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Errol Morris Headshot

The Smoking Gun

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Hell is murky! Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?

       -- William Shakespeare, Macbeth, V.i.45

It is now four years since the Abu Ghraib photographs were placed before the world by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker and by Dan Rather in 60 Minutes II. The military and the administration did everything to prevent their release. Calls from the White House, calls from the Pentagon, the whole nine yards. Mary Mapes who produced the story for 60 Minutes II, talked about the endless pressure that came from the government not to run the story. At one point Dan told me, "Just walk away. Walk away. God damn them." He was enraged. The photographs were eventually published - despite the hesitancy of bigwigs at CBS.

The photographs inaugurated a storm of international protest. In America hand wringing and regret quickly devolved into buck-passing and finger pointing. The President commented, "This is the worst day of my Presidency." But quickly, the story changed. We were told that the photographs depicted the actions of "a few bad apples." Both the left and the right agreed, the bad apples were bad, really bad, and although the reasons for this were disputed, everyone could agree the pictures were beyond the pale.

Ironically, the abuse photographs helped George W. Bush win the 2004 election. When the photographs came out, Bush said that it was the worst day of his presidency. That was doubtlessly true, but on the other hand, the photographs opened up an opportunity. He had an excuse. To the questions: why is the war going badly? Why is the insurgency growing? Why does the Arab world hate us? He had an answer. Because of these soldiers, because of the bad apples. They betrayed us. They stabbed America in the back. It didn't matter that it wasn't true. The insurgency had been growing by leaps and bounds before the first photographs at Abu Ghraib were taken. The war had gone south from the very beginning.

Quickly, the public jumped to one conclusion after another. A picture of Sabrina Harman, one of "the seven bad apples" was assumed to implicate her in a murder, despite the fact that the prisoner, al-Jamadi, had been beaten to death by the CIA. We know about the murder only because of her photographs. Is it right that a twenty-four year old whistle-blower should spend a year in prison and the real murderer - a CIA interrogator - should skate away without punishment? Twenty-one year-old Lynndie England became the poster-girl for torture and abuse even though interrogation policies developed by the Department of Defense encouraged American female soldiers to strip and humiliate Iraqi males.

The photographs have hopelessly confused the issue. They focus blame on the wrong people. Abu Ghraib was not just one cell corridor and a few MPs with cameras. By the end of 2003, it was a de facto concentration camp in the middle of the Sunni triangle with close to 10,000 prisoners. There was systematic and horrendous abuse. Constant mortar attacks putting both guards and prisoners at risk. Thousands of prisoners rounded up in sweeps and kept indefinitely in outdoor "tent cities;" repeated rioting because of food shortages and squalid conditions; illegal renditions to Jordan; kidnapping, hostage-taking; children behind bars; torture, water-boarding - even murder. We put the bad apples in prison, isn't it now time to deal with the real criminals?

Meanwhile, the military has been engaged in a giant cover up that has continued until the present day. Even the cover up has been covered up. The New York Times could faithfully report on the destruction of the Zubaydah interrogation tapes, two of them, but hundreds, if not thousands of interrogation tapes were destroyed at Abu Ghraib in January 2004. Colonel Thomas Pappas, the head of the prison, in a signed written statement declared an "amnesty period" in January 2004. Soldiers were asked to destroy whatever photographs or files they had. Hard drives were erased and e-mails purged. No one seems to know about it or care. Certainly, few officials in the military or the government cared about what really happened; they cared about damage control.

It is one thing to go to war; it is another thing to promote a foreign and domestic policy without even paying lip service to ethics, morality or the law. Make no mistake, the bad apples are not completely innocent of wrongdoing, but they are not the ones truly responsible. We have punished many of them for taking pictures of abuse and have never punished the people who ordered and were responsible for the abuse.

While I was working on Standard Operating Procedure, many people asked about "the smoking gun." "Have you found the smoking gun? Have you found the smoking gun? -- presumably linking the abuses to the upper levels of the Defense Department and to the White House?" The question puzzles me. There are smoking guns everywhere but people don't see them, refuse to see them or pretend they don't exist. How many torture memos does an administration have to promulgate before the public gets the idea they are promulgating torture? Bush has recently admitted that he was present at these meetings and approved "harsh interrogation techniques." And yet this has scarcely been a news story. Well-documented attempts to subvert the Constitution, abrogation of the Geneva Conventions and simple human decency. What does it take?

We are surrounded by smoking guns on all sides. Crimes have been committed; we have ample evidence of them. But there can be no justice if there is a failure to stand up for it, if we fail to demand it. Here's the flip side of the torture memos. John Yoo can argue that the President can do anything. Let him do what he pleases, but does that mean he can't be held responsible for the things he has ordered or the things done in his name?

It is easy to dismiss all of this as the unfortunate product of war. But this is not about war, it is about us. How complacent have we become? What does it take? Each day that we allow these crimes to go unanswered erodes the very ideals that this country stands for.

More on the web:

errolmorris.com/

takepart.com/sop

aclu.org/safefree/torture/index.html