01/15/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

War Crimes and Incompetence -- the Real Shoes Thrown at Bush

UPDATE: This article was originally titled "Maybe Levin And Bowen Should Throw Shoes" but perhaps that was too provacative or considered radical (I wasn't really suggesting they should attack President Bush, merely making a statement about the media's priorities). Anyway, just wanted to set the record straight.


I know it's a lot more interesting to talk about two shoes getting thrown at President Bush in Iraq, but two more important stories are getting ignored as a result. These are two metaphorical "shoes" thrown at Bush, by the Senate and by Bush's own Inspector General in Iraq. And they're going to have a much more lasting impact on how history sees our Iraq adventure than one video clip of a guy hucking his footwear at President Bush. Because they deal with torture, and the failure of the Iraq reconstruction effort.

Last Thursday, Carl Levin's Senate Armed Services Committee released a report which basically called Bush and his entire National Security Council war criminals. Of note was the fact that the Senate committee voted for the report unanimously. Every single Republican (led by John McCain), along with all the Democrats, voted for this report. And the language the report uses is not the usual vague "mistakes were made" sort (which is often a necessity forced upon the such committees as a whole, by one party or another).

The report is titled "Senate Armed Services Committee Inquiry Into The Treatment Of Detainees In U.S. Custody" [download PDF version]. From the opening paragraphs:

Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists are taught to expect Americans to abuse them. They are recruited based on false propaganda that says the United States is out to destroy Islam. Treating detainees harshly only reinforces that distorted view, increases resistance to cooperation, and creates new enemies. In fact, the April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States" cited "pervasive anti U.S. sentiment among most Muslims" as an underlying factor fueling the spread of the global jihadist movement. Former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 2008 that "there are serving U.S. flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq -- as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat -- are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo."

The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of "a few bad apples" acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.

The report goes on for 29 pages in great detail about what happened, and who authorized it. It does not mince words. It names names. It traces not only the orders for such treatment of prisoners from the very top of the chain of command, it also traces the legal opinions which were produced to provide cover for what is described as techniques "based on illegal exploitation (under the rules listed in the 1949 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War) of prisoners over the last 50 years." In other words, war crimes. The first three of nineteen conclusions read:

Senate Armed Services Committee Conclusions

Conclusion 1: On February 7, 2002, President George W. Bush made a written determination that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which would have afforded minimum standards for humane treatment, did not apply to al Qaeda or Taliban detainees. Following the President's determination, techniques such as waterboarding, nudity, and stress positions, used in SERE [Survival Evasion Resistance Escape] training to simulate tactics used by enemies that refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions, were authorized for use in interrogations of detainees in U.S. custody.

Conclusion 2: Members of the President's Cabinet and other senior officials participated in meetings inside the White House in 2002 and 2003 where specific interrogation techniques were discussed. National Security Council Principals reviewed the CIA's interrogation program during that period.


Conclusions on SERE Training Techniques and Interrogations

Conclusion 3: The use of techniques similar to those used in SERE resistance training -- such as stripping students of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, and treating them like animals -- was at odds with the commitment to humane treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. Using those techniques for interrogating detainees was also inconsistent with the goal of collecting accurate intelligence information, as the purpose of SERE resistance training is to increase the ability of U.S. personnel to resist abusive interrogations and the techniques used were based, in part, on Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War to elicit false confessions.

So, a bipartisan committee of the United States Senate has publicly released a summary of a report (the full report is still classified, although Committee Chairman Carl Levin has called for it to be declassified) unanimously, that details war crimes by the highest government officials in the land.

You'd think this would be news, in other words.

The second metaphorical "shoe" tossed at Bush came from his own Inspector General in Iraq, Stuart W. Bowen, Jr. The report is titled: "Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience." The story was broken by the New York Times, and the entire lengthy article is worth reading.

An unpublished 513-page federal history of the American-led reconstruction of Iraq depicts an effort crippled before the invasion by Pentagon planners who were hostile to the idea of rebuilding a foreign country, and then molded into a $100 billion failure by bureaucratic turf wars, spiraling violence and ignorance of the basic elements of Iraqi society and infrastructure.

The history, the first official account of its kind, is circulating in draft form here and in Washington among a tight circle of technical reviewers, policy experts and senior officials. It also concludes that when the reconstruction began to lag -- particularly in the critical area of rebuilding the Iraqi police and army -- the Pentagon simply put out inflated measures of progress to cover up the failures.

In one passage, for example, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is quoted as saying that in the months after the 2003 invasion, the Defense Department "kept inventing numbers of Iraqi security forces -- the number would jump 20,000 a week! 'We now have 80,000, we now have 100,000, we now have 120,000.' "

Mr. Powell's assertion that the Pentagon inflated the number of competent Iraqi security forces is backed up by Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the former commander of ground troops in Iraq, and L. Paul Bremer III, the top civilian administrator until an Iraqi government took over in June 2004.

Among the overarching conclusions of the history is that five years after embarking on its largest foreign reconstruction project since the Marshall Plan in Europe after World War II, the United States government has in place neither the policies and technical capacity nor the organizational structure that would be needed to undertake such a program on anything approaching this scale.

This report is scheduled to be given to Congress in February, and is still in draft form. But, as the article pointed out, the ramifications for the future are huge, considering that we're going to be in Afghanistan for a while.

Five years after the invasion of Iraq, the history concludes, "the government as a whole has never developed a legislatively sanctioned doctrine or framework for planning, preparing and executing contingency operations in which diplomacy, development and military action all figure."

Few remember it, but a Democratic candidate for president campaigned on creating just such a framework for rebuilding countries. Instead of always reinventing the wheel and eternally performing nation-building as an ad hoc exercise, why not create a department that could provide the needed planning and expertise, by professionals who had done this sort of thing before? His name was Dennis Kucinich, and he was roundly ridiculed for his "Department of Peace" proposal. It's not looking so ridiculous now, is it?

Imagine, if you will, these two stories breaking under President Clinton's watch. Would either one of them be greeting with a collective yawn by the mainstream media? This weekend's Sunday morning talk shows, for instance, barely mentioned either story (most of the shows didn't mention either story at all). I saw a lot of "Bush ducking shoes" headlines, but I must have missed all the "White House Accused Of War Crimes By Senate" or "Iraq Reconstruction An Enormous Failure" headlines. Outside of a few intrepid newspapers, neither story is getting much attention at all.

Maybe it's just Bush fatigue. Some might say my insistence on the importance of these stories is nothing more than one last round of Bush-bashing. I disagree. Because these things were done in my name, and in every other Americans' name. To be sure they never happen again, we must examine exactly what did happen. Those who don't remember history are famously condemned to repeat it, and those who prefer not to even read such history in the first place are surely condemned to repeat it a whole lot faster.

Bush entered office trying to force a quick start to a recession, and he leaves office with the American economy in the worst shape it's been in since the Great Depression. Bush entered the war in Iraq and we all watched Iraqis beating a fallen statue of Saddam Hussein with their shoes, and now Bush leaves office with Iraqi journalists throwing shoes at him. Bush took over Baghdad while ignoring looting and rampant destruction of the Iraq infrastructure, and then squandered billions of dollars on "reconstruction" that was largely ineffective. Bush ran on a platform of "compassionate conservatism" and then watched an American city drown, and personally approved of torturing prisoners held by America. Bush ran on a standard Republican platform of "getting government out of people's lives" and then presided over trying to wiretap every phone call and email in America. Bush also ran on "restoring the honor and dignity of the Oval Office," and he exits still lying about how we went to war with Iraq (he's been quoted more than once in the past few weeks -- unchallenged by the interviewers -- saying that Saddam Hussein was refusing to let weapons inspectors in, which is just flat-out lying).

I know that America is ready to move on. I know that everyone is much more interested in the future Obama administration than looking back at the Bush administration. But it is important to take one last look back at Bush's legacy, to make sure these things are never again allowed to happen. Even the Senate all but accusing the White House of war crimes and the Inspector General in Iraq accusing the White House of massive incompetence don't make the front pages, which I think is just wrong.

Perhaps Carl Levin or Stuart Bowen, Jr. should toss a shoe at the president. Because maybe then these stories would get the attention they deserve.


Chris Weigant blogs at: