On NBC's Today, Philadelphia-based radio host Michael Smerconish falsely claimed that "no one died at Abu Ghraib" -- a detention facility operated by U.S. forces in Iraq -- and that the abuse of prisoners by U.S. personnel at Abu Ghraib was merely "a lot of ridiculous actions ... carried out by nine knuckleheads." Additionally, in a report that aired repeatedly on CNN, senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre falsely reported that "[n]one of the abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib died." In fact, detainee Manadel al-Jamadi reportedly died at Abu Ghraib during an interrogation by CIA personnel on November 4, 2003. The Pentagon has labeled al-Jamadi's death a "homicide," indicating that it resulted from the treatment he received at the prison -- not from natural causes.
On the May 30 broadcast of NBC's Today, Philadelphia-based radio host Michael Smerconish falsely claimed that "no one died at Abu Ghraib" -- a detention facility operated by U.S. forces in Iraq -- and that the abuse of prisoners by U.S. personnel at Abu Ghraib was merely "a lot of ridiculous actions ... carried out by nine knuckleheads." Additionally, in a report that aired repeatedly on CNN, senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre falsely reported that "[n]one of the abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib died"; he also repeated the erroneous claim on CNN several days later. In fact, detainee Manadel al-Jamadi reportedly died at Abu Ghraib during an interrogation by CIA personnel on November 4, 2003. The Pentagon has labeled al-Jamadi's death a "homicide," indicating that it resulted from the treatment he received at the prison -- not from natural causes. Although to date, 10 U.S. soldiers have been convicted* on charges relating to the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib, Pentagon investigations have found that military intelligence personnel helped establish the conditions leading to the abuse. Further, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) described "systematic" abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib by military intelligence personnel.
The death of al-Jamadi at Abu Ghraib received widespread attention in the U.S. media following the publication of photographs depicting U.S. personnel at the facility posing and giving a thumbs-up over al-Jamadi's corpse. For instance, The New York Times reported on October 23, 2005, that "Mr. Jamadi's death was among the most notorious of the incidents at Abu Ghraib that became public in the spring of 2004, in part because his body was photographed wrapped in plastic and packed in ice. He died after being beaten by commandos of the Navy Seals who struck him in the head with rifle butts and then turned him over to C.I.A. interrogators at Abu Ghraib."
Belying Smerconish's claim that only "nine knuckleheads" at Abu Ghraib were responsible for any abuse, the findings of two Pentagon investigations suggest that military intelligence personnel encouraged the mistreatment of detainees. As Media Matters for America has noted, a Pentagon investigation by Maj. Gen. George R. Fay found that 27 members of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade at the prison "allegedly requested, encouraged, condoned and solicited" military police to abuse detainees "and/or participated in detainee abuse." An internal investigation by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba similarly found that "Military Intelligence (MI) interrogators and Other US Government Agency's (OGA) [a reference to the CIA] interrogators actively requested that MP guards set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses."
Also belying Smerconish's claim that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were limited to the nine troops convicted, Media Matters has noted that according to the ICRC, "methods of physical and psychological coercion were used by the military intelligence in a systematic way" at Abu Ghraib against prisoners "deemed to have an 'intelligence value.' " Additionally, decisions by senior Bush administration officials apparently left the impression among military commanders that abusive interrogation practices were permissible.
Further, Pentagon documents and news accounts place the blame for al-Jamadi's death on CIA and Navy personnel, not on the U.S. Army soldiers convicted for offenses at the prison.
On October 24, 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released an analysis of Pentagon documents acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request, including details from al-Jamadi's autopsy. The ACLU's statement described al-Jamadi's injuries, following his mistreatment by CIA personnel (identified as "OGA" or "Other Governmental Agency"), and SEALs (identified as "NSWT"):
A detainee at Abu Ghraib Prison, captured by Navy Seal Team number seven, died on November 4, 2003, during an interrogation by Navy Seals and "OGA." A previously released autopsy report, that appears to be of Manadel Al Jamadi, shows that the cause of his death was "blunt force injury complicated by compromised respiration." New documents specifically record the circumstances of death as "Q[uestioned] by OGA and NSWT died during interrogation."
A November 11, 2005, New Yorker article by Jane Mayer identified the CIA officer who supervised al-Jamadi's interrogation as Mark Swanner. Mayer reported that during Swanner's interrogation, "[al-Jamadi's] head had been covered with a plastic bag, and he was shackled in a crucifixion-like pose that inhibited his ability to breathe; according to forensic pathologists who have examined the case, he asphyxiated." Swanner has not been charged in relation to the incident.
Navy Lt. Andrew K. Ledford, the commander of the SEAL unit that captured al-Jamadi, faced a court-martial on charges related to al-Jamadi's mistreatment and was acquitted May 27, 2005. The same day, the Associated Press reported that Ledford was found not guilty of "assault, dereliction of duty, conduct unbecoming an officer and making false statements." The AP further reported that "[e]ight SEALs and one sailor who served under Ledford have received administrative punishments for abusing al-Jamadi and other detainees."
Smerconish made his comments during a discussion with host Katie Couric, in which he argued that the reported massacre of Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines at Haditha was "much worse" than the Abu Ghraib scandal.
Similarly, McIntyre reported that the purported Haditha atrocities "would surpass Abu Ghraib in the number of civilian deaths," although the Haditha events did not seem to be "a case where it's believed that any policy from the Pentagon might have given the wrong impression to Marines in the field."
McIntyre made his false claim in a report that aired seven times on CNN programming: twice on the May 26 edition of The Situation Room (4 p.m. E.T. hour and 7 p.m. E.T. hour), on the May 26 edition of Anderson Cooper 360°, twice during the May 27 edition of CNN Saturday Morning News (7 a.m. E.T. and 9 a.m. E.T.), and twice on the May 27 edition of Live Saturday (12 p.m. E.T. and 5 p.m. E.T.). Additionally, on the May 29 edition of CNN's Live From ..., McIntyre reported to host Kyra Phillips that "none of the mistreated prisoners at Abu Ghraib died."
Smerconish has appeared three times on the Today show in recent months. In addition to his May 30 appearance on the program, opposite Democratic strategist James Carville, Smerconish appeared on the April 11 broadcast of Today, opposite Carville, and on the March 31 broadcast, opposite liberal satirist and talk-radio host Al Franken.
During the same period, Media Matters documented a series of offensive comments by Smerconish, including his claim that America's "limp-wristedness ... is compromising our ability to win the war on terror," and his characterization of a Duke lacrosse team member's emailed threat to kill exotic dancers as "goofy."
From the May 30 broadcast of NBC's Today:
COURIC: And Michael, how do you think this compares to Abu Ghraib, this incident?
SMERCONISH: Well, much worse. I mean, no one died at Abu Ghraib. There were a lot of ridiculous actions there carried out by nine knuckleheads. In this particular case, there's still more that's unknown than that which is known. And I think it's got to be viewed in context, Katie, because what we know is that just three months prior, at that exact same location, 20 Marines lost their lives. That morning, a United States Marine lost his life. I find it hard to believe that a 77-year-old man was shot in cold blood in a wheelchair or that a 4-year-old boy was shot in the chest. If that turns out to be a cold, calculated killing, there will be no defense. But context is going to be important.
From the May 26 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:
MCINTYRE: Pentagon sources say the investigation is now wrapping up and that the evidence is very incriminating. The Marines will not confirm any findings of the investigation so far. But congressional sources say the 24 victims included seven women and three children, some shot in their beds.
Five unarmed men were also allegedly shot when their taxicab was stopped by Marines. One official told CNN the mass killing is far worse than the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, which President Bush just identified as the biggest mistake in Iraq so far.
BUSH [video clip]: We've been paying for that for a long period of time.
MCINTYRE: None of the abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib died, but if the allegations at Haditha are substantiated, the civilian deaths would qualify as a massacre, which could undermine support for the United States, both in Iraq and around the world.
From the May 29 edition of CNN's Live From ...:
PHILLIPS: Now Jamie, some are coming forward and saying this is worse than Abu Ghraib.
MCINTYRE: Well, that's because, I guess, you know, the number of deaths involved -- I mean, if it turns out that 24 Iraqi civilians were essentially murdered by U.S. Marines, that would be an atrocity that would surpass Abu Ghraib in the number of civilian deaths. Nobody -- none of the mistreated prisoners at Abu Ghraib died.
However, there's a difference in these two scandals in that one is, again, assuming the allegations are correct, one would be an atrocity. The criticism in the Abu Ghraib case, though, was that the climate that allowed the prisoner abuse, some of the policies that might have encouraged it, some would argue, condoned it could traced back to the Pentagon, even the White House in terms of procedures and that sort of thing. That's why that controversy resonated so much.
This is not a case where it's believed that any policy from the Pentagon might have given the wrong impression to Marines in the field. Everyone knows that you're not supposed to be shooting innocent civilians. So while it may be more of an atrocity if it turns out to be the case, it may not have the same sort of overall debate or overarching debate that followed the Abu Ghraib scandal.
Correction: This item originally stated: "Although to date, only nine U.S. soldiers have been convicted on charges relating to the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib, Pentagon investigations have found that military intelligence personnel helped establish the conditions leading to the abuse." In fact, 10 soldiers had been convicted on charges related to Abu Ghraib detainee abuse as of May 31. An 11th, Army Sgt. Santos A. Cardona, was convicted June 1.