The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, May 10, 2004

No photo, no story - except there were umpteen!

The Abu Ghraib story in particular, and the US detainee abuse story in general, is a classic in the genre we've discussed before: the knowledge that isn't knowledge.

There's what looks like a ton of material - the comments to this piece of Atrios' point to some of it [1] - so I'll start here with a familiar name with interesting timing.

On December 26 2002, Dana Priest and Barton Gellman have a 2,700 word piece [2] on A1 with the hed and dek
U.S. Decries Abuse but Defends Interrogations
'Stress and Duress' Tactics Used on Terrorism Suspects Held in Secret Overseas Facilities

The lede is gobsmackingly feature, not hard news:
Deep inside the forbidden zone at the U.S.-occupied Bagram air base in Afghanistan, around the corner from the detention center and beyond the segregated clandestine military units, sits a cluster of metal shipping containers protected by a triple layer of concertina wire. The containers hold the most valuable prizes in the war on terrorism -- captured al Qaeda operatives and Taliban commanders.

The piece describes various interrogation methods employed. And goes on to mention that Bagram was amongst
a number of secret detention centers overseas where U.S. due process does not apply, according to several U.S. and European national security officials, where the CIA undertakes or manages the interrogation of suspected terrorists.

It admits that
no direct evidence of mistreatment of prisoners in U.S. custody has come to light
According to Americans with direct knowledge and others who have witnessed the treatment, captives are often "softened up" by MPs and U.S. Army Special Forces troops who beat them up and confine them in tiny rooms. The alleged terrorists are commonly blindfolded and thrown into walls, bound in painful positions, subjected to loud noises and deprived of sleep.

The Post followed up the article with an editorial on December 27 under the hed Torture Is Not an Option and on December 28 ran a reaction piece: a Human Rights Watch warning letter to Bush, Scott McClellan's shuffling.

Now, I don't know what impact all this had on official Washington: much of it was on holiday, perhaps, between Christmas and the New Year. Nexis is clearly indispensable here.

But, at a time when invasion was in the air, the town's most august rag had clearly placed the issue of US treatment of detainees on foreign soil on the agenda: fronting the Priest article - qualifying it as a memo to the White House - an editorial: this was far from the sort of deep-sixing that, say, Iraqi WMD pieces were wont to receive at one time [3]. Saving the Administration's blushes on the matter seems to have been no concern of the Post.

The USG reaction? One of the commenters flagged a briefing by Donald Rumsfeld dated February 8 2002, in which the treatment of detainees was addressed in opening remarks - he leaps straight in on
the Geneva Convention
- he's apparently under the impression there's just the one - and questions. The major concern seems to be Guantanamo. A ban on photos comes up - because it was photos that put a light under the issue of detentions there, as I recall.

What's the QED here? That, during a period starting well before the Iraq invasion, the issue of detainee treatment has been present in the minds of relevant journos and pols in Washington, and regularly dealt with by both on the record.

So, when the January 16 2004 Centcom press release comes up, neither class of person would have been in any doubt as to its possible significance. Yet neither did much about it.

How to explain this lack of action?

As the man says: Developing...

  1. Not many URLs for individual pieces! Searching on slabs of quoted text (regular search, but also in Google Groups, for Usenet) is the most useful. WaPo stuff tends to linger in the original; for NYT, one's looking for reprints.

    A HRW Timeline of Detainee Abuse Allegations and Responses - flagged in the comments - is useful, but URL-less.

  2. Whereabouts in the piece did the jump occur? Doesn't say, of course. I've mentioned the tricky business of the inside jump before...

  3. Susan Moeller's essential study on Iraqi WMD media coverage - mentioned here on April 7 and six or eight other times - analyses what happened. At least her name is eminently searchable!

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