Who's Tortured?

What prominent conservative commentators have said about prisoner abuse

On Dec. 20, the American Civil Liberties Union published nearly two dozen FBI memos showing that American abuse of prisoners and detainees in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba was more widespread and systemic than has been previously made public.

Included in the documents, which were obtained via Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, was a May 2004 memo from an "On-scene Commander—Baghdad," making repeated reference to an "Executive Order" about military interrogation that allowed for tactics "outside standard FBI practice." These tactics included: "sleep 'management,' use of MWDs (military working dogs), 'stress positions' such as half-squats, 'environmental manipulation' such as the use of loud music, sensory deprivation through the use of hoods, etc."

The FBI memos, which included more graphic descriptions of detainee abuse (including "strangulation, beatings, [and] placement of lit cigarettes into the detainees ear openings"), bore an uncanny resemblance to previous accusations made by 10 Gitmo prisoners. They are also consistent with two years' worth of evidence that the Bush Administration has consistently sought legal wiggle-room to expand the limits on what the U.S. military (or the countries it cooperates with) can do to the people it captures.

The news was something of a last straw for a weblogger known as Publius, who on Dec. 21 published a much-linked "Conservative Case for Outrage," which posed a question that's been asked a few times before: Where's the outrage from prominent conservatives?

To help begin to locate an answer, I conducted Lexis searches on "Abu Ghraib," "prison," "abuse," and the names of three prominent conservative commentators: William Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and Rich Lowry. Here are the results:

Name: William Kristol
Position: Editor, The Weekly Standard (the in-flight magazine of Air Force One)
Summary of Torture-Commentary: A few bad apples, fuel for foolish Democrats, and a reason to delay firing Donald Rumsfeld.

Kristol's first Lexised comments on Abu Ghraib, in the May 7 Washington Post, set the tone for how he has subsequently framed the issue: "It's terrible and it's made life difficult for awhile," he said. "But if it becomes clear that this is the exception and [the troops involved] are held accountable, it could end up being an impressive demonstration to countries where torture is routine."

On Fox News May 16, Kristol laid blame on...Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry ("he seems to be saying...that, well, there's this kind of culture of abuse that might go throughout the American military"), and the hysterical media ("it is insane for this country to be obsessing about a small prisoner abuse scandal... The president will win a debate if the Democrats and the liberal media want to obsess about seven guys from Cumberland"). He also had this exchange with fellow panelist Juan Williams:

KRISTOL: Do you think that we should never put hoods —you think we should fight the war on terror...

WILLIAMS: ...beating people, depriving people of sleep and food...

KRISTOL: You think we should fight the war on terror without using any techniques like that?

In a May 17 Weekly Standard column, Kristol called Abu Ghraib a "disaster," and said that critics were "rightly" complaining about the abuse. It's the only real criticism from him I could find.

On Terry Gross' Fresh Air radio program May 18, Kristol said "I don't think we should obsess about Abu Ghraib, to be totally honest"; consigned the problem to "a couple of extremely bad apples"; and then made this startling admission:

A month ago [Robert] Kagan and I wrote an editorial suggesting Rumsfeld should be fired, or at least suggesting to Bush that he order Rumsfeld to change policies... I must admit in the last week or two, because of the hysteria over Abu Ghraib, I felt like I had to defend Rumsfeld a little because I just don't think it's at all fair to hold him responsible for this. You know, there could be better Defense secretaries. I don't think he should be fired under pressure probably right now.

From there, Kristol mentioned Abu Ghraib just two more times (that I can find): to criticize the media and wobbly hawks, and also Democrats. By the time the election was safely over, he resumed his calls for Rumsfeld's head, but for reasons having nothing to do with prisoner abuse.

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