On Abu Ghraib: One sergeant's courage a model for US leaders

Major questions hang over the prosecution of low-level soldiers for their involvement in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. How could such widespread criminal abuse result from the misconduct of a handful of rogues? What was the role of government policy on the interrogation of prisoners and the high-level officials who implemented it?

Abu Ghraib undermined American values and credibility around the world. The pictures of military personnel physically assaulting Iraqi prisoners and forcing them to perform indecent acts have been widely condemned as evidence of serious abuse, including torture, under both domestic and international standards for the treatment of prisoners.

How responsibility for this criminal conduct is ultimately assessed will determine the quality of our commitment as a nation to the rule of law. It will also have a practical impact. If the US fails to take a strong stand against torture, American soldiers have no case to make against others who would torture them.

The first step toward establishing accountability for the Abu Ghraib atrocities was taken on Jan. 13, 2004, by Sgt. Joseph M. Darby of the US Army's 372nd Military Police Company. Sergeant Darby had asked Specialist Charles A. Graner Jr. whether he could download onto his computer some of the digital pictures he knew Graner had shot while their unit was in Iraq. What he had expected was a travelogue.

What Darby found, he later testified, "[was] shocking. It violated everything that I personally believed in and everything that I had been taught about the rules of war."

Darby delivered the photos to military investigators. His action triggered a series of investigations and a worldwide outcry.

It took courage for Darby to stand up for justice. He must have known that it would make him a pariah with his colleagues, but he followed his conscience. Later, some of his neighbors back home in Maryland made it clear that they disapproved of Darby's actions. After hearing that he had been praised in Washington, one local veteran told the press, "They can call him what they want. I call him a rat." For his courage, Darby has received death threats, and the Army has had to provide him with special protection.

"To be courageous," wrote John F. Kennedy in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Profiles in Courage," "requires no exceptional qualifications.... It is an opportunity that sooner or later is presented to us all."

When the opportunity was presented to Joseph Darby, he grasped it and rescued American values from further degradation.

Monday Darby will be given the Kennedy Library Foundation's Profile in Courage Award by Caroline Kennedy for "upholding the rule of law that we embrace as a nation."

But to fully honor Darby's courage, it is essential to determine how the values he and other American soldiers are defending came to be trampled on at Abu Ghraib. A number of military investigations have been completed and low-ranking soldiers prosecuted, but so far little attention has been paid to the linkage between what happened in the prison and the high-level policies adopted two years earlier that swept aside international standards for interrogating prisoners in the war on terrorism.

In January 2002, lawyers from the Pentagon, Justice Department and the White House, acting at the request of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, drafted new rules narrowing the definition of torture and the circumstances under which the US would apply the protections of the Geneva Conventions. Reporting these changes, Alberto Gonzales - then White House counsel and now attorney general - wrote in a memorandum to President Bush that "terrorism renders obsolete [the Geneva Conventions'] strict limitations on the questioning of prisoners."

There were clear dangers in sweeping aside international law on the treatment of prisoners, and the Abu Ghraib scandal provides graphic evidence of what could happen.

The dangers were spelled out by Colin Powell. Responding to the Gonzales memo, Mr. Powell - then secretary of State - warned that the new policies would "undermine the protections of the law for our troops," provoke "negative international reaction, with immediate adverse consequences for our conduct of foreign policy," and "diminish public support among critical allies, making military cooperation more difficult to sustain." Brushed aside at the time, Powell's warning today sounds prophetic.

It's time to get to the bottom of the Abu Ghraib scandal. To do so requires going up the chain of command to determine how the new interrogation policies of 2002 were implemented, and why they left soldiers like the members of the 372nd Military Police Company with the stark choice between torturing prisoners or summoning the courage, as Joseph Darby did, to stand up for justice.

John Shattuck is CEO of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation in Boston; former assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights, and labor; and author of 'Freedom on Fire: Human Rights Wars and America's Response.'

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