Preventing Another Abu Ghraib

The military ethicist believes Abu Ghraib represented an ethical breakdown “from the top down.” But have things changed under Obama?
  • Transcript


Question: Whom do you blame for the ethical breakdown at Abu Ghraib?

Nancy Sherman: I think it was a breakdown from high up, breakdown from the top down.  There were attempts, we know, from the torture memos that came from the Office of Legal Council, Jay Bybee and John Yoo, to figure out ways that we could permissibly, legally, torture by some other name.  And it was through Cheney and through President Bush that there really was an attempt to do this. And it trickled down.  So, there were commanders who gave permission, or turned their head.  And we also used forces in interrogation that weren’t fully trained.  Some of them had been in other environments and they were told to kind of get creative.  And also there is a feeling of lack of respect for the enemy.  Once you degrade the enemy to just being a thing, all bets are off as to what you can do to them.  And as my young interrogators told me, the temptation to get information out of someone who you’re—when you get so frustrated and it’s been days and days and days and you’re not making any breakthroughs and you know that there may be some high intelligence that may be gathered.  You run the risk of harming this person, of doing something you ought not to do.  

And in his case, he said there was a moment where he saw a fellow U.S. officer, who was a woman, a woman pilot who had been mangled by the enemy, and that really got his ire up, and he really wanted to do something to be able to prevent that kind of incident in the future.  And that’s when he knew that his conscience really in high gear, hold back.  That’s the temptation you have to be prepared to fight against. 

And I don’t think—that’s a very reflective, conscientious, very humanistic interrogator.  Not all are like that.  I went to Guantanamo as part of the medical observer team, not a physician, but we were looking at psychiatric and psychological conditions of the detainees from the side of care and also from the side of interrogation and also for hunger strikers.  And there was an attempt to even then when they wanted to bring an observer team out to ask us to try to find a legal loophole for separating the kinds of professionals, the psychologists who were involved in the interrogation from the kind of psychiatrists clinicians involved in treatment.  And if the one is involved in an interrogation never do the treatment, then maybe they could be a little bit more aggressive or don’t have to worry about the same restrictions as the ones on the treating side.  And that, you could already see, that’s a way of eroding the responsibilities we have to the care of the detainees who were supposed to be treated as if they were American forces when they are in POW situations.

Question: What ethical loopholes still need to be closed in the war on terror? 

Nancy Sherman: Oh well, the legal situation is very complicated.  As you know, Eric Holder is really, the Attorney General, is fraught and there’s lots of internal debates in the Obama Administration that I can’t begin to chronicle about whether there are military tribunals or civilian sorts of tribunals and where to have the trials, as you know, New York or other places, and who should be released and who not.  But there is certainly a commitment, I believe, to efficiently closing Guantanamo, and also a sense that torture is a) we know it’s not effective, it’s not instrumental.  It does not get you the information you want.  And b) it’s just flat out wrong.  And so there is that recognition I think.  How it gets played out, especially when you have TV programs like “24” making it very real, or making the notion of “no holds barred” in interrogation, that’s really rough. 

And I know cadets at West Point and my young interrogator watch these in amusement and voyeurism and whatnot, but I also know that the Superintendent, or the Commandant of West Point have gone out to speak to the producer of this program and say, this isn’t how it works, we don’t want this propaganda, you’re really making it harder for us because these aren’t the rules that we are telling to abide by.  And so that’s really tricky.  So, it certainly an awful education that we’ve had to go through, but I think we’re coming out of it.