for the chronology.

  6. “So, in the end, the publication of the images had little positive effect while producing several major negative effects that lengthened the war and cost lives. Even so, the pictures should have eventually seen the light of day. Sunlight and transparency are necessary in all institutions. However, we shouldn’t fall into romantic narratives of how that transparency comes about or the magnitude of its effects. ”

    An impressive summation grounded in reason and fact, not hyperbole and hysteria. I am probably on the opposite end of you on numerous aspects of national security policy, but this is the kind of “long view” we sorely need to be reminded of.

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