Voice in the Wilderness

The news about the "war on terror" your local newspaper won't print.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The Abu Grahib trial's many faces

Trials are such an integral part of the American system of jurisprudence. But until a verdict is announced, or a significant motion comes up during proceedings, harder than convincing a jury of the defendant's guilt thing is for the press covering the trial to agree on what is news. In that way, trial coverage often is like the blind man and the elephant, with different takes from different bylines.

And so it seems to be happening in the court-martial of Spc. Charles Graner Jr., the first defendant being tried in the Abu Ghraib scandals. Judging from the variety of press coverage, the only thing that could be agreed upon was that the trial opened.

The media couldn't even agree on if prosecution witnesses were harming Graner's case or helping it. For example, T. R. Reid's lead paragraph for his Knight-Ridder service piece, which appeared in Tuesday's Des Moines Register, said witnesses bore out what Graner is claiming in his defense: that top brass OK'd the abuse of prisoners:
Private Ivan Frederick was called as a prosecution witness in the army's criminal case against Specialist Charles Graner, the alleged ringleader of abusive guards at Abu Ghraib.

But his testimony tended to support a key element of Graner's defence: that he was following orders from higher-ranking officers when he punched and beat prisoners and forced them to wallow naked in freezing mud outside the prison.

Private Frederick, a staff sergeant who was demoted to private after pleading guilty to abuse at Abu Ghraib, said he had consulted six senior officers, ranging from captains to lieutenant-colonels, about the guards' actions but was never told to stop.
But T. A. Badger's dispatch for the Associated Press has a different take on Frederick's words:
“Who directed you in your day-to-day activities?” asked Colonel James Pohl, the judge.

“Nobody, really,” responded Pvt. Frederick, who is serving an eight-year sentence for his actions at Abu Ghraib.

Defence lawyer Guy Womack said his side was pleased with the testimony offered by Pvt. Frederick and the other two accused co-conspirators, Pvt. [Jeremy] Sivits and ex-soldier Megan Ambuhl.
But Richard Serrano of the Los Angeles Times heard a different story in the same courtroom: Graner was clearly in control:
Three former Army guards convicted in the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal described Spc. Charles A. Graner Jr. on Monday as the soldier who most delighted in beating and sexually humiliating Iraqi inmates at the prison compound outside Baghdad.
Shortly thereafter, Serrano does attempt to halfheartedly get to the meat of the issue: Was Graner acting on his own, or did higher-ups order him to torture prisoners to soften them up for interrogration?
But some testimony seemed to support Graner's defense that he acted under orders from Army commanders to soften up the inmates so they would cooperate with interrogators.

"The soldiers were laughing, seeming to be having a good time," Pvt. Jeremy Sivits testified. "Cpl. Graner told me, 'Hey, we're just doing what we were told.' "
Unfortunately, Serrano stops right there, as do most of his colleagues. Amid his recounting of some of the day's more lurid testimony, such as relating to his Houston Chronicle audience that female prostitutes were photographed topless with the prisoners and allowed the soldiers to feel them up, John W. Gonzalez's lead used one sentence from Sivits to address that key issue of responsiblity, five paragraphs from the end of the article:
Pvt. Jeremy Sivits, an accused soldier who witnessed some of the events in late 2003, said Graner told him he was following orders, including instructions from civilian interrogators, military intelligence officers and military police.
This notion was similarly buried, six graphs from the bottom, of Howard Witt's piece for the Chicago Tribune, which was picked up by a number of newspapers.
Both the prosecution and defense agree that Graner's fate will turn on the answers to three basic questions: Whether Graner was ordered to commit abuses, whether the order was lawful and whether a "reasonable person" would have believed the order to be lawful.

Prosecution witnesses provided some fodder for each side.

No witness could pinpoint any explicit order given to Graner or anyone else to harm or humiliate detainees. But, in a boost for the defense, several testified that military intelligence officers and civilian contractors appeared to be in charge of the high-security wing and issued orders to deprive detainees of sleep, handcuff them to walls and otherwise make them uncomfortable.
But without this perspective, the press simply resorts to he-said, he-did coverage, which supplies no insight whatsoever. To her credit, Kate Zernike of the New York Times comes the closest to keeping this idea in perspective. Throughout the piece, she relates the testimony to whether it proves or disproves complicity from above, such as these paragraphs:
Witnesses here testified that commanders and military intelligence soldiers had authorized harsh treatment like keeping detainees chained to railings all night to force them to stay awake. Pvt. Ivan L. Frederick II, one of four soldiers who has accepted a plea agreement in the Abu Ghraib case, testified that he asked military police from the unit the 372nd replaced why detainees were naked and handcuffed, or wearing women's underwear on their heads. He said he was told that it was the way things were done.

Even Specialist Graner asked superiors whether it was right to handcuff detainees to a railing to keep them awake, Private Frederick testified. But the military police were told that if military intelligence asked for "sleep management," it was fine, he said. Describing instructions for sleep management from one military intelligence soldier, Private Frederick testified: "He told me, 'I don't care what you do, just don't kill him.' "
Friends, this is the key to the entire trial: Was Spc. Graner doing what he did out of his own free will, or was he cleared by superior officers and intelligence personnel to abuse and torture prisoners to break them down to divulge information? Here in the wilderness we haven't the faintest idea. But we fear that except for a few exceptions, the media coverage is destined to focus on the trees and forget about the forest.

Footnote: One of the first steps to respecting another culture is learning to pronounce its language correctly. Of course Americans couldn't care less what another language sounds like, as long as it can be pronounced in English. With that in mind, you're invited to read this article about how to pronounce "Abu Ghraib" (clue: it doesn't rhyme with "Gabe"). Please spread the word, especially to your local TV talking heads.

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