WHEN THE online whistleblowers at WikiLeaks released the nearly 400,000 US Army field reports from Iraq recently, most of the issues documented in them had already been reported in the press. The high death toll for Iraqi civilians was generally known, as were the sometimes abusive actions of private security contractors, and Iran’s arming, training, and financing of Iraqi Shi’ite militias. But the WikiLeaks files include one revelation that demands corrective action — the US military’s awareness that Iraqi security forces often tortured detainees, including many who were handed over to them by the American military.
The United States is a party to the United Nations Convention Against Torture. As such, it has accepted an obligation not to employ torture and also not to transfer captives to anyone who may be expected to torture them. To violate this obligation is to make the American commitment to human rights look like sheer hypocrisy. Al Qaeda and like-minded jihadists, who exhibit scant regard for human rights, can be counted on to depict US complicity in torture in Iraq as proof that the “crusaders’’ hate Muslims.
It does no good to explain away the murders, beatings, and mutilations of Iraqis by other Iraqis as the vengeful heritage of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. It is true that Saddam’s torturers did horrific things to the kin and comrades of many Iraqis now in power. But whatever the psychological roots of the torture described in the US army field reports, there can be no excuse for Americans to look the other way — or, what is worse, knowingly to deliver captured Iraqis to their torturers.
WikiLeaks hackers may themselves have become complicit in torture by releasing unredacted names of Iraqis working with the Americans. But the moral obtuseness of WikiLeaks does not absolve the US government of its responsibility to conduct an investigation of what went wrong — to hold accountable military commanders and civilian policy makers who received honest reports of torture but declined to protect either the victims or America’s reputation in the world.