Ever since the world learned of the lawless state of American military prisons in Iraq, the administration has hidden behind the claim that only a few bad apples were brutalizing prisoners. President Bush also has dodged the full force of public outrage because the victims were foreigners, mostly Muslims, captured in what he has painted as a war against Islamic terrorists bent on destroying America.
This week, The Times published two articles that reminded us again that the American military prisons are profoundly and systemically broken and that no one is safe from the summary judgment and harsh treatment institutionalized by the White House and the Pentagon after 9/11.
On Monday, Michael Moss wrote about a U.S. contractor who was swept up in a military raid and dumped into a system where everyone is presumed guilty and denied any chance to prove otherwise.
Donald Vance, a 29-year-old Navy veteran from Chicago, was a whistle-blower who prompted the raid by tipping off the F.B.I. to suspicious activity at the company where he worked, including possible weapons trafficking. He was arrested and held for 97 days — shackled and blindfolded, prevented from sleeping by blaring music and round-the-clock lights. In other words, he was subjected to the same mistreatment that thousands of non-Americans have been subjected to since the 2003 invasion.
Even after the military learned who Mr. Vance was, they continued to hold him in these abusive conditions for weeks more. He was not allowed to defend himself at the Potemkin hearing held to justify his detention. And that was special treatment. As an American citizen, he was at least allowed to attend his hearing. An Iraqi, or an Afghani, or any other foreigner, would have been barred from the room.
This is not the handiwork of a few out-of-control sadists at Abu Ghraib. This is a system that was created and operated outside American law and American standards of decency. Except for the few low-ranking soldiers periodically punished for abusing prisoners, it is a system without any accountability.
Yesterday, David Johnston reported that nearly 20 cases in which civilian contractors were accused of abusing detainees have been sent to the Justice Department. So far, the record is perfect: not a single indictment.
Administration officials said that prosecutors were hobbled by a lack of evidence and witnesses, or that the military’s cases were simply shoddy. This sounds like another excuse from an administration that has papered over prisoner abuse and denied there is any connection between Mr. Bush’s decision to flout the Geneva Conventions and the repeated cases of abuse and torture. We hope the new Congress will be more aggressive on this issue than the last one, which was more bent on preserving the Republican majority than preserving American values and rights. The lawless nature of Mr. Bush’s war on terror has already cost the nation dearly in terms of global prestige, while increasing the risks facing every American serving in the military.