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Commentary | MARGARET CARLSON

The John McCain of Bagram Prison

Torture is torture, in Vietnam or Afghanistan.

June 02, 2005|MARGARET CARLSON | Margaret Carlson writes a syndicated column for Bloomberg News.

On Memorial Day, I watched the A&E movie about former Navy Lt. Cmdr. John McCain's 5 1/2 years in a Vietnam prison. McCain's face was beaten to a bloody pulp, his bones shattered, his teeth knocked out. Guards hung him from the ceiling by his arms, one of which was broken. It was so painful I had to return repeatedly to my crossword puzzle.

The next morning, I watched President Bush at his news conference respond to a question about an Amnesty International report condemning U.S. detention facilities in Iraq, Guantanamo and elsewhere. Bush called charges of abuse "absurd" allegations by detainees "who hate America."

But how does he explain the Army? The New York Times recently obtained the Army's 2,000-page file on deaths at its Bagram, Afghanistan, detention center. It's as chilling to read as it is to watch McCain's crippled leg being crushed.

The John McCain of this report is an uneducated Afghan villager known as Dilawar, who was sent by his mother to pick up his sisters for a Muslim holiday on Dec. 5, 2002. Before he got there, Dilawar was rounded up as a suspect in a rocket attack.

For much of his five days in custody, Dilawar was brutalized and hung from the ceiling of his cell, even though no one thought he was a terrorist or had any useful information. Military police took turns kicking him above the knee because they found it amusing to hear him cry out "Allah."

When he was too weak to follow orders during interrogations, one sergeant grabbed him by his beard, crushed his bare foot with her boot and then reared back and kicked him in the groin.

That night, an interrogator summoned an MP when he noticed Dilawar's head slumped forward in his hood and his hands limp in his chains. After pressing his fingernail to see that blood was still circulating, the MP left him there. On Dec. 10, dragged in for what would be his last interrogation, Dilawar was incoherent. Angry at his unresponsiveness, an interrogator held him upright by twisting his hood around his neck. An intelligence specialist who spoke Dilawar's Pashto dialect was disturbed enough to notify the officer in charge. It was too late. Dilawar was already dead.

Were the Vietnamese guards who savagely beat McCain any worse?

Then-Lt. Gen. Daniel McNeill, U.S. commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, initially claimed that Dilawar wasn't abused and died of natural causes, according to the Times. The case was virtually closed until a March 4, 2003, article in the Times reported that an autopsy found Dilawar died from blunt force injuries that shattered his lower extremities.

The Army reopened the inquiry and, more than two years later, seven soldiers were found complicit in his death. McNeill, on the other hand, was promoted.

Shortly after Dilawar's death, Bagram's chief interrogator, Army Capt. Carolyn Wood, was deployed to Abu Ghraib.

The outrage that followed photos from Abu Ghraib has subsided. Only one of the five top officers at the prison -- a reservist -- was reprimanded. White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, who wrote a memo saying the Geneva Convention protections against torture don't always apply, was elevated to attorney general. Hearings by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) were quickly put on hold. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has called for them to restart, but so quietly it's as if he were calling on some other party in control of some other Senate to hold them.

I understand Graham's reluctance. I come from a military family, and I risk being called unpatriotic if I so much as criticize unarmored Humvees.

Bush maintains that only enemies of America would allege such abuse. But if the charges are true, it is the perpetrators and their superiors who show contempt for America and what it represents.

Watching the government stonewalling and lie about the fatal beating of an innocent man is as disturbing as watching the torture John McCain suffered 30 years ago rather than betray what America stands for.

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