A tale of two cities, and accountability for Abu Ghraib

The road from the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal went forward on two very different paths last week.

In Fort Hood, Texas, Army Reservist Charles Graner watched as the jury was seated for his court-martial. And here in Washington, Alberto Gonzales sat for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Down in Texas, Specialist Graner, the alleged ringleader of the prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib that was revealed in graphic snapshots, told reporters he was feeling positive. "The sun is still shining, the sky is blue, we're in America," he said, sounding almost political in his defiantly upbeat attitude - like a guy who's down by 20 points in all the polls but sure the numbers are off.

For his defense, the specialist reportedly plans to offer up that he was simply following orders. In other words, he wants to try to kick responsibility for the problems at Abu Ghraib up the chain of command.

That will be a tough sell for a few reasons. First off, pictures are hard to refute. Even if you did awful things because you were ordered to do them, or believe that you were ordered to do them, you still committed the transgressions - and, judging from the evidence, with a big smile on your face. Second, kicking blame up the chain of command simply isn't a very popular or workable strategy in America these days. For proof of that, all one had to do was watch the Gonzales hearings last week.

Mr. Gonzales, Bush's White House counsel, faced some serious questions from the senators. In January 2002, Gonzales authored a memo suggesting that terrorists captured overseas do not merit protections afforded under the Geneva Convention. He said parts of the treaty were "obsolete" and "quaint" in the new "war on terror." A different memo, drafted in August 2002 and addressed to Gonzales, argued for a narrow definition of torture as "excruciating and agonizing pain."

Some have argued, persuasively, that these memos from the top of the administration set the tone for the handling of prisoners in Afghanistan, Guantánamo, and Iraq. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, not exactly a long-haired peacenik, said the August memo had damaged the US efforts in Iraq by costing US forces the moral high ground. "I do believe we've lost our way," he said.

Gonzales's response under questioning on these points? First, he assured the senators that he considered the Geneva Conventions neither obsolete nor quaint. Second, about the redefining torture memo, well, he doesn't remember if he was the one who asked that it be drafted.

Ah, yes, Washington, where accountability is king. When asked a simple question - did you or didn't you ask for this memo? - Gonzales boldly took the "I don't remember" approach to his answer.

The upshot of all the questions and nonanswers at the hearing? Not much, really. In the end, both supporters and opponents expect Gonzales to be confirmed. The president is generally granted a lot of leeway with his cabinet members, especially his attorney general - one generally likes to have a friend in the position of "person who can indict me."

And for Democrats, there is the Ashcroft factor, as in, "How much worse could he be than John Ashcroft?" At the very least, the statue of Lady Justice at the Department of Justice Building presumably will lose the tacky dress Mr. Ashcroft forced her to wear for fear that her naked stone might excessively titillate the press corps or the TV audience or whatever.

If he's confirmed, the rampant speculation is that the attorney general's post will be just a pit stop for Gonzales on the way to a Supreme Court nomination.

So what will be the ultimate fallout from Abu Ghraib for these two men? Graner probably is preparing for a long stay in the brig, and rightfully so. Meanwhile, one of the people at the top who helped establish the policy that contributed to the abuse allegations - and not just in Iraq, but in Guantánamo and, according to some reports, in other countries around the world - prepares for a big promotion.

This is not exactly new, of course. The first four years of the Bush administration will not be remembered for the way people took responsibility for mistakes, or even admitted that mistakes existed - on everything from bad intelligence to undermanning postwar Iraq.

That doesn't mean Gonzales's confirmation should be held up or stopped. If the president really wants him as attorney general, he should have him. But if Gonzales is confirmed, the lesson should be pretty clear. Whatever career you choose in life, always aim for the management position. It's easier to pass the buck down than up.

Dante Chinni is a senior associate with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. He writes a twice-monthly political opinion column for the Monitor.

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