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McChrystal Sails Through Flimsy Senate Questioning

The Wall Street Journal [1]is clucking this morning, and for good reason. After all the hot air about putting Gen. Stanley McChrystal over the coals regarding his command of a top-secret Special Operations-led task force that has been accused of numerous abuses against Iraqi detainees, the Democrats, in effect, wimped out. And that’s a good thing, says the WSJ:

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s confirmation hearings yesterday for Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal to take over the war in Afghanistan didn’t play according to script. In the days preceding the hearing, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party had urged Senators to use the hearing to, as the New York Times editorialized, measure General McChrystal’s “fitness for his new assignment.”

By this the Times meant that the general needed to be “rigorously questioned” about “disturbing aspects” of his record, such as reports of a “secret interrogation cell” in Baghdad. The ACLU wanted the hearings focused on “command responsibility for this torture and abuse and also on the cover-up of this torture and abuse.” Reuters contributed its own recounting of a report by Human Rights Watch of interrogators subjecting prisoners to “loud music and strobe lights.”

At the hearing itself, Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, never reluctant in the past to flog such accusations, essentially dumped blame for whatever happened on “the Secretary of Defense” in 2002, and moved on. This is progress, of a sort.

Well, Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Levin knew there was a lot more to it than “loud music and strobe lights.” Beyond the Human Rights Watch report [2] on Camp Nama, home to McChrystal’s now infamous Task Force 6-26, and internal military memos and numerous eye witness accounts detailing the abuse, Levin’s staff talked to at least one former interrogator before the hearings yesterday with his chilling side of the story.

According to a report from Spencer Ackerman, writing on the Washington Independent’s blog [3] Monday:

A former military interrogator who contributed to the manhunt for a senior Iraqi terrorist has urged the Senate Armed Services Committee staff to press Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the Obama administration’s nominee to lead U.S. troops in the Afghanistan war, on what he knew about detainee abuse committed by troops in Iraq under his command when McChrystal goes before the panel Tuesday morning for his confirmation hearing.

“Gen. McChrystal, he was there in Iraq often, and he may have been separated from these things by couple layers [of subordinates] but it would’ve been his responsibility to know what was going on,” said Matthew Alexander, the pseudonym of a former Air Force interrogator whose non-coercive interrogations in 2006 helped identify and kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Alexander, who wrote about his Iraq experiences in his 2008 memoir “How To Break a Terrorist [4]” and who works with Human Rights First to oppose torture, recalled that several of his colleagues attempted to use coercive interrogation techniques in the Zarqawi hunt, despite Alexander’s concerns over their dubious efficacy. “When I would go up to my boss and say there’s a better way” to interrogate detainees without torturing them, “his answer would be ‘I’m sorry… because there’s something above me controlling the interrogators and those interrogators have carte blanche to interrogate how they want,” Alexander said. “I don’t know Gen. McChrystal’s involvement in that, [or that of] his staff or below him. But i do know that mentality was extremely counterproductive and almost cost us our chance at finding Zarqawi.”

He continued, “We found Zarqawi in spite of the way the task force did business.”

(Ackerman later corrected his post, saying the word “torture” was his, not Alexander’s)

Despite this, Ackerman reports Tuesday, [5] Levin questioned McChrystal only briefly and the general “faced no opposition during the hearing.”

In a nutshell, Tuesday’s display of deference — if not gutlessness — signifies everything one needs to know about why the torture debate will go absolutely nowhere in Washington. Those hoping for truth commissions and prosecutions are in for a long, long wait. If the Democratic Senate, in its strongest political position in years, considers the fate of a man accused of overseeing abusive interrogations — if not torture — on his watch in Iraq and cannot muster even a slightly tough grilling before making him the commander of U.S forces in Afghanistan, well, it’s time for the “progressive wing” and assorted truth and justice-seekers to just pack it in.