Evangelical general apparently linked to Iraqi prison abuse

WASHINGTON (RNS)–One of the major players in the Iraqi prison abuse scandal, it now appears, was the same general almost fired last year for describing the war on terror as a clash between Judeo-Christian values and Satan.

According to testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee and new reporting from the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh, the prison abuse scandal grew out of a decision to give greater influence to the defense intelligence unit, led by Stephen Cambone, the under secretary of defense for intelligence, and his deputy, Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin.

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Appearing in uniform during a speech at the Oregon church, Boykin said: “Why do they (radical Muslims) hate us? Why do they hate us so much? Ladies and gentlemen, the answer to that is because we’re a Christian nation.”

In 2002, at a church in Oklahoma, he showed slides he took in Somalia just after 18 Americans were killed in the “Black Hawk Down” debacle. Pointing to a dark shadow of Mogadishu’s skyline, Boykin said it was “a demonic presence in that city that God revealed to me as the enemy.”

When word of Boykin’s beliefs were made public last fall, some American Muslim groups, such as the Muslim Public Action Committee and the Council on American Islamic Relations, called on President Bush to fire Boykin, but Bush declined.

Even Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Boykin should resign temporarily while his actions were reviewed by the inspector general’s office.

That investigation is expected to be completed in June.

There is still much to be learned about Boykin’s role in the current scandal, including the pivotal question of whether his anti-Muslim views may have made him more prone to dehumanizing Muslim prisoners. What is already clear, however, is that Boykin’s evangelical supporters now find themselves in an awkward position. They have supported Boykin steadfastly but are wary about defending prisoner torture.

Here is what is known so far about Boykin’s role in the prison abuse scandal: He is a main strategist for Cambone, who oversees a secret program with the goal of capturing and interrogating terrorism targets. According to Hersh in the New Yorker, the unit brought “unconventional methods” to Abu Ghraib as a way of getting better information about Iraqi insurgents.

The program, according to Hersh’s reporting, soon evolved from targeting not only Al Qaeda but also a wide range of Iraqi prisoners.

Hersh writes: By fall, according to the former intelligence official, the senior leadership of the CIA had had enough. “They said: ‘No way. We signed up for the core program in Afghanistan –pre-approved operations against high-value terrorist targets–and now you want to use it for cab drivers, brothers-in-law and people pulled off the streets,’ the sort of prisoners who populate the Iraqi jails.”

Cambone told a Congressional committee last week that neither he nor Boykin thought they were giving the go-ahead for military police to abuse prisoners. Boykin himself has not testified and declined to be interviewed .

In addition to adding another wrinkle to the diplomatic catastrophe of this scandal–many Muslims overseas already believe Americans are engaging in an anti-Islam crusade–it raises difficult political and moral questions for conservative Christians.

Last fall, they stoutly defended Boykin, and by extension President Bush, yet they also condemn abuse and torture.

So far, Religious Right leaders are standing by Boykin.

“A lot of our people are just so tired of hearing about that whole situation, especially now that we’ve seen” the beheading of Nicholas Berg, Christian Coalition Spokesperson Michele Ammons said. “I think it’s time to get over it. And that’s what I’m hearing.”

Ammons, who said evangelical leaders have been consumed primarily with the gay marriage debate, noted the Christian Coalition would keep an online petition in support of Boykin on its homepage.

Angell Watts, spokeswoman for Pat Robertson, said that although “the troops messed up big time,” the “liberal media” are overplaying it.

“I was more disgusted at the beheading of Nick Berg,” she said. “Look at what we’re dealing with.”

As for Boykin? Watts said that if Boykin knew about the abuses, “he has to be held accountable. … Christians are held to a higher standard.”

Although Watts said she doesn’t believe Rumsfeld or Boykin knew about the abuses, “if I’m wrong, I’ll grieve over that.”

Conservative Christian leaders and commentators have contended since last fall that Boykin’s comments were taken out of context, or he was being attacked because he is a Christian. His staunchest supporters included Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, the Family Research Council, the Christian Coalition and Bobby Welch, who will be nominated as president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“Every conservative Christian would understand the language that Gen. Boykin used to describe what is known as spiritual warfare. His words were consistent with mainstream evangelical beliefs, and he had a right to express them,” Dobson said at the time.

The Christian Coalition started an online petition in support of Boykin–and posted it on its home page.

Pat Robertson’s 700 Club even went so far as to ask Chuck Holton, a former Army Ranger who served under Boykin in Somalia, to attend a church service at which Boykin spoke, record his speech and then report on it for Christian Broadcasting Network.

Welch, in a column for Baptist Press, described Boykin’s critics as “back-stabbers,” writing: “I despise the unthinkable and asinine fact that some take cheap backstabbing shots at a real God-fearing American hero who continually risks his life to protect all of us.”

Even if the evidence accumulates that Boykin was a key figure in the scandal, evangelicals may hold the line.

“They’ve invested so much in Boykin,” said John Green, an expert on the religious right and director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

People in the pews, however, may react differently.

“No doubt some of them will be appalled,” Green said. “And a denial reaction by their leaders might actually encourage an appalled reaction.”

The Christian leader in perhaps the trickiest position is Welch, whose new position as president of the Southern Baptist Convention will give him a much higher profile. A friend of Boykin’s, Welch has defended Boykin and also collaborated with him on evangelism projects.

Reached at his home, Welch declined comment on Boykin’s connection to the Iraqi prisoner scandal, explaining that he knows nothing about Boykin’s involvement.

“I really don’t want to comment on it because I don’t have any idea what he does with those people. I don’t have the foggiest idea. I’ve never inquired what he does. He is just an unbelievable patriot.”

Last year, in collaboration with Welch, Boykin planned to host a gathering of Southern Baptist pastors at Fort Bragg, where he was running the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.

The gathering was connected to FAITH, the popular Sunday school evangelism strategy Welch helped create.

“You will go with General Boykin and Green Beret instructors to places where no civilians and few soldiers ever go,” Welch told pastors in a letter inviting them to attend the two-day Super FAITH Force Multiplier session.

“We must find a group of men who are warriors of FAITH, pastors who have the guts to lead this nation to Christ and revival!”

Welch said they would see Boykin’s headquarters, a demonstration of “today’s war-fighting weapons” and how “Special Forces attack the enemy inside buildings (live fire/real bullets)” as well as hear a speech and get “informal time” with Boykin.

After Americans United for Separation of Church and State heard about the planned gathering, they complained to the military, which scaled back the meeting.

In the interview, Welch said he was troubled by the Iraqi abuses and said he would be upset if Boykin is found to have approved or encouraged the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners.

“The only way a Christian would approach it–and I’m making no comment on Boykin–is that we have to abide by the law and there are definite laws about (prisoner abuse and torture) and those laws should be followed.

“The minute you begin to say Christians are outside the law, you have headed off into a place you cannot get back.”

Deborah Caldwell is a senior editor and national correspondent for Beliefnet.

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Religion News Service, USA
May 28, 2004
Deborah Caldwell

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday May 31, 2004.
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