Then, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush and other administration officials orchestrated a chorus of outrage, citing those TV scenes as proof of the Iraq’s government contempt for international law in general and the Geneva Convention in particular.
“It is a blatant violation of the Geneva Convention to humiliate and abuse prisoners of war or to harm them in any way. As President Bush said yesterday, those who harm POWs will be found and punished as war criminals,” Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said on March 24, 2003.
That same day, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told the BBC that “the Geneva Convention is very clear on the rules for treating prisoners. They're not supposed to be tortured or abused, they're not supposed to be intimidated, they're not supposed to be made public displays of humiliation or insult, and we're going to be in a position to hold those Iraqi officials who are mistreating our prisoners accountable, and they've got to stop.”
At a March 25, 2003, press briefing about progress in the U.S.-led invasion, Secretary Rumfeld said, “This war is an act of self defense, to be sure, but it is also an act of humanity. … In recent days, the world has witnessed further evidence of their [Iraqi] brutality and their disregard for the laws of war. Their treatment of coalition POWs is a violation of the Geneva Conventions.”
The U.S. news media also assisted in this one-sided indictment by uncritically reporting the administration’s complaints while staying silent on the fact that just days earlier, American TV had run scenes of captured Iraqi soldiers, some forced to kneel down at gunpoint to be patted down by U.S. soldiers.
This behavior of the U.S. news media during the early phase of the Iraq War fit with its lack of skepticism in the months leading up to the March 19, 2003, invasion as Bush administration officials spoon-fed the press false intelligence alleging secret Iraqi WMD stockpiles and covert links to al-Qaeda terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
So, perhaps it should have come as no surprise when the U.S. news media treated the TV footage of American POWs as further evidence that Iraq was run by a lawless regime with no respect for the rules of war. [For a contemporaneous account of the POW issue, see Consortiumnews.com’s “International Law a la Carte.”]
In retrospect – now with much more of the documentary record available – the disparity between the administration’s outrage toward the Iraqis for showing the video and the abuse inflicted by the U.S. government on captives from the Iraq and Afghan wars is stunning.
Declassified documents reveal that the Bush administration concocted legal theories to justify sidestepping the Geneva Convention when it came to prisoners incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, at secret CIA prisons and at various locations in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib where shocking photos were leaked of sexual and physical abuse in 2004.
Indeed, while U.S. government officials were preaching to Iraqis about the rules of war, the Bush administration was seven months into a secret interrogation program that authorized CIA interrogators to question Afghan and al-Qaeda detainees using brutal methods.
The techniques included painful “stress positions,” forced nudity in cold conditions and the simulated drowning of waterboarding, practices that human rights organizations say violated Geneva and anti-torture laws.
The Bush administration also ordered the CIA to engage in “extraordinary renditions,” which involved kidnapping terror suspects and shipping them to countries that are known to practice torture.
If held to the same standards that the Bush administration demanded of the Iraqi military, U.S. officials implicated in these policies would be guilty of violating the Geneva Convention, said Claire Tixeire, a human rights fellow with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York.
“They clearly knew that the laws of war were supposed to apply to prisoners apprehended by the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they found every legal loophole to find ways it didn't apply to the U.S. side,” Tixeire said in an interview.