Iraq: Whose Ox Is Gored?

04/26/2008 12:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Whenever I hear some new disclosure of torture or other abuse committed in the name of my country, I think back to something I remember near the start of the war in Iraq. On March 23, 2003, just days after the American invasion, the first pictures of U.S. soldiers killed, wounded and taken captive were broadcast on television.

The pictures had been taken by Iraqi TV and transmitted worldwide by the Arab news channel Al Jazeera. They showed Americans lying dead and wounded in pools of blood, and U.S. captives being questioned by Iraqis, including one American POW who was lying badly wounded being seized by the hair and forced to sit up by his interrogator.

CBS broadcast some of the video on Face the Nation, NBC showed a dead U.S. soldier and an interview with one of the POWs, and other networks including ABC, CNN and Fox News broadcast still frames taken from the video. So did Matt Drudge on his website.

The Bush administration was outraged by release of the pictures. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared that Iraq and Al Jazeera broke international law by making them available. "The Geneva Convention makes it illegal for prisoners of war to be shown and pictured and humiliated," he said, "it's something the United States does not do...we treat our prisoners well...and the United States, of course, avoids showing photographs of prisoners of war."

That last turned out not to be true (not to mention the line about treating our prisoners well). Pictures of Iraqi POWs had already been shown on American television.

Rumsfeld's spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, was as angry as her boss. She called Iraq's release of the pictures of U.S. POWs "a blatant violation of the Geneva Convention." "Disgusting," added Lt. Gen. John Abizaid, then Deputy Commander of CENTCOM. "I regard the showing of those pictures as unacceptable."

And President Bush warned that anyone who abused captured Americans would be treated as a war criminal. "I do know that we expect them to be treated humanely," Bush said, "just like we'll treat any prisoners of theirs that we capture humanely."

The authors of those comments seem to have ignored a memo by then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales. On January 25, 2002, more than a year before the Iraq invasion, Gonzales had advised Bush that "the war on terrorism is a new kind of war" that "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitation on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders some of its provisions quaint."

So even as they were criticized Saddam's violations of the Geneva Conventions, Bush's lawyer ("mi abogado," as Bush cutely referred to him) had made the judgment that those rules were "quaint" and "obsolete," a judgment Bush confirmed at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram and in other torture chambers around the world.

In view of the long and frightening list of horrors that the United States has committed on hundreds of prisoners we've taken in Iraq and elsewhere, before and since then, the administration's comments on American POWs are beyond ironic, almost beyond hypocrisy. It really does depend on whose ox is gored, doesn't it?

We've come a long way since March 2003. A long way down.