The Levin Report Prompts A Second Look At Other Bush-Era Whitewashes

When General Antonio Taguba investigated the abuses at Abu Ghraib, he soon realized that General Ricardo Sanchez, the army commander in Iraq, "knew exactly what was going on." But Taguba's report did not implicate Sanchez, because his assignment had a very limited scope.

As directed by Sanchez, the inquiry was limited to the operations at the 800th Military Police Brigade, under Brigadier General Janice Karpinski, beginning on November 1, 2003. Weeks before that date, Guantanamo commander General Geoffrey Miller made a 10-day visit to Iraq, between August 31 and September 9, 2003, when he recommended that soldiers start "GITMO-izing" interrogations at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Five days after Miller's visit, Sanchez signed a memo authorizing interrogation techniques that violated both the Geneva conventions and the army field manual. A few weeks later, during October 2003, Miller briefed Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Under Secretary Steven Cambone as to his recommendations for interrogating civilian detainees in Iraq.

Taguba's report had suggested that Miller's actions had contributed to the atmosphere of abuse at the prison. Nonetheless, following the release of the report in March 2004, Miller was brought back to Iraq to replace Karpinski and to assume control of Abu Ghraib operations.

The story of Taguba's report reflects a truism applicable to every investigation: When large swaths of information are declared off limits, the resulting work product may be fatally flawed. The findings may be used as a whitewash, if not a cover-up. This truism is ignored constantly by the media, in stark contrast to the time of the Watergate hearings, when an 18-minute gap in Nixon's White House tapes was considered a very big deal.

The Levin Report, which traces the culpability for torture at Abu Ghraib to Donald Rumsfeld, shows the limits of the Taguba report. (It also offers up abundant evidence that Miller obstructed justice and Rumsfeld committed perjury.) But the flaws of the Taguba report were always hiding in plain sight, and were always ignored.

Consider Rumsfeld's response to the Levin Report:

"To date there have been 12 major nonpartisan reports on detention operations. None of those reports concluded that there was any DoD policy or DoD officials that condoned or tolerated abuse."

Exactly. As Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker:

"A dozen government investigations have been conducted into Abu Ghraib and detainee abuse. A few of them picked up on matters raised by Taguba's report, but none followed through on the question of ultimate responsibility. Military investigators were precluded from looking into the role of Rumsfeld and other civilian leaders in the Pentagon; the result was that none found any high-level intelligence involvement in the abuse."

Rumsfeld used those 12 reports as a distraction, a vehicle for deceit. He wants us to believe that his culpability had been investigated, when in fact the opposite is true.

Hersh's article illustrates the defining characteristic of all major scandals, from Enron to the Holocaust. In every case, large numbers of people opt for willful blindness, looking the other way in the face of obvious signs of wrongdoing. Hersh describes a meeting with Rumsfeld during May 2004, several months after Taguba's report was completed, and weeks after the milder Abu Ghraib abuses had been broadcast on 60 Minutes:

"Rumsfeld also complained about not being given the information he needed. 'Here I am,"' Taguba recalled Rumsfeld saying, 'just a Secretary of Defense, and we have not seen a copy of your report. I have not seen the photographs, and I have to testify to Congress tomorrow and talk about this.'

"Taguba had submitted more than a dozen copies of his report through several channels at the Pentagon and to the Central Command headquarters, in Tampa, Florida, which ran the war in Iraq. By the time he walked into Rumsfeld's conference room, he had spent weeks briefing senior military leaders on the report, but he received no indication that any of them, with the exception of General Schoomaker, had actually read it... When Taguba urged one lieutenant general to look at the photographs, he rebuffed him, saying, 'I don't want to get involved by looking, because what do you do with that information, once you know what they show?'

"Taguba also knew that senior officials in Rumsfeld's office and elsewhere in the Pentagon had been given a graphic account of the pictures from Abu Ghraib, and told of their potential strategic significance, within days of the first complaint."

For his current defense, Rumsfeld uses the standard ploys invoked by conservatives for the past eight years. He invokes Bush-era investigations, which, circumscribed in their pursuit of evidence, were used to whitewash the truth. And he relies on the willful blindness of others, notably the media, who ignore the damning evidence hiding in plain sight. Other examples abound. David Brooks' defense of the Bush White House is typical:

"Are they guilty of manipulating intelligence on WMD? That, I think, is the thing they are least guilty of. I think Randy Scheunemann mentioned the Robb report, which showed there was no political pressure...And there was a Senate intelligence report; there was a Butler report. There were all of these reports. None of them found manipulation of intelligence." The News Hour, November 5, 2005

Neither the Silberman-Robb Report, nor the July 2004 Senate Intelligence Report, nor the Butler report considered how the Bush administration dealt with WMD intelligence. Those reports, like the Taguba report, failed to pursue evidence going up the chain of command. Those WMD reports, like the Taguba report, sidestepped the timeframe that mattered most, beginning on March 7, 2003. Brooks invoked those reports to mislead PBS's viewers.

Brooks was enabled by the willful blindness of mainstream media, which ignored the evidence of Bush's bad faith at the time of the invasion. On March 7, 2003, Hans Blix and Mohammed ElBaradei presented the U.N. inspectors' findings, which discredited the CIA intelligence submitted by Colin Powell. Did Bush try to reconcile the differences? Did he attempt to explain to Security Council members, or anyone else, why he thought the inspectors were wrong? Of course not.

On March 7, 2003, the most up-to-date intelligence from the on-the-ground inspectors put Bush and the world on notice that the CIA's intelligence was faulty. Showing a reckless disregard for the truth, Bush invaded anyway. No investigation into the CIA's intelligence process could possibly ameliorate the willful blindness of the Bush administration after that date. Think about it. No one ever said, "You can't blame the captain because there were no iceberg warnings when the Titanic left Southampton."

Yet on December 1, 2008, Charlie Gibson asked Bush, "If the intelligence had been right, would there have been an Iraq war?" Bush responded with an obvious and transparent lie, "Saddam Hussein was unwilling to let the inspectors go in to determine whether or not the U.N. resolutions were being upheld." Willfully blind, Gibson offered no follow up.

The Levin report should remind us that most Bush-era investigations were circumscribed to preempt accountability and to serve as distractions to distort the mainstream media narrative. After the Pentagon withdrew its Bush-era report, which attempted to refute The New York Times article on the Pentagon campaign for Milli Vanilli journalism, Frank Rich reminded Rachel Maddow that many other investigative reports from the Pentagon's former inspector general were similarly tainted. But the problem extends far beyond the Pentagon.

There are many other counterparts to the Taguba report, reports that were fatally flawed because critical evidence was kept off-limits, and which were used as distractions from the incriminating evidence hiding in plain sight. All of the Katrina reports fit that profile. None of the investigations were allowed access to communications among senior White House officials, Pentagon officials, DHS officials and the governors of Alabama and Mississippi. Yet Michael Chertoff's open refusal to follow the procedures of the National Response Plan, and his lies about it afterwards, were always hiding in plain sight.

Let's not forget that, so far, nothing related to Karl Rove has been adequately investigated. Rove has been implicated in scandals pertaining to the U.S. attorney firings, Jack Abramoff's bribery schemes, the smear campaign against Valerie Plame Wilson, and the prosecution of Gov. Don Siegelman. Rove consistently flouted the Presidential Records Act, sending 95% of his emails through an RNC account. There is abundant circumstantial evidence that Rove used the RNC as a criminal enterprise, as a vehicle for obstructing justice. If U.S. Attorney Nora R. Dannehy, the prosecutor investigating the U.S. attorney firings, fails to obtain access to Rove's emails, her investigation, like Taguba's, may be fatally flawed.