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"The Torture Question"

Frontline looks at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

12:00 AM, Oct 18, 2005 • By CHRISTIAN LOWE
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THE IMAGES OF MISTREATMENT and outright sadism that emerged from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq last year shocked America and the world. The cruel acts illustrated by the photos reflected poorly upon the U.S. military: How, many wondered, could America win support for the war on terrorism--a war that is as much about ideas as it is military objectives--if its soldiers treated the enemy in such a way?

A new Frontline documentary which airs tonight attempts to answer this question and others prompted by the scandal surrounding Abu Ghraib incidents and the ongoing debate over treatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay and other makeshift prison camps run by U.S. forces worldwide. More than an indictment of the overall U.S. strategy to defeat terrorism, the documentary, dubbed "The Torture Question," paints a complex picture of incompetent soldiers faced with pressure from superiors and confusion over how to properly deal with captives in a war with few historical precedents.

It is not a pleasant hour and a half to watch.

In characteristically gripping Frontline style, "The Torture Question" paints a grim picture of U.S. detainee operations in Iraq, Guantanamo, and Afghanistan. Using home-movie footage from soldiers working in the camps and interviews with current and former military intelligence interrogators and government officials, producer Michael Kirk--whose previous Frontline documentaries include "Rumsfeld's War," "Gunning for Saddam," and "The Architect"--catapults viewers into one of the darker corners of the war on terror, a war that both sides of the debate agree hinges on intelligence.

The program also examines the bureaucratic war being waged between the FBI and CIA over who should have the authority to interrogate enemy prisoners--with the FBI arguing they have the expertise to question the accused and the CIA complaining that their G-men brethren are coddling the prisoners and working too slowly. Or is it more than that?

"The Torture Question" also reveals deep anger and frustration at the highest levels of the military--from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on down--with the inability to gather intelligence that could thwart insurgent attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq, or lead to the capture of high-level al Qaeda figures. Local commanders in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay put tremendous pressure on their soldiers to meet Rumsfeld's quotas for "actionable" intelligence--which, the documentary contends, had pushed interrogators to adopt a "gloves off" attitude.

The program also contains some disturbing accusations from current and former military intelligence soldiers who claim such treatment is widespread. Having witnessed several detentions of enemy suspects in both Iraq and Afghanistan without ever seeing a hint of abuse, I think some healthy skepticism is warranted here. But as "The Torture Question" makes clear, something has been flawed about America's policy toward enemy combatants and interrogations. It's a practice in search of a clear policy to guide it.

Christian Lowe is a staff writer for Army Times Publishing Company and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.