Commentary Magazine


Topic: Abu Ghraib

Pfeiffer’s Hypocrisy: IRS and Abu Ghraib

Speaking on Face the Nation, White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer tried to deflect blame for the brewing IRS scandal by arguing that the only way the scandal might have involved President Obama is if the president had actively sought to interfere in the IRS inspector general’s report. According to Politico.com’s coverage:

Pfeiffer said that the administration followed the “cardinal rule” of all White Houses. “You do nothing to interfere with an independent investigation and you do nothing to offer the appearance of interfering with investigations,” Pfeiffer said. Once informed, the White House officials responded after they had the facts, he said. Obama has come under fire from Republicans and others for being slow to respond and for saying that he learned only recently of the investigation into IRS officials targeting tea party groups. “What we waited for were the facts,” Pfeiffer said. “It’s important to get out there fast, but it’s important to get out there right.”

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Speaking on Face the Nation, White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer tried to deflect blame for the brewing IRS scandal by arguing that the only way the scandal might have involved President Obama is if the president had actively sought to interfere in the IRS inspector general’s report. According to Politico.com’s coverage:

Pfeiffer said that the administration followed the “cardinal rule” of all White Houses. “You do nothing to interfere with an independent investigation and you do nothing to offer the appearance of interfering with investigations,” Pfeiffer said. Once informed, the White House officials responded after they had the facts, he said. Obama has come under fire from Republicans and others for being slow to respond and for saying that he learned only recently of the investigation into IRS officials targeting tea party groups. “What we waited for were the facts,” Pfeiffer said. “It’s important to get out there fast, but it’s important to get out there right.”

To be fair, Pfeiffer is right that much of what we know about the scandal is because the inspector general’s office at the IRS was doing its job, although the bipartisan outrage has resulted from realization of just how corrupt the IRS became under Obama’s watch.

However, where Obama’s hypocrisy shines through is when Pfeiffer’s answer to this question is juxtaposed with the manner in which many partisans treated the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq. Here is Slate.com’s Fred Kaplan, for example:

The White House is about to get hit by the biggest tsunami since the Iran-Contra affair, maybe since Watergate. President George W. Bush is trapped inside the compound, immobilized by his own stay-the-course campaign strategy. Can he escape the massive tidal waves? Maybe. But at this point, it’s not clear how. If today’s investigative shockers—Seymour Hersh’s latest article in The New Yorker and a three-part piece in Newsweek—are true, it’s hard to avoid concluding that responsibility for the Abu Ghraib atrocities goes straight to the top, both in the Pentagon and the White House….

That scandal was not uncovered by investigative reporters but, in parallel to today’s IRS scandal, when the internal Defense Department investigation leaked to the press. Yep, that’s right: The Pentagon had learned about the abuses, had investigated them, and moved to shut them down. It was only after the abuses ceased that The New Yorker and Sixty Minutes II published word of what went on at Abu Ghraib. Make no mistake: the abuses at Abu Ghraib were inexcusable. Frankly, I wish Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld had heeded the policy recommendation the policy shop in which I had worked had put forward: dynamite Abu Ghraib as soon as control over Iraq is consolidated, because the prison was already a symbol of the worst excesses of Saddam Hussein’s rule. With the report’s damning findings, Rumsfeld rightly offered to resign. Twice. Whatever Rumsfeld’s faults, he did not view accountability as a dirty word.

With all due respect to Mr. Pfeiffer, that the IRS inspector general identified the abuse is neither here nor there, just as with Abu Ghraib. The fact of the matter is that the abuse occurred, and the IRS sought to use its powers to play politics, and then apparently held the report until after the elections in order to further insulate Obama’s team from public accountability.

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Misbehaving SEALs

I have some sympathy with Warren Kozak’s complaint regarding the prosecution of three Navy SEALs charged with beating Ahmed Hashim Abed, a captured terrorist of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Kozak is surely right that in World War II and other wars, U.S. troops often committed war crimes for which they were not prosecuted—the most common being killing enemy soldiers trying to surrender. But I also have some sympathy with the decision to court-martial the SEALs. While the captured terrorist richly deserved to be executed, not just beaten, the SEALs were expressly ordered not to abuse prisoners and may have violated their orders. They also are accused of lying about their acts, which would be another violation of the honor code by which these men live.

Why not simply allow them to throw a few punches on the sly and get away with it? The biggest reason is discipline—the need to ensure that our fighting men and women follow orders and don’t become rogue operators. But there is also an operational need to prevent freelance abuse of detainees, which could make it harder to interrogate them and, if publicized, result in a negative public-relations blowback a la Abu Ghraib. I believe that interrogators should have the freedom to use some “stress techniques” against high-level detainees if absolutely necessary to draw out information, but this has to be done in a carefully controlled setting with higher-level approval—it should not be left to the discretion of angry soldiers or sailors.

The fact is, this is not World War II. We are fighting a very different sort of war with very different rules. One of the differences: SEALs are not draftees who, for better or worse, made up the ranks of the armed forces in World War II; they are highly trained professionals who are expected to follow orders. That doesn’t mean they should be harshly punished, but nor can the higher command simply overlook their excesses, especially when they (probably foolishly) refused a non-judicial punishment by their commanding officer and insisted on a trial.

I have some sympathy with Warren Kozak’s complaint regarding the prosecution of three Navy SEALs charged with beating Ahmed Hashim Abed, a captured terrorist of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Kozak is surely right that in World War II and other wars, U.S. troops often committed war crimes for which they were not prosecuted—the most common being killing enemy soldiers trying to surrender. But I also have some sympathy with the decision to court-martial the SEALs. While the captured terrorist richly deserved to be executed, not just beaten, the SEALs were expressly ordered not to abuse prisoners and may have violated their orders. They also are accused of lying about their acts, which would be another violation of the honor code by which these men live.

Why not simply allow them to throw a few punches on the sly and get away with it? The biggest reason is discipline—the need to ensure that our fighting men and women follow orders and don’t become rogue operators. But there is also an operational need to prevent freelance abuse of detainees, which could make it harder to interrogate them and, if publicized, result in a negative public-relations blowback a la Abu Ghraib. I believe that interrogators should have the freedom to use some “stress techniques” against high-level detainees if absolutely necessary to draw out information, but this has to be done in a carefully controlled setting with higher-level approval—it should not be left to the discretion of angry soldiers or sailors.

The fact is, this is not World War II. We are fighting a very different sort of war with very different rules. One of the differences: SEALs are not draftees who, for better or worse, made up the ranks of the armed forces in World War II; they are highly trained professionals who are expected to follow orders. That doesn’t mean they should be harshly punished, but nor can the higher command simply overlook their excesses, especially when they (probably foolishly) refused a non-judicial punishment by their commanding officer and insisted on a trial.

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