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.