Denial or Non-Denial Denial?

The press, and most blogs, are playing this DoD News: Statement from DoD Spokesperson Mr. Lawrence Di Rita as a categorical denial of the latest Seymour Hersh article in the New Yorker.

That's odd, because at least to a lawyer's eye it seems awfully cagey. Let's parse all five paragraphs of it to see if it's a real denial, or just a non-denial denial.

Update (5/17/04): DoD changed the original press release if you follow the link it will have additional text now. Plus they issued another denial

“Assertions apparently being made in the latest New Yorker article on Abu Ghraib and the abuse of Iraqi detainees are outlandish, conspiratorial, and filled with error and anonymous conjecture.”

The only thing in here which is at all a denial is “filled with error”. Which is less categorical than “false”. But note in what follows how few specific errors are actually noted—at most one, and even then it's a bit vague.

“The abuse evidenced in the videos and photos, and any similar abuse that may come to light in any of the ongoing half dozen investigations into this matter, has no basis in any sanctioned program, training manual, instruction, or order in the Department of Defense.”

Of course, that's not what Hersh actually alleges in his article. Hersh alleges that the Pentagon allowed one set of techniques (“sleep deprivation, exposure to extremes of cold and heat, and placing prisoners in 'stress positions' for agonizing lengths of time” plus “sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners”), left implementation to MPs untrained in how to do it, with a chain of command largely in the dark as to the black ops orders, and the troops then ran amok. “Cambone and his superiors,” writes Hersh quoting a Pentagon consultant, “'created the conditions that allowed transgressions to take place.'” That is not denied.

“No responsible official of the Department of Defense approved any program that could conceivably have been intended to result in such abuses as witnessed in the recent photos and videos.”

Again, not what Hersh alleged. He did not suggest the upper reaches of the DoD intended to allow rape or sexual torture, and especially not photographed torture. Rather Hersh alleges the Pentagon expanded a program that allowed serious physical abuse, what I would call torture (“sleep deprivation, exposure to extremes of cold and heat, and placing prisoners in 'stress positions' for agonizing lengths of time” plus “sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners”) and took the troops out of their regular chain of command. At which point events took their course.

“To correct one of the many errors in fact, Undersecretary Cambone has no responsibility, nor has he had any responsibility in the past, for detainee or interrogation programs in Afghanistan, Iraq, or anywhere else in the world.”

Here we come to the nub of the matter: Saving Cambone. Here's what Hersh actually says about him:

Early in his tenure, Cambone provoked a bureaucratic battle within the Pentagon by insisting that he be given control of all special-access programs that were relevant to the war on terror. Those programs, which had been viewed by many in the Pentagon as sacrosanct, were monitored by Kenneth deGraffenreid, who had experience in counter-intelligence programs. Cambone got control, and deGraffenreid subsequently left the Pentagon. Asked for comment on this story, a Pentagon spokesman said, “I will not discuss any covert programs; however, Dr. Cambone did not assume his position as the Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence until March 7, 2003, and had no involvement in the decision-making process regarding interrogation procedures in Iraq or anywhere else.”

So far, we have not so much a denial, as a confirmation of one of the facts Hersh reports. But Hersh also says this:

The solution, endorsed by Rumsfeld and carried out by Stephen Cambone, was to get tough with those Iraqis in the Army prison system who were suspected of being insurgents. A key player was Major General Geoffrey Miller, the commander of the detention and interrogation center at Guantánamo, who had been summoned to Baghdad in late August to review prison interrogation procedures. The internal Army report on the abuse charges, written by Major General Antonio Taguba in February, revealed that Miller urged that the commanders in Baghdad change policy and place military intelligence in charge of the prison. The report quoted Miller as recommending that “detention operations must act as an enabler for interrogation.”

Rumsfeld and Cambone went a step further, however: they expanded the scope of the sap, bringing its unconventional methods to Abu Ghraib. The commandos were to operate in Iraq as they had in Afghanistan. The male prisoners could be treated roughly, and exposed to sexual humiliation.

In a separate interview, a Pentagon consultant, who spent much of his career directly involved with special-access programs, spread the blame. “The White House subcontracted this to the Pentagon, and the Pentagon subcontracted it to Cambone,” he said. “This is Cambone’s deal, but Rumsfeld and Myers approved the program.” When it came to the interrogation operation at Abu Ghraib, he said, Rumsfeld left the details to Cambone. Rumsfeld may not be personally culpable, the consultant added, “but he’s responsible for the checks and balances. The issue is that, since 9/11, we’ve changed the rules on how we deal with terrorism, and created conditions where the ends justify the means.”

In most of these passages, Hersh doesn't so much say Cambone had the responsibility, rather that he was a conduit for Rumsfeld's orders. To the extent he accuses Cambone of more, and he does, the news release is either a genuine denial of his responsibility, or a non-denial denial if his policy-making role could be characterized as something other than ” responsibility … for detainee or interrogation programs in Afghanistan, Iraq, or anywhere else in the world.” In other words, this leaves open the possibility that Cambone got to pick who had the responsibility for these tasks, or that he executed instructions from someone — Rumsfeld — who had that responsibility.

“This story seems to reflect the fevered insights of those with little, if any, connection to the activities in the Department of Defense.”

Again, not a denial.

[Edited slightly at 14:05]

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