Gen. Sanchez: From Abu Ghraib to US Senate

For retired Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, one week and one assassination could make all the difference. For his political career, that is.

Sanchez is probably best known for his role in the 2004 Abu Ghraib prison scandal. He’s in the headlines again—this time for throwing his hat into the ring for U.S Senate in Texas.

In 2006, Sanchez retired from the Army a year after evidence emerged that he had approved the use of dogs for intimidation, sleep deprivation, withholding of food and water and other harsh interrogation methods at the infamous detention center.

Although Sanchez was cleared of wrongdoing in official reports, a leaked memo released by the ACLU in 2005 showed the former commander of U.S. forces may have set into motion the events that led to the graphic abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners by importing extreme tactics from the Guantanamo Bay prison for use by military interrogators, private contractors and the National Guard soldiers policing the Iraqi prison.

This may have hurt his chances in the open Senate contest, but when bin Laden was taken out on May 1 by Navy SEALs after an extensive covert spying operation that may or may not have employed intelligence gathered by detainees at Gitmo and a secret CIA prison—suddenly the brief against Sanchez and others accused in the simmering torture debate became a murkier affair, to the former commander’s political benefit.

That’s because the mainstream media has reopened the debate, giving a serious platform to people with such obvious agendas as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who is now appropriating the bin Laden killing to vindicate his own morally contemptible legacy in the war, declaring again that harsh interrogations at Gitmo and elsewhere in the “CIA program” allowed the government to “capture or kill” a “major fraction of the al-Qaeda leadership” since 2001.

If that were the case, as Mark Thiessen said so unabashedly about CIA interrogators in The Washington Post op-ed pages, Sanchez might have been given the Medal of Freedom rather than a shove into retirement, since he tried at one time to clone the same process at Abu Ghraib. Maybe it might earn him a few votes for Senate.

That thought couldn’t have been lost on Sanchez when he formally announced his candidacy last week—that bin Laden’s killing could actually help him. Political pundits think he will have a hard go of it, mostly because he’s running as a Democrat in Texas, which always trends GOP in statewide races. While it’s unclear how much Abu Ghraib will ultimately affect his chances of winning, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee must have had some confidence in his ability to put up a credible fight when they recruited him.

But hasn’t that been the way for each of the shadowy principles in this endless act play we call the GWOT? Save for a couple of sad cases, like former Brigadier Gen. Janis Karpinski, who took the fall (and a demotion) for people like Sanchez and his superiors, the real architects and foremen of Abu Ghraib, most have gone on to enjoy professional successes and personal vindication.

Take Gen. Stanley McChrystal, for instance. He has never been held accountable for the abuse of prisoners under his command when he “pioneered” the modern incarnation of JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command), the same organization that supplied bin Laden’s killers, SEAL Team Six. Little has been known about JSOC because their covert activities are largely “off the books.” What we do know is they are considered elite manhunters who, with the best weapons and technology our tax dollars can buy, have been quietly targeting, capturing and killing suspected insurgents all over the GWOT theater, following the rules as they see fit.

During McChrystal’s time, JSOC’s missions in Iraq had been the target of a major report by Human Rights Watch and a government investigation into accusations of torture and abuse—even murder. In 2006, hundreds of documents were released under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, revealing a pattern of abuse echoing Abu Ghraib and scandals at other military and CIA detention centers throughout the war. From The New York Times in 2006:

As the Iraqi insurgency intensified in early 2004, an elite Special Operations forces unit converted one of Saddam Hussein’s former military bases near Baghdad into a top-secret detention center. There, American soldiers made one of the former Iraqi government’s torture chambers into their own interrogation cell. They named it the Black Room.

In the windowless, jet-black garage-size room, some soldiers beat prisoners with rifle butts, yelled and spit in their faces, and, in a nearby area, used detainees for target practice in a game of jailer paintball. …

The abuses at Camp Nama continued despite warnings beginning in August 2003 from an Army investigator and American intelligence and law enforcement officials in Iraq. The C.I.A. was concerned enough to bar its personnel from Camp Nama that August.

Then in Esquire magazine, a note about JSOC’s commander:

It was a point of pride that the Red Cross would never be allowed in the door, Jeff [Garlasco of Human Rights Watch] says. This is important because it defied the Geneva Conventions, which require that the Red Cross have access to military prisons. “Once, somebody brought it up with the colonel. ‘Will they ever be allowed in here?’ And he said absolutely not. He had this directly from General McChrystal and the Pentagon that there’s no way that the Red Cross could get in—they won’t have access and they never will. This facility was completely closed off to anybody investigating, even Army investigators.”

Of course, McChrystal was never held responsible for this, nor was he punished later on for his role in covering up the friendly- fire death of Cpl. Pat Tillman in 2004. The renowned “manhunter” was instead promoted in 2009 under the guiding hand of Gen. David Petraeus to lead a so-called population-centric counterinsurgency, or COIN, in Afghanistan. It was there that McChrystal really turned JSOC into the “industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine” it is now.

When he was forced to resign, it was not because of any controversy relating to extrajudicial killings or civilian casualties, nor because the war seemed to be stuck in a mire. He was fired because he had spoken out of school about the president and administration officials in a Rolling Stone interview, making him an instant martyr among the military community.

It is no surprise then, despite the efforts of Frontline and others to cast light on the propriety and long-term effect of JSOC’s activities—among them, capturing and killing 12,000 “suspected insurgents” through aggressive night raids and air strikes in Afghanistan in the last year alone—McChrystal is by all accounts thriving socially and professionally, far from the glare of scrutiny. Why, some are even crediting him with bin Laden’s demise. Here’s the basic tone in the comments at the popular Small Wars Journal Web site:

General Stanley McChrystal brought the world’s greatest military unit, Joint Special Operations Command, to the pinnacle of its existence. Over the past ten years, U.S. Special Operations Forces have dominated every battlefield they have touched …

Gen. McChrystal enabled the force that executed this week’s legendary raid on Bin Laden. The techniques discovered during his tenure allowed JSOC to continually improve and achieve the most daunting mission. His leadership transcended his tenure and for this the United States should be forever thankful.

(Posted by “CWOT” on May 8.)

As the Frontline reporters who engaged in a live chat at the Af-Pak Channel pointed out last week, the JSOC killing machine has not prevented the Taliban from spreading to Afghan territories north, nor is there any guarantee that killing its top and mid-level leaders has made any significant impact on the resiliency of the Taliban overall, nor were the reporters confident the Afghan Army has the ability to continue this level of counterinsurgency on their own. In the documentary broadcast May 10, local Afghans and U.S. experts complained that the night raids and air attacks turn locals against NATO forces, creating new Taliban among the “aggrieved population” with every incident.

But it doesn’t really matter; it would seem McChrystal’s legacy is set—it’s even appreciating in value—and will likely remain golden no matter what happens in the war today. After forcing him to resign, the president asked the retired four-star to join a White House-driven campaign to assist military families with First Lady Michelle Obama in April, suggesting Obama would rather count the influential McChrystal a friend, rather than a political adversary.

Meanwhile, McChrystal is teaching a graduate level seminar at Yale on international relations. He’s also a new favorite on the speaker’s circuit, pulling down plenty of that other kind of coin, talking about things like “leadership” and “good government,” and offering his “combat-proven leadership skills to create efficiencies for companies and organizations through communication and operations,” on behalf of his own consulting firm, McChrystal Group.

But that is exactly how Washington works. It prefers whistling past the graveyard, rather than stop to confront the skeletons and the dark slithering things teeming underground. In the case of Abu Ghraib, the Pentagon made a show of punishing low-level sinners—like Karpinski and the foot soldiers directly involved in the abuse of prisoners. But the guys who gave the orders as part of a broader system of intelligence gathering outside of the established rules and norms—people like Rumsfeld, his “henchman” Stephen Cambone, prison maven Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, and Gen. Sanchez—got off with their professional reputations largely intact and ready to make a buck.

Otherwise, Sanchez would not be running for Senate today. Miller, who was accused of transporting abusive interrogation techniques to Abu Ghraib from his command at Guantanamo Bay, including the use of military police to “soften up” prisoners with the use of dogs and humiliation, was instead promoted to deputy commanding general for prison operations throughout Iraq. When the heat over Abu Ghraib got too uncomfortable, he retired in 2006, but not before getting a Distinguished Service Medal.

Meanwhile, Cambone, who as Rumsfeld’s top deputy for intelligence was considered one of the most unapologetic policy architects behind the scandal at Abu Ghraib, was eventually pushed out for political convenience, though he was never directly punished for what happened there, either. Today, he is vice president for the Mission Solutions Group at QinetiQ North America, a $1.3 billion defense-technology contractor that in part supplies intelligence services and products to the military.

According to CorpWatch in 2008, Cambone nabbed a $30 million contract with the Pentagon’s Counter-Intelligence Field Activity office, known as CIFA, shortly after he was hired. It couldn’t have been that difficult to get—turns out CIFA was Cambone’s baby at the DoD.

The new CIFA contract comes on the heels of a series of QinetiQ deals inked with the Pentagon in the booming new business of “network-centric warfare”—the space-age, technology-driven intelligence and war-fighting policies established by Rumsfeld and Cambone during their six-year tenures at the Pentagon. Other Cambone-pioneered programs that QinetiQ has won (before he went to work at their Crystal City offices that lie just two miles from the Pentagon) include military drones and robots, low-flying satellites and jamming technologies. Cambone’s appointment at QinetiQ reflects the “incestuous” relationships that exist between former officials and private intelligence contractors, said Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists and a long-time observer of U.S. intelligence. “It’s unseemly, and what’s worse is that it has become normal,” he told CorpWatch.

Just as it’s “normal” and even socially acceptable for people like Sanchez, Cambone, and Miller—even McChrystal, whose leadership at JSOC has hardly been examined—to be recycled through government and the private sector despite their destructive tattoo on the war today, i.e, the number of military detainees at Gitmo who can’t be prosecuted because the evidence against them was obtained through torture.

Whether Sanchez wins his Senate seat or not, the fact he’s running gives the public a false sense about his credibility—that what he did, the orders he gave, were never that bad, and that his ability to serve and acquire the rank of general out-measures what he did to get there.

Maybe the people of Texas will get wise, but don’t count on it. Blacklisting people like Sanchez would mean that as a nation, we finally acknowledge the moral and ethical corruption that has been committed in our name. After the very public celebration and elevation of extrajudicial killing in the wake of bin Laden’s death, it’s clear we have a very long way to go.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.