So there were WMDs in Iraq after all. They're called digital cameras. Partly because of them the United States faces one of the most humiliating defeats in imperial history. But there's also a clear paper trail. Not just the long and copiously documented record of U.S. torture, with many of its refinements acquired by the CIA from the Nazis after World War II, but the more recent lineage of encouragement.

            By early November 2001, public opinion here in the United States was being softened up for the use of torture. At the start of November, the Washington Post published a piece by Walter Pincus citing FBI and Justice Department investigators as saying that "traditional civil liberties may have to be cast aside if they are to extract information about the Sept. 11 attacks and terrorist plans." Pincus reported that "alternative strategies under discussion are using drugs or pressure tactics, such as those used occasionally by Israeli interrogators."

            Jonathan Alter, Newsweek's in-house liberal pundit, confided to his readers in the weekly edition for Nov. 5, 2001, that something was needed to "jump-start the stalled investigation." His tone was facetiously upbeat, in line with the "just hazing" approach now promoted by the pain-averse Rush Limbaugh: "Couldn't we at least subject them (detainees) to psychological torture, like tapes of dying rabbits or high decibel rap?" Alter also made respectful reference to Alan Dershowitz, then running around the country promoting the idea of "torture warrants" issued by judges and to Israel, where "until 1999, an interrogation technique called 'shaking' was legal. It entailed holding a smelly bag over a suspect's head in a dark room . "

            It was not far into the war in Afghanistan that Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld made plain his views of the treatment of prisoners, after horrifying accounts began to surface of the treatment of Taliban POWs.

            Recall that after the surrender of the Kunduz fortress in November 2001, hundreds of Taliban were taken prisoner along with an American called John Walker Lindh. Rumsfeld had originally stated that the U.S. was "not inclined to negotiate surrenders." He then amended this to say that the Taliban should be let out of the net but that foreign fighters should expect no mercy: "My hope is they will either be killed or taken prisoner."

            It turned out they endured both of Rumsfeld's options. A year later, Jamie Doran, a British television producer, aired his documentary establishing beyond reasonable doubt that hundreds of these prisoners -- with no distinction between Taliban or "foreign fighters" -- died either by suffocation in the container trucks used to transport them toward the Shebarghan prison or by outright execution near Shebarghan.

            Witnesses also stated "600 Taliban POWs who survived the containers' shipment to the Shebarghan prison ... were taken to a spot in the desert and executed in the presence of about 30 to 40 U.S. Special Forces soldiers" (The Globe and Mail, Dec. 19, 2002). Other U.S. soldiers are said to have involved themselves directly and enthusiastically in the "dirty work" of prisoner torture and the disposal of corpses. "The Americans did whatever they wanted," stated one Afghan witness. "We had no power to stop them. Everything was under the control of the American commander."

            John Walker Lindh was kept in a coffin-sized box. As his lawyer later stated, the photographs left no doubt as to what kind of treatment he had endured. Part of his lawyer's final deal with the prosecution was a dropping of any possible charges of torture.

            From May 2003, the Red Cross was complaining to U.S. army commanders and to Proconsul Bremer in Iraq, to Rumsfeld, Assistant Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice about the frightful treatment of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. "The elements we found were tantamount to torture," Pierre Kraehenbuehl, operations director for the Swiss-based International Committee of the Red Cross, told reporters in Geneva at the end of the first week in May 2004, after the Wall Street Journal disclosed the contents of a major Red Cross report. "They were clearly incidents of degrading and inhuman treatment."

            What's clear enough is that the quality of U.S. leadership from the very top down, both civilian and military, is rancid. Accountability has long gone out of the window. The venality and corruption of Bremer's coalition officials and many of Sanchez's officers have naturally allowed many in the armed forces to degenerate into criminal thuggery. Iraqi families complain that after U.S. troops have searched and smashed up their homes, the occupants return to find their safes broken open and their savings and valuables stolen.

            The Red Cross report cites some coalition military intelligence officers as reckoning that "between 70 percent and 90 percent of the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake."

            It's ironic how the great moral crusade for freedom and democracy in Iraq has foundered on a photo of Private Lynndie England hauling around The Other on a dog leash. Even the images of torture degrade one's moral instincts with appalling speed. I'd love to see a photo of Anne Coulter clipping the leash on Rush Limbaugh, though not being Muslim, he probably wouldn't care. Remember, being forced to strip naked and have one's genitals menaced by savage dogs is something Muslims apparently find abhorrent. Those Others are a bunch of ninnies, aren't they? Not like us Christians.

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.