The Buck Stops Nowhere
We still don’t know what role three-star general Ricardo Sanchez, of Rio Grande City, and his superiors played in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. And we may never.
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LAST DECEMBER LIEUTENANT GENERAL Ricardo Sanchez paid a visit to Rio Grande City and performed all the duties of a hometown hero. He served as grand marshal of the Christmas parade, ate lunch with the Rotary Club, and attended the official dedication of an elementary school named after him. At a ceremony in the school’s cafeteria, the school paid tribute with songs, pledges, speeches, and a video that set photographs of U.S. soldiers to audio of Michael Jackson singing “Heal the World.” Then Sanchez, the former commander of ground forces in Iraq, took the stage and confessed to having cried during the presentation. Afterward, he made a point of walking through the building to shake hands with every child.
Just a few days before his visit to Rio Grande City, a criminal complaint had been filed in Germany alleging that while in Iraq, “LTG Sanchez . . . personally authorized illegal interrogation procedures that constitute war crimes.” Prepared by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit group in New York that has litigated a number of prominent human-rights cases, the complaint also named Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former CIA director George Tenet, and eight other civilian and military officials. In addition to authorizing illegal procedures, it continued, “LTG Sanchez, having knowledge that war crimes were to be committed by his subordinates, failed to prevent the crimes.”
So here is one image of the 53-year-old general: stiff-shouldered but grinning broadly as he walks through the doors of General Ricardo Sanchez Elementary, flanked by news cameras and gawked at by the Girl Scouts waiting to greet him. And here is another: signing off on harsh interrogation tactics that allegedly violated international law. In the vast gap between these two images lies the real and enduring scandal of Abu Ghraib: not simply the acts of torture in and of themselves, but our country’s failure to fully assess responsibility for them and hold people accountable. For all the investigations and hearings, as well as the sentencing of the low-level grunts who appeared in the photographs (so far seven military policemen and two military intelligence soldiers have been charged), we still don’t have a full accounting of how Americans in Iraq came to commit acts of torture.
Sanchez is a link in the chain leading from the office of the Secretary of Defense to the prisons in Iraq. And while no one has accused the general of deliberately ordering the sadistic acts depicted in the Abu Ghraib photographs, those acts were part of a larger picture, one that hasn’t been as prominently featured in the news. The investigations conducted so far, alluding vaguely to “leadership failure” at higher levels, have failed to fully illuminate that picture—and they may never. Which means we’re left to reconcile the two images of Sanchez: as a hero and as an accomplice. But maybe he is somehow both things at once.
For a native of a poor town on the Mexican border to become a three-star general is no small feat, and in Rio Grande City, Sanchez is lauded not only for his model career but also for the unaffected way he acts when he comes home. As for the torture at Abu Ghraib prison, “He would never condone something like that. No one believes it,” says Baldemar Garza, a former mayor of Rio Grande City.
With about 12,000 residents as of the last census, the town isn’t so small that everyone knows the general personally, but people know of him and his family. In the past, when the town has made the news outside Rio Grande City, it’s often been the wrong kind—poverty, drug trafficking, and drug-related violence—which is another reason residents are glad to claim the general as one of their own. No conversation about him goes on for long before someone praises his mother, Maria Elena Sanchez, who raised six children on little money and insisted they all go to college. Ricardo, her second-oldest, was clean-cut, serious, and polite; by his sophomore year in high school he was a member of the local ROTC unit, which was pressed into full-blown service in 1967 when nine thousand Mexican refugees sought haven in Rio Grande City after Hurricane Beulah.
More than three decades later, in 2003, a refugee crisis was the sort of difficulty that the Pentagon was anticipating when it sent Sanchez to assume command of forces in Iraq. Instead, his forces encountered insurgents. In a strategy that might as well have been a recruitment campaign for the anti-American faction, coalition soldiers rounded up thousands of Iraqis, most of whom were of no intelligence value, and sent them to Abu Ghraib. The prison itself, which was under Sanchez’s command, was severely short-staffed; at one point the prisoner-to-guard ratio was 75 to 1.
Attacks continued, and the Army lacked adequate intelligence about the insurgents. Enter Major General Geoffrey Miller, who was then in charge of the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and who had been criticized by the International Committee of the Red Cross for conditions at that facility. Rumsfeld directed his staff to send Miller to Iraq to “Gitmo-ize” the operation at Abu Ghraib (“Gitmo” being a nickname for Guantanamo), making interrogation the top priority. Miller brought along a copy of Rumsfeld’s guidelines for interrogations at Guantanamo, which allowed techniques such as exposing prisoners to extreme heat and cold and placing them in “stress positions.” Sanchez then authorized many of the same techniques in Iraq.
The events that followed have been revisited in the steady stream of investigations ordered by the Department of Defense, but the simple fact at the bottom of that mountain of paper is that after 9/11, members of the Bush administration decided that in some cases the U.S. needn’t obey the Geneva Conventions. It could humiliate people by keeping them naked or scare them with dogs. And although officials agreed that the Geneva Conventions did apply to Iraqi prisoners, the first new set of interrogation procedures that Sanchez approved, in 2003, contained more techniques than what had been authorized at Guantanamo. Multiple changes of policy and an unclear command structure there paved the way for inadequately trained military policemen, charged with “setting the conditions” for interrogations, to violate the law.
Military commanders didn’t order the particular abuses seen in the Abu Ghraib photographs, but they removed the clear rules that would have served to restrain the sorts of violent impulses that exist in any prison. The multiple investigations have acknowledged this fact and shied away from it at the same time. The Schlesinger Report (the final report of the independent panel headed by former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger), ordered by Rumsfeld, refers to “leadership failure” and to “institutional and personal responsibility at higher levels.” It notes, in the most passive possible terms, that in the development of interrogation policies, the Secretary of Defense should have consulted “a wider range of legal opinions.”
But in a sense, Sanchez is left holding the bag. While it was the Department of Defense that sent Miller over to revamp interrogation tactics, the report criticizes Sanchez for issuing inconsistent and confusing interrogation policies, as well as for failing to adequately train and staff the facility, and for establishing a command structure that left it unclear who was in charge. “General Sanchez . . . now is unlikely to get his fourth star,” commented Schlesinger after his report was issued in September. “That is a kind of comment on failed responsibility.” By then, Sanchez had already been reassigned to Germany, as commander of the U.S. Army V Corps. (The Pentagon characterized this as a scheduled rotation.)
If Sanchez’s failures of oversight helped to create the conditions at Abu Ghraib, they can also be understood as the result of pressures imposed from without. “I have a lot of sympathy for Ric Sanchez,” says Scott Horton, a New York attorney and professor of international humanitarian law at Columbia University. “I don’t think he is the source of the abuse. He wasn’t an instigator. I mean, what’s a three-star general supposed to do when the Secretary of Defense gives an order like ‘Go Gitmo-ize it’?”
The great irony of the Abu Ghraib photographs is that without them, there wouldn’t have been a public scandal; prior written reports of prisoner abuse had not provoked a serious response. But once they were out there, they tended to limit attention of the problem to what had been photographed. Never mind the evidence that the U.S. has systematically resorted to cruel and inhumane treatment of people detained in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo, not to mention the suspects “rendered” by the CIA to countries known to commit more-horrific types of torture.
We haven’t seen a full accounting and probably won’t see one. That the January trial of Specialist Charles Graner, one of the ringleaders at Abu Ghraib, was moved from Baghdad to Fort Hood, and heavily publicized, speaks to how the government has drawn attention to the little guys while burying the involvement of higher-ranking officers and civilians. The Bush administration is not going to investigate itself, and while ex-generals, human-rights advocates, and senators have called for the appointment of a special counsel, the Republican lock on Congress makes that unlikely. In the meantime, the United States’ ability to criticize other countries for human-rights abuses has been compromised, and U.S. soldiers may be in greater danger of being tortured themselves. “This is not the first time the U.S. has been involved in cruelty and crimes abroad, and one of the constants is that no one is really ever brought to justice,” says Reed Brody, counsel for Human Rights Watch. “That in itself allows a culture to repeat itself because there’s no punishment.”
General Sanchez remains in Germany, and no one seems to know whether he’ll be awarded that fourth star. In Rio Grande City, of course, his supporters still hope to see him get it, but they acknowledge that his chances are uncertain. Although Sanchez has not been punished for what happened in Abu Ghraib, in effect “he was held responsible for something that was totally not of his doing,” believes R.C. Salinas, who has taught in Rio Grande City schools for 44 years. “So far we haven’t had any casualties from Starr County,” Salinas adds, “although sometimes I think that in a way he was our first one.”