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Posted: 5/15/2004 5:46:03 AM EST
May 15, 2004



WE interrupt America's self-flagellation over the Iraqi prison abuse scandal to ask three key crucial questions:

1) Just who were the inmates photographed at Abu Ghraib? Did they innocently wander into that Baghdad-area jail after Friday prayers, or were these the types who turned minarets into snipers' nests?

"They're not there for traffic violations," Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), told an Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday. "If they're in cell block 1-A or 1-B, these prisoners, they're murderers, they're terrorists, they're insurgents. Many of them probably have American blood on their hands."

Inhofe's statement is confirmed by none other than the International Committee of the Red Cross. While a confidential ICRC report summarized in the May 7 Wall Street Journal states that "between 70 percent and 90 percent of the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake," most of them are thought to have been properly handled. As the Geneva-based Red Cross found, "ill-treatment during interrogation was not systematic, except with regard to persons arrested in connection with suspected security offenses or deemed to have 'intelligence' value."

2) If Inhofe and the Red Cross are correct, and those who were targeted at Abu Ghraib were thugs with stories to tell, was their treatment totally unjustified? Americans have every right to be shocked and disturbed by allegations of forced sex, beatings, dog bites and, at this writing, even reports of violent deaths in captivity. The fact that some blameless Iraqis apparently suffered in all this is even worse. Nothing excuses this, and soldiers found guilty of these offenses should pay for them dearly.

But this country must ask itself if it is serious about crushing the barbarians - who, among many things, recently decapitated a 26-year- old Philadelphian who traveled to Iraq to help modernize its antiquated telecom infrastructure. If so, it is crucial to extract information from Nick Berg's killers, those whose roadside bombs shred Humvees and their occupants, and even the alumni of al Qaeda's Afghan training camps, who may know about Osama bin Laden's plans for fresh mayhem in, say, Chicago or New Orleans. Such villains are unlikely to identify their cohorts or reveal their intentions without encouragement.

If spending time naked in dark cells loosens bad guys' lips, that is a reasonable retail price for intelligence that could prevent the mass murders of soldiers in Basra or tourists on Bourbon Street.

3) Will spies now get spooked into treating detainees so gingerly that they clam up?

Apparently so. As Reuters reported yesterday, America's top commander in Iraq, Lt.-Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, prohibited Thursday the use of sensory deprivation and "stress positions" (uncomfortable body poses) as tools of interrogation in Iraq. Chief Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita admitted "the heightened scrutiny of the last couple of weeks" might have forced Sanchez's hand.

Such scrutiny was on vivid display as Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) hurled an accusatory question at Pentagon intelligence Undersecretary Stephen Cambone at Tuesday's hearing: "Secretary Cambone, were you personally aware that permissible interrogation techniques in the Iraqi theater included sleep management, sensory deprivation, isolation longer than 30 days and dogs?"

Levin's query suggested that these tactics should be verboten, and now some of them are. Still, one wonders if Levin, or the Pentagon, might like access to such methods, up to and including the menace of snarling German shepherds, if they yielded a basement full of Saddam Hussein's VX nerve gas or the undisclosed location of terror master Abu Musab al-Zarqawi?

Wall Street Journal correspondent Michael M. Phillips previewed this kinder, gentler War on Terror that is now the fruit of Abu Ghraib.

"With the Baghdad photos in mind, U.S. commanders have barred the use of empty sandbags to hood detainees," Phillips wrote May 10.

"American troops had used this technique to prevent captives from seeing the layout of the U.S. bases where they are held. Now military interrogators are looking over their shoulders, worried that hitherto accepted tactics, even if within the rules, will be seen as excessively harsh."

As the Pentagon and its political masters in Washington appear to be forgetting, this is war, not "Swan Lake." Yes, excesses should be punished, and they will be. But if being forced to sit in pitch-black rooms while wearing women's panties makes Ba'athist henchmen and al Qaeda killers sing, forgive me if I fail to burst into tears.
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