Digby and Billmon are having a respectful and fascinating disagreement about how the Abu Ghraib scandal will play out. Will it expand to take in the other elements of what Sidney Blumenthal has dubbed the 'New Gulag'? Will the American appetite for a scalp be satisified with Rumsfeld's or will the scandal machine demand more? And are these the same or different questions?
First Blumenthal. Then Billmon. Then the sex.
Blumenthal writes (in the UK's Guardian),
It stretches from prisons in Afghanistan to Iraq, from Guantánamo to secret CIA prisons around the world. There are perhaps 10,000 people being held in Iraq, 1,000 in Afghanistan and almost 700 in Guantánamo, but no one knows the exact numbers. The law as it applies to them is whatever the executive deems necessary. There has been nothing like this system since the fall of the Soviet Union. The US military embraced the Geneva conventions after the second world war, because applying them to prisoners of war protects American soldiers. But the Bush administration, in an internal fight, trumped its argument by designating those at Guantánamo “enemy combatants”. Rumsfeld extended this system – “a legal black hole”, according to Human Rights Watch – to Afghanistan and then Iraq, openly rejecting the conventions.
Private contractors, according to the Toguba report, gave orders to US soldiers to torture prisoners. Their presence in Iraq is a result of the Bush military strategy of invading with a relatively light force. The gap has been filled by private contractors, who are not subject to Iraqi law or the US military code of justice. Now, there are an estimated 20,000 of them on the ground in Iraq, a larger force than the British army.
It is not surprising that recent events in Iraq centre on these contractors: the four killed in Falluja, and Abu Ghraib's interrogators. Under the Bush legal doctrine, we create a system beyond law to defend the rule of law against terrorism; we defend democracy by inhibiting democracy. Law is there to constrain “evildoers”. Who doubts our love of freedom?
To which Billmon of the Whiskey Bar adds,
It appears the Army was worried about the kinds of things the Army is usually worried about – loss of control, lack of discipline and a breakdown in the chain of command – and was willing to dig into the shitpile of interrogation abuses to find out just bad things had become. And it eventually put the investigation in the hands of someone (Taguba) who was willing to trace the problems back to the original decision to try to turn Abu Ghraib into a Gimo-style intelligence factory.
The higher ups, on the other hand, appear to have realized fairly quickly that exposing the abuses at Abu Ghraib would draw global attention to the entire system – Gitmo, the prisons in Afghanistan, their entire kinder, gentler gulag archipelago. So it looks like they adopted a strategy of letting the CID investigations run their secret course, while allowing Taguba's report to sit on the bureaucratic shelf.
The photographic evidence, however, couldn't be controlled — the gang should have seen that from the start — and somebody (Taguba?) became so angry about the way the report was being buried that they leaked it to Sy Hersh. The stonewall crumbled.
And so we come to the central question: Can the cover up artists keep the focus exclusively on Abu Ghraib? Ironically, the flood of S&M porn shots now making their way onto the market tend to reinforce the media's fascination with the perverted antics at the prison, which ultimately works in favor of the coverup, if not Rumsfeld personally. The new gulag archipelago, like the old one, requires anonymity. Right now, the other islands in the chain still have it, and may get to keep it – unless, of course, there are some candid snapshots from Gitmo or Bagram or the CIA's mysterious “ghost” prisons floating around in unauthorized hands.
Even if such photos were to come to light, I'm not sure the mainstream media, much less the American public, can absorb much more than they already have. It's not easy to admit you live in a country that now owns and operates its own system of gulag camps – instead of contracting the entire job out to friendly despots, sight unseen, as in the good old days.
To which Digby says,
It's funny he brings this up, because I was just thinking the exact opposite.
I think it is precisely the nature of the evidence that makes the media and the American public interested in the story. They are inured to charges of lies or corruption —- violence and prurience are what moves them. I concluded long ago that the only scandal that really interests the American public is a sex scandal.
It is the S&M image of this one that is moving it, the pictures, the graphic kinkiness of it. That's what shocks and thrills the public, if only in a sickening, voyeuristic, train wreck sort of way.
This is a depressing if all-too-plausible account. I would like it to be wrong. It's been a while since I did retail politics, all of it before the Clinton era which I suppose may have altered the fundamentals, but my impression of the average voter is pretty good.
The ones I met were decent folk, just busy with their lives. They tended to be proud of their country, and I don't somehow think they will take this lying down. I think rather, that the most Republican of them will take it sitting down in the sense of this letter in today's New York Times:
I was a Republican yesterday, I am a Republican today, and I will probably be a Republican tomorrow. I am not a Democrat because I still hold to the philosophy that the Democrats are the tax-and-spend party.
But I must say that in November, I will stay home. George W. Bush and his crew are pathetic and, worse, inept. How can it be that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was not briefed on Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba's Army report? Perhaps a little more gravitas from Mr. Rumsfeld would be in order.
Each new disclosure proves that the Iraq adventure is the biggest mistake since Vietnam. Will the United States ever learn?
Given the relatively polarized electorate and the fairly small number of undecided (who tend to go for challengers anyway if the economy is bad), this election was always going to be in large part about motivating the base. (Thus, the hype over gay marriage issue or today's prime time, “Judeo-Christians”-only White House Prayer Day Show; these things excite the base.)
There are exactly two ways I can see that Bush can dig himself out of this one.
First, the October Surprise scenario. One need not even ascribe nefarious acts to the Bush team for this to happen: the anger generated by Abu Ghraib revalations, and the others still to come, only makes the chances of a fanatical terroristic sequel to 9/11 that much more likely.
Second, to ramp up the vitriol against Kerry. This has been the Bush family m.o. for a generation, and was the strategy for this election from the start. If thee was a bottom below which they woudn't go, it just got lower.
And it's only May.