At Odds over U.S. Response to Torture by Iraqis

At a recent press conference, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed different opinions about how U.S. troops should respond if they encounter prisoner abuse in Iraq. Alex Chadwick talks with NPR Pentagon correspondent John Hendren about the responsibilities of U.S. troops who discover mistreatment or torture of prisoners in Iraq.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

There's also this development. An Iraqi human rights official was fired today after an investigation into allegations about the torture of Iraqi prisoners at an Iraqi Interior Ministry building in Baghdad. They were discovered last month by American troops. At a briefing at the Defense Department two days ago, a reporter asked General Pace this question.

Unidentified Woman: General Pace, what guidance do you have for your military commanders over there as to what to do if they--like, when General Horst found this Interior Ministry jail?

General PETER PACE (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): It is absolutely the responsibility of every US service member, if they see inhumane treatment being conducted, to intervene, to stop it.

CHADWICK: Standing beside General Pace at this briefing was the secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. And he then asked a question.

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Department of Defense): I don't think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it. It's to report it.

Gen. PACE: If they are physically present when inhumane treatment is taking place, they have an obligation to try to stop it.

CHADWICK: Joining us now is NPR defense correspondent John Hendren. John, welcome back to the program.

Were you present at this briefing that went on a couple of days ago?

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

No, I was watching it on television with rapt attention.

CHADWICK: Well, there is rapt attention when you see the secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff disagreeing about a point like this, especially when torture has been so much in the headlines. What is the correct answer here?

HENDREN: Well, I just talked to someone from the National Institute for Military Justice, a group of military lawyers who argue about these things, and I was told that they were well divided on this, that it's really a matter of interpretation whether a troop, a US troop, would have to report the incident or actually physically intervene. Pace says they have to physically intervene.

CHADWICK: Do you think that there's a lack of clarity present among the troops themselves? I guess there is if the senior leadership at the Defense Department doesn't know.

HENDREN: Exactly. If you don't have clarity between the military and civilian leaders at the Pentagon and you don't have it among the legal community, you can be sure that a grunt on the ground is not going to be clear about what to do.

CHADWICK: General Pace, in his speech at the National Defense University today, also spoke of scenarios where US troops don't directly witness torture, but hear about it. He said they should inform the Iraqi authorities so they can take action. How confident can we be that they will indeed take action?

HENDREN: Well, you know, that's always been a problem in Iraq and it's been a problem because the Interior Ministry has never been known for performing the kind of usual policing duties. They were basically--many of them were thugs who tortured people routinely on behalf of the regime, and it sounds like in some cases they've come back to these old habits. They are, after all, many of the same people who did it originally. So I think there's a real question as to whether you can rely on Iraqi Ministry of Interior in particular to obey these rules.

CHADWICK: All right, John, one more question on torture here. The journalist Charles Krauthammer writing, in the latest edition of The Weekly Standard, has an interesting essay in which he says it would be morally compelling to torture prisoners under certain circumstances if, for instance, they had information that might prevent the deaths of many, many people. Would the Department of Defense consider that legal at this point or not?

HENDREN: Well, the Department of Defense seems to be actually cracking down on its rules. The Army is rewriting its manual for the kinds of interrogations tactics that can be used. Until recently, there was really no question about this among international law scholars. It was after the September 11th attacks when the Bush administration carved out this sort of exception between those who are civilians and those who are enemy soldiers, and that's where this dispute comes in. The United States has signed on to a raft of international treaties that would bar torture. However, the specific wording would seem, at least according to the Bush administration, to exclude certain numbers of people, so that's not really clear.

CHADWICK: And when you say there's a difference between civilians and soldiers, you mean terrorists, people who are not--who are fighting against this country or Western civilization, employing methods--they're not wearing uniforms, they're attacking civilians, that sort of thing.

HENDREN: Exactly, those the Bush administration has been calling enemy combatants, which really aren't specifically addressed in international law, at least under the Geneva Conventions.

CHADWICK: NPR Defense Department correspondent John Hendren. John, thank you.

HENDREN: Thank you.

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