One Nation Under Guard


WASHINGTON, D.C.— Because it now seems likely that the American atrocities in Iraq will be a turning point in the war, all signs are heading toward defeat and eventual evacuation of U.S. military forces in what the rest of the world already views as disgrace—but which cynics in America see as just business as usual. Why should the corrupt and inhumane treatment of prisoners by guards in this country be any different from the handling of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of some of the same guards? What do you expect when you use private contractors?

Defeat in Iraq, coupled with Rumsfeld’s behavior on 9-11, ought to lead to his long awaited firing. But it probably won’t. Bush is no Harry Truman.

The right-wing Republicans behind Bush won’t go down easily. They can be counted on to try to turn defeat into some sort of weird theatrical extravaganza in which being beaten in the field of battle can be spun as one more triumph of American democracy, with Rummy yet again pictured as the charming goofball of the Bush administration. And true to form, as the atrocity story unfolded there they were—Bush, Rumsfeld, and the Washington press corps sharing a good laugh at the broadcasters’ dinner Saturday night.

Bush says he’s disgusted, and the army conducted an investigation. They apparently think they can shrug this off, because bad publicity and unflattering pictures from a court martial wouldn’t be of much help during Bush’s upbeat re-election drive.

To date, one private contractor who had been working as an interpreter has reportedly been “dismissed”; six reservists have been reprimanded; and eight other soldiers are facing lesser administrative charges. A total of 17 people have been suspended. According to The Guardian (U.K.), private contractors oversaw interrogations at Abu Ghraib; CACI International Inc. and Titan Corporation were the two companies named in a military report into the abuses. One contract employee reportedly raped a prisoner, but no charges have been filed. Other information remained vague as of Monday.

While there is considerable confusion over what to do with private contractors, the simplest way is to revert to the historical system of having these tasks done by the military, operating under its laws. Since that seems unlikely, then Attorney General John Ashcroft could order an FBI investigation. As Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights explains, if a private contractor carries out acts that otherwise would be done by the government, the contractor could be just as culpable under U.S. law for misdeeds as government officials are. Additional, Ratner says, there is a relatively new and untested law pertaining to the acts of U.S. contractors abroad. And of course, torture and other atrocities are outlawed under the Geneva conventions.

At the very least, Ashcroft should launch an investigation and Bush should cancel the company contracts, bar them from further federal government work, and order their personnel from the field. The two CEOs, Jack London of CACI and Gene Ray of Titan, could be subpoenaed to testify before Congress. Any company officials who knowingly participated in torture programs could also face criminal prosecution.

Pretty inconvenient for Bush, who needs face-saving, but the nations of the U.N., scared to death that American leaders will do something even more disastrous—like bomb North Korea or attack Iran—will probably try to help get him down off the limb. Not because they like us, but because they fear we will take everyone down.