While Abu Ghraib represents a low point for the United States in the Iraq War, it is also a symbol of the liberal media run amok. The New York Times ran front page stories on Abu Ghraib for 32 successive days. The media gleefully reported as Democratic politicians, one by one, called for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
One of those Democratic politicians calling for Rumsfeld's resignation, Senator John Kerry, just happened to be running for president at the time, and coincidentally Abu Ghraib remained in the headlines from spring 2004 (when the story broke) though the November 2004 presidential election. An opportunistic Kerry used Abu Ghraib not only to criticize Rumsfeld, but also to criticize his campaign rival in August 2004 stating:
"It's not just the little person at the bottom who ought to pay the price of responsibility," Kerry told union members at a steamfitters hall in Philadelphia before heading to Green Bay. "Harry Truman had that sign on the desk and it said, 'The buck stops here.' The buck doesn't stop at the Pentagon. And in this case it doesn't just stop with any military personnel."
As Charles Krauthammer noted at the time, there was really no precedent for a Cabinet Secretary to "take ultimate responsibility for what happens on his watch," or otherwise Janet Reno would have resigned following the Waco incident. This sentiment was echoed by, of all people, Jimmy Carter's Defense Secretary, Harold Brown, who commented that "[i]f the head of a department had to resign every time anyone down below did something wrong, it would be a very empty Cabinet table."
The sharp Democratic rhetoric was further muted by the independent Schlesinger Commission, which did conclude there was some direct and indirect responsibility that went higher up the chain of command. But commenting on the report, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger (who served under Presidents Nixon and Ford) stated:
[T]he photographs taken last year at Abu Ghraib prison "were freelance activities" on the part of the night shift ... It was kind of 'Animal House' on the night shift.
Nevertheless, the criticism continued throughout the presidential campaign with Kerry questioning the "leadership" of Rumsfeld and Bush.
While Kerry and other Democrats were careful to parce their words, liberal commentators quickly began talk of conspiracies and war crimes that went up the chain of command all the way to President Bush. As an example of this and other similar commentary, TheNation.com published an internet editorial on May 24, 2004 titled "Orders to Torture," which began:
The Abu Ghraib prison scandal now implicates the highest levels of the Bush Administration in violating federal law and in war crimes. In barely two weeks, the story has shifted from horrific photographs of prisoners to intimations of homicide; from prison mismanagement blamed on the fog of war to the cool clarity of deliberate White House designs to protect torturers from prosecution; from "the six morons who lost the war" to the Defense Secretary, the White House Counsel and the President himself.
Now - more than three years after the story first broke - the last of the Abu Ghraib military prosecutions appears to have concluded.
Until this week, no military officers had been convicted of abuse charges (two officers were punished administratively, but not prosecuted). Eleven enlisted officers were previously convicted of crimes - with the longest sentence being ten years - and the infamous Lynndie England receiving a three year sentence.
The only military officer to be charged criminally, Army Lt. Col. Steven L. Jordan, went on trial this week on a host of charges, namely: cruelty and maltreatment for subjecting detainees to forced nudity and intimidation by dogs; dereliction of a duty to properly train and supervise soldiers in humane interrogation rules; and failing to obey a lawful general order.
The jury (nine colonels and one brigadier general) acquitted Jordan of the "abuse" charges. Jordan was found guilty of a single count of failing to obey an order. Jordan had been told by a superior not to comment on the Abu Ghraib situation, and Jordan thereafter spoke with some of his soldiers about the allegations, which is the basis of the single conviction. Jordan's punishment was a reprimand and a fine.
With Jordan's case concluded, AP reported: "Those acquittals suggested that criminality went no higher than former Staff Sgt. Ivan L. Frederick, a military police reservist from Buckingham, Va., who is serving an eight-year sentence."
AP's conclusion is accurate, and validates James Schlesinger's three-year-old conclusion that the Abu Ghraib abuses were "freelance," "Animal House" activities of the night shift.
It is probably too much to expect an apology for Rumsfeld and Bush, but when the only charged military officer is acquitted of all abuse charges, you might expect Rumsfeld and Bush to at least be mentioned in the media coverage, but that was not the case in stories by AP, Reuters, and Time.
In its story, the AP ("Abu Ghraib officer's sentence: Reprimand") cited a human rights researcher who mocked the military prosecution:
John Sifton, senior counterterrorism researcher with Washington-based Human Rights Watch, called Jordan's prosecution "amateurish and half-baked" and said the military lacked the will to get to the bottom of the abuse.
AP, quoting another human rights activist, then allows a statement that belies the military verdict:
Hina Shamsi, deputy director of New York-based Human Rights First, said an "accountability gap" remains between the convicted soldiers and high-ranking military and government officials who sanctioned harsh interrogation techniques.
The Reuters article ("U.S. officer to receive reprimand in Abu Ghraib case") cites unnamed human rights activists who similarly "have criticized the U.S. government's efforts to deal with the Abu Ghraib scandal, saying investigations should have been much broader and examined the role of senior officers more closely."
Time's story ("The Abu Ghraib Cases: Not Yet Over"), as the title would indicate, takes solace in the possibility that two civilian contractors may still be prosecuted. That potential story, while likely not implicating the military or administration, would at least allow Time to report on Abu Ghraib a little longer.
The one common link among all the stories, however, was their collective failure to even mention Rumsfeld or Bush. Nor did the stories - other than the short mention in the AP story - make any effort to dispel the earlier implications (mentioned here and elsewhere) of governmental conspiracies, Pentagon-sanctioned abuse, and cover up.
Instead, AP, Reuters, and Time all covered the story as a straight military prosecution, with political commentary generally at a minimum (at least by the media's standards), which is what they should do all the time - not just when the story favors the Bush administration.