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.

Name: Norman Podhoretz
Position: Editor at large, Commentary magazine; one of the founding fathers, neo-conservativism; recent recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Summary of Torture-Commentary: "Another weapon in the war against the war." I found one Abu Ghraib reference from N-Pod, in his 30,000-word Aug. 2 cri du coeur World War IV: How it Started, What it Means, and Why We Have to Win. Excerpt:

On the heels of the horrendous episodes of the murder and desecration of the bodies of four American contractors in Falluja, came the revelation that Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib had been subjected to ugly mistreatment by their American captors.

Among supporters of the Bush Doctrine, these setbacks set off a great wave of defeatist gloom that was deepened by the nervous tactical shifts they produced in our military planners […]

But it was not necessarily to be expected that the Democrats would seize just as eagerly as the radicals upon every piece of bad news as another weapon in the war against the war. Nor was it necessarily to he expected that mainstream Democratic politicians would go so far off the intellectual and moral rails as to compare the harassment and humiliation of the prisoners in Abu Ghraib—none of whom, so far as anyone then knew, was even maimed, let alone killed—to the horrendous torturing and murdering that had gone on in that same prison under Saddam Hussein or, even more outlandishly, to the Soviet gulag in which many millions of prisoners died.

Name: Rich Lowry
Position: Editor, The National Review
Summary of response: Not quite the five stages of grief; more like the Five Stages of Evasion: Buck-passing, Subject-changing, Gore-bashing, Pooh-poohing, and (premature) Bad-appling.

Buck-passing (May 11): "[I]n Abu Ghraib and its aftermath we see some of the seamy undercurrents of America magnified in a horrifying fashion—in particular, the celebration of cruelty, the ubiquity of pornography, and a cult of victimhood… The Americans sexually humiliated Iraqi prisoners, forcing them to masturbate, to wear women's underwear, and to commit (or feign committing) unnatural acts, and captured it on film. If they had done this stateside in different circumstances, they might be very rich and perhaps even up for an Adult Video Award."

Subject-changing (May 14): "If we insist on having an orgy of self-flagellation about the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib, we might as well gain something from it. That something shouldn't be a change in our interrogation tactics in the war on terror—they don't seem at fault for the perverse acts of a few MPs—but reform of the ongoing scandal that is the U.S. prison system." (I should interject that I agree wholeheartedly with Lowry's "ongoing scandal" comment.)

Gore-bashing (May 28): "The abuses at Abu Ghraib were 'the natural consequence' of Bush policy, says Gore. He all but accuses President Bush of personally dressing Iraqi detainees in women's underwear. […] White House counsel Alberto Gonzales has been criticized for a 2002 legal memorandum in which he described parts of the Geneva Convention as 'quaint.' He was right. […] Gore is also willing to kiss off the intelligence gained from the kind of interrogation forbidden of regular soldiers under the Geneva Convention."

Pooh-poohing (June 4): "In the wake of Abu Ghraib, critics have been pushing the Bush administration, with some success, to limit itself in the war on terror to interrogation techniques that would be lawful here in the United States. But the foundation for American values is America, and those values won't endure unless the nation withstands assaults by enemies who care nothing for Miranda rights or any other legal niceties. They have to be met in a dirty, shadowy war."

Bad-appling (June 14): "The conspiracy theorists and Bush haters who won't be satisfied until high Bush-administration officials have been implicated in the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal should be asking: Which Pentagon official authorized the brutality at Pennsylvania's Fayette County Prison? Because, in a sense, that is where the scandal has its roots. That is where Army Spec. Charles Graner, the star of so many Abu Ghraib abuse photos, first got the idea of beating up prisoners, and with no evident instigation from Donald Rumsfeld."


Do these three examples prove a conservative trend? No. Besides the oft-cited example of Andrew Sullivan, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote consecutive anguished op-eds in May calling into question his own support for the Iraq War (he later recovered his nerve). Washington Post columnist George Will angrily grilled Gen. Richard Myers on ABC on May 2, and then encouraged his friend Donald Rumsfeld to resign (though "that moment's passed," Will said on ABC's "This Week" Dec. 19).

But we now know that many of the shocking images from Abu Ghraib that we've been allowed to see —the hoods, the dogs, the sexual humiliation, the photography, the beating —have occurred elsewhere in Iraq, Guantanamo, and Afghanistan; and in many instances they reflect nothing more than official United States policy. How we respond, whether conservative, libertarian, liberal or other, will tell us a lot about what we've become.