The Disappeared

Today's bombshell is in the New York Times, Prison Abuse: Rumsfeld Issued an Order to Hide Detainee in Iraq.

Let's count the shockers (we can still be shocked, can't we?) and estimate the fallout.


1. Rumsfeld (at the CIA's request—we'll get to that), ordered what seems at least a technical war crime: putting a confirmed POW in solitary and hiding him from the Red Cross. [Update (6/17): Oops. Not a confirmed POW, a civilian detainee — see Cecil Turner Has A Point.]

2. It's not a unique case; there is/was a class of “ghost detainees”—disappeared people. This from a country that (with some justice) tied itself up in knots over the fate of its own POWs and MIAs in Vietnam.

3. In addition to being immoral (we knew that), our leaders are not just partially (we knew that) but totally incompetent: having put this guy on ice because he was too important to expose to the Red Cross and so desperately needed to be softened up, the system forgot all about him:

Seven months later, however, the detainee – a reputed senior officer of Ansar al-Islam, a group the United States has linked to Al Qaeda and blames for some attacks in Iraq – is still languishing at the prison but has only been questioned once while in detention, in what government officials acknowledged was an extraordinary lapse.

“Once he was placed in military custody, people lost track of him,” a senior intelligence official conceded Wednesday night. “The normal review processes that would keep track of him didn't.”

The detainee was described by the official as someone “who was actively planning operations specifically targeting U.S. forces and interests both inside and outside of Iraq.”

But once he was placed into custody at Camp Cropper, where about 100 detainees deemed to have the highest intelligence value are held, he received only one cursory arrival interrogation from military officers and was never again questioned by any other military or intelligence officers, according to Pentagon and intelligence officials.

Things we know already, and that this incident reminds us:

4. Abu Ghraib may be the tip of an iceberg. There are a lot of other military prisons to worry about both in and out of Iraq. One is Camp Cropper, at or near the Baghdad Airport.

5. Even worse is a network of secret CIA prisons in various undisclosed locations, run by people who take the view that none of the rules apply to them. We have no idea how many of these prisons exist, how many prisoners they hold or have held, what the casualty rate is, and whether it's a one-way trip or if people are ever released from them.


I. You would think that Rumsfeld would have to resign unless somehow they can make Tenet the fall guy for this. But I am dubious. Yes, this is much more direct and personal authorization — a real smoking gun — than what has come out so far in the torture cases, although there's serious circumstantial evidence accumulating there too. On the other hand, while putting 'ghost' detainees in secret solitary is illegal, and technically a war crime, the effect on the detainees not nearly as horrible as what seems to have happened at Abu Ghraib.

II. People like me, who have been highly dubious about the US acceding to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court due to the real and troubling encroachment on our traditional conception of national sovereignty are really going to have to think long and hard about changing sides on this one, or at least accepting jurisdiction with regards to some of our treaty obligations. The last few months argue strongly that the US cannot always be relied on to observe its international law obligations as much as I would have thought and hoped.

III. At some point some of this stuff has to stick to Rumsfeld's boss. Are we there yet?

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17 Responses to The Disappeared

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  3. “we can still be shocked, can’t we?”

    I find that in order to be shocked anymore, I have to really work at it. For instance, when I read that Rumsfeld had ordered a detainee to be ‘disappeared’, I did not immediately become amazed, outraged or….shocked. It wasn’t until I read your analysis that I obtained the appropriate level of shockedness. And I’m someone who is so un-busy at work these days that all I ever do is basically sit around and read Internet articles all day about how horrendous this current administration is. And it IS horrendous and I know that but the level of its horrendousness is so great and so obvious that I can hardly comprehend it or understand it or almost even really believe it anymore. I think maybe the reason for this is that even though I follow the news and issues of the day much more closely than the average American, I am still caught in the same trap as less informed American citizens, that being the almost impenetrable bubble that surrounds us and keeps us from seeing ourselves as we *might* possibly be, let alone seeing ourselves as we really are. It’s almost like until the rest of the American citizenry wakes up and collectively says something along the lines of “Yes, George Bush and some members of his administration really are criminals and deserve prosecution and incarceration or death”, then I can’t fully believe it or accept it myself.

    Talk about induced into a boob-tubian stupor Americans…and yes, I do talk about them often…it seems I might be one myself. But perhaps with the help of a few million citizens, I too can break out of this stupor, immerge from the bubble and see things as they really are.

  4. arthur says:

    Actually, it’s not surprising that after erasing all records of an individual, the person would be forgotten and never interrogated. Records are ordinarily kept in order to keep track of people; without records, you can’t keep track.

    I was involved in a corporate fraud investigation once, wher we discovered that the CEO had illegally diverted several hundred thousand dollars into a corporate account outside the books of the company, and covered the tracks so the auditors wouldn’t notice. Presumably he intended to divert the funds for personal use, but with all the records obscured, he apparently forgot about it, and the bank account just sat there for years.

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  6. “[W]e can still be shocked, can’t we?”

    The only things that shock me about any of this are:

    a) That so many people are still supporting these fascists and making excuses for them.

    b) That so many others are still so reluctant to call a fascist war criminal a fascist war criminal and get to work putting every last one of them in prison where they belong.

    “At some point some of this stuff has to stick to Rumsfeld’s boss. Are we there yet?”

    We got there on November 11, 2001. See:

    November 26, 2001
    By Charles Gittings

    There are some details I’d change if I were writing that today, but I think it holds up very well — especially the conclusion.

    And keep up the great work Michael!



  7. Ted says:

    What do you mean by “technically” a war crime? Is there some distinction between a technical war crime and a full-on war crime? (Not being sarcastic. I’m not a lawyer and I’d like to know.)
    While we’re on the subject, what about the practice of imprisoning family members of high-level Baathists in the hope that this will induce such people to turn themselves in? It doesn’t seem controversial to call this a war crime too. Am I wrong?
    Here’s the Newsday story:,0,4004730.story?coll=ny-worldnews-headlines

  8. JC says:

    Still capable of being shocked????

    I think for a large portion of us, we unfortunatley have come to expect all of this.

    But what about the GOP? and Big Media? When does the dismay truly sink in, and a Howard Baker type person emerge to say: Enough!!!

    Funny to look back on Wategate and identify “heros”: Baker, the Washington Post team (top to bottom), Time and Chicago Tribune editorials, Archibald Cox, Eliott Richardson, even John Dean and Dan Rather? Where are their equivilant voices today?

  9. Cecil Turner says:


    Are you claiming “a reputed senior officer of Ansar al-Islam” is a “confirmed POW”? Or that a member of that organization rates POW status under Third Geneva?

    I can see why one would be concerned about the CIA prison network, or that “a C.I.A. legal analysis” appears to have taken the place of a status tribunal–but it’s also difficult to see how a senior terrorist officer could possibly qualify for POW status. And if he doesn’t, the “war crime” conclusion, technical or otherwise, appears invalid.

    In any event, the more profitable war crimes argument would seem to be would be: “wilfully depriving a prisoner of war of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed in this Convention.” But even that provision requires the detainee to meet one of the POW categories in Article 4.

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  11. Romdinstler Jones says:

    Passage about torture at GITMO, from

    “One practice … was ‘short shackling’ where we were forced to squat without a chair
    with our hands chained between our legs and chained to the floor. If we fell over, the
    chains would cut into our hands. We would be left in this position for hours before an
    interrogation, during the interrogations (which could last as long as 12 hours), and
    sometimes for hours while the interrogators left the room. The air conditioning was
    turned up so high that within minutes we would be freezing. There was strobe lighting
    and loud music played that was itself a form of torture. Sometimes dogs were brought
    in to frighten us… Sometimes detainees would be taken to the interrogation room day
    after day and kept short-shackled without interrogation ever happening, sometimes for
    weeks on end.”

    This man was held by the military forces of the United States of America at the behest of the executive branch of the government of the United States of America. Held there, like a rabid dog might be held, not even in order to elicit information under some ticking time bomb scenario, but instead, in the hopes this man, this human being, as like as not picked up at random, might somehow have some sort information that could maybe, possibly, help in preventing harm to come to American citizens. And because of this, harm has indeed come to Americans, harm that can now never be erased. Now and forever more, when people read about this sorry episode – and others like it, the feelings that will wash over them, as they are washing over me now, are identical to those obtained when one reads about the horrors other despotic regimes, such as Nazi Germany – and Saddam Hussein-era Iraq – have visited upon their own citizens. How dare this administration reduce our country to such a despicable level as that! Mere impeachment is too good for them. After the impeachment, the trial; after the trial, the sentencing; after the sentencing, who knows? Whether or not the restoration of the good name of America can ever occur remains unknown and likely will remain unknown for years and years to come.

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  14. Buccaneer says:


    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged on Thursday that he ordered the secret detention of an Iraqi terrorism suspect held for more than seven months near Baghdad without notifying the Red Cross.

    Rumsfeld told reporters CIA Director George Tenet asked him last November “to take custody of an Iraqi national who was believed to be a high-ranking member of Ansar al-Islam,” which the United States has called a terrorist group.

    “And we did so. We were asked to not immediately register the individual (with the International Committee of the Red Cross). And we did that,” Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon briefing hours after President Bush again voiced support for the beleaguered Pentagon chief. “


    In March, Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who investigated abuses at Abu Ghraib, criticized the holding of “ghost” detainees as “deceptive, contrary to Army doctrine, and in violation of international law.”

    Rumsfeld was asked how this case differed from the practice Taguba criticized. “It is just different, that’s all,” he said.

    Note. If you are the secretary of defense of a country liberating another country in the alleged name of democracy and humanity and are confronted with a breach of the Geneva Conventions you ordered – don’t deny or play it down, just admit and shrug your shoulders. Business as usual. Otherwise people might get the impression that something displeasing could be going on that requires attention.

  15. Ooops — typo: that should have been November 13, 2001 not November 11 in my earlier comment.

    Here’s a further comment in response to Romdinstler Jones:

    I agree with you except for one key detail, where you say “harm has indeed come to Americans, harm that can now never be erased.”

    While it is certainly true than an injury once inflicted cannot be undone, I still have to believe that JUSTICE can yet prevail. Indeed, just as the horror of the Civil War gave us the opportunity to atone for the grievous atrocities of chattel slavery (which we have not to this day fully achieved IMO), the present horrors give us the opportunity to move FORWARD and to both REAFFIRM and STRENGTHEN the commitments represented by the London Charter of the IMT, the UN Charter, Geneva 1949, ICAT, ICCPR, etc.

    We need to prosecute, convict, and punish all of these criminals: George Bush is going to be the first US President to go to prison.

  16. Kimberley says:

    As I read Geneva, there’s no need for the US to get tanlged up with the ICC if Congress performs its constitutionally mandated duty to manage this rogue Exective. If, however, they continue to abdicate this responsibility, congressional leadership could very well find itself on the list of defendants along with members of Bush’s administration.

    There is nothing unclear about our responsibility to hold the military’s civilian leadership accountable:
    Geneva Accords, Convention III: Part II, Art. 12. “Prisoners of war are in the hands of the enemy Power, but not of the individuals or military units who have captured them. Irrespective of the individual responsibilities that may exist, the Detaining Power is responsible for the treatment given them.”

    Here’s where (I think) Congress may find its tail in a bear trap: Part VI, Section I,
    Art. 129. The High Contracting Parties undertake to enact any legislation necessary to provide effective penal sanctions for persons committing, or ordering to be committed, any of the grave breaches of the present Convention defined in the following Article.
    Art. 131. No High Contracting Party shall be allowed to absolve itself or any other High Contracting Party of any liability incurred by itself or by another High Contracting Party in respect of breaches referred to in the preceding Article.

    But I may be mistaken, in which case I would also have to rethink being more amenable to ICC’s sway.

  17. James says:

    “The last few months argue strongly that the US cannot always be relied on to observe its international law obligations as much as I would have thought and hoped.”

    Michael, where have you been for the last 50 years? Do you really believe that this country’s involvement in regime change (and its kissing cousin, regime maintenance) in various parts of the world show that the US can generally “be relied on to observe its international law obligations”?

    Let me just rattle off a few place names to jog your memory.

    Guatemala (1954) — regime change (Arbenz Guzman) followed by regime maintenance (subsequent military dictatorship)
    Iran (1954) — regime change (Mossadegh) followed by regime maintenance (Shah of Iran, SAVAK)
    Nicaragua — regime maintenance (Somoza), regime change (Contra terrorists vs. Sandinista govt)
    Indonesia (1965) — regime change (Sukarno) followed by regime maintenance (Suharto) (good primer to be found at
    Chile (1973) — regime change (Allende) followed by regime maintenance (subsequent military dictatorship)
    Zaire — regime change (assassination of Patrice Lumumba) followed by regime maintenance (General Joseph Mobutu)

    There’s more — lots more — but that’s enough to go on, for a start. Are you going to claim that these events happened without US involvement, or that US involvement constituted observaction with international law obligations?


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