Tidbits for Political Junkies with Short Attention Spans & Hearty Appetites


Friday, June 18, 2004


Fran Townsend at Abu Ghraib

Today’s news is still so awful I’m still having trouble absorbing it – so I’ll take you on a brief detour of something that emerged yesterday in USA Today, regarding pressure from the White House on interrogations at Abu Ghraib.

Smack in the middle of the latest accusations is one of Condi Rice's direct reports: none other than Fran Townsend, thus far the most secretive of the numerous successors to Richard Clarke’s counter-terrorism post, about whom we have commented previously:
Army Lt. Col. Steven Jordan, in a sworn statement to Army investigators obtained by USA TODAY, said he was told last September that White House staffers wanted to "pull the intelligence out" of the interrogations being conducted at Abu Ghraib. The pressure stemmed from growing concern about the increasingly violent Iraqi insurgency that was claiming American lives daily. It came before and during a string of abuses of Iraqi prisoners in October, November and December of 2003.

Jordan, the top military intelligence officer at Abu Ghraib, described "instances where I feel that there was additional pressure" to get information from detainees, including a visit to the prison last fall by an aide to Rice that was "purely on detainee operations and reporting." And he said he was reminded of the need to improve the intelligence output of the prison "many, many, many times."

Rice staffer Fran Townsend said Thursday that she spent about two hours at Abu Ghraib last November and recalls that Jordan was her guide. Townsend, then deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism, said she did not discuss interrogation techniques or the need to obtain more information from detainees, and neither witnessed nor heard about abuse of detainees.
What Townsend doesn’t seem to get is that the mere fact of her visit could easily be interpreted as pressure. Imagine, if you will, that you are a mid-level officer in a grimy prison halfway around the world, and you suddenly find out that someone who reports directly to Condi Rice wants a “tour.” Are you to assume that she was merely sight-seeing? How could you not feel pressure?

Townsend’s statement – which somehow implies that the brevity of her visit negates the possibility of pressure – is ludicrous. Whatever her real intent may have been – the fact that she traveled through eight time zones to deliver it in person gives it a weight and import that the same information imparted over the phone or in a memo never would have had.

In fact, it’s worth stepping back here for a moment to consider why anyone, in the age of instantaneous worldwide telecommunications, would go to the time and expense of a face-to-face visit. There are, of course, a number of powerful and compelling reasons, but here are a few off the top of my head:
There are other possible reasons as well, but you get the picture. It's somehow worth bearing these considerations in mind when we hear what Ms. Townsend wants us to believe about her visit.

The likely, or at least highly plausible interpretation, is that Ms. Townsend’s statements
are just another variation of the White House’s routine of non-denial denials.

She could truthfully claim that “we never discussed interrogation techniques,” even if what she actually said was something more along the lines of ‘do what you have to do; I don’t want to know the details.’

She could truthfully say that she never discussed the need to obtain more information from the detainees – when what she did discuss was the need for better, or more complete information.

And she could truthfully claim that (as she does here) that she didn’t go there “to pressure them to do anything they weren’t doing.” Her visit was last November, after all – and while the timeline isn’t quite clear from the reports, it’s perfectly likely that by then, as the pictures have shown, the guards were already doing quite a bit more than anyone had any need to encourage them to do.

At best, none of these explanations are very enlightening, or very helpful. At worst, they are strikingly disingenuous.

[UPDATE: Spencer Ackerman connects a few more of the dots here, and provides more context]


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