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The steady drip of revelations about the abuse of prisoners in the global war against terror is doing serious damage to the U.S. image and efforts to win that battle. Contrary to official claims, the instances of misbehavior are not episodic or exaggerated; they appear to be serious, widespread and systematic. The United States must move quickly to remedy this ugly and disturbing situation. A credible and public assessment of the abuse must occur and all those responsible — not just the soldiers at the bottom of the chain of command — punished. An unequivocal condemnation of the worst techniques should come from the highest levels of the U.S. government. Only then will the United States begin to repair the damage that has been done.

There have been sporadic reports of abuse of prisoners since the U.S. went on the offensive against terrorists in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. The notorious photographs from Abu Ghraib prison are the most infamous, but it is now known that abuse has occurred at most major facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where many alleged terrorists are held. The U.S. has responded to the allegations by saying torture or abuse was merely the isolated acts of “bad apples.”

Recently, The New York Times has reported on a U.S. Army file that details widespread abuse in Afghanistan. According to the paper, “The file depicts young, poorly trained soldiers in repeated incidents of abuse.” In some cases, the abuse “was directed or carried out by interrogators to extract information.” At least eight Afghans have died in U.S. custody. Two deaths were highlighted in the army file, but it also includes reports of torture, beatings and humiliation. Other documents obtained and released by the American Civil Liberties Union show that such abuse occurs throughout U.S. detention facilities worldwide.

The revelations are doing real damage, even among supporters of the U.S. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said he was shocked by the information and has demanded action against the perpetrators and the handing over of all Afghan prisoners in U.S. custody. These are strong words from the man who depends on the U.S. for his — and his government’s — survival. In response, Mr. Bush has said that all those responsible would be punished.

The reports about abuse in Afghanistan follow controversy over Newsweek magazine’s report that U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay had desecrated a Quran by throwing it into a toilet. That news set off riots throughout South Asia, which resulted in at least 14 deaths in Afghanistan. Last week, thousands of hardline Muslims in Indonesia protested the report of the desecration, shouting “destroy America and its allies” and “Kill those who desecrate Islam.”

Newsweek has since retracted the allegation, because its source could not remember in which document it saw the charge. The U.S. administration has gone on the offensive since, demanding an apology and arguing that the report caused the unrest and blackened the U.S. image.

While the mistake raises serious questions about journalists’ use of unnamed sources, to blame the media for the violence is disingenuous. There have been multiple allegations of desecration of the Quran, yet Pentagon officials concede that there was no thorough study of the allegations before the Newsweek report. Moreover, every report of prisoner abuse in U.S. custody — and indeed the very policies that the U.S. uses to get information from prisoners — has included techniques that seem designed to inflame Muslim sensitivities. The abuse is too widespread and too close to sophisticated behavior designed to inflict psychological damage for it to be the work of a few “bad apples.”

To their credit, some senior U.S. officials have acknowledged that the roots of the violence go much deeper than a newsweekly’s report. Other officials, including President Bush, promised to punish offenders. But the gap between the U.S. rhetoric and its demand for accountability grows wider.

The army has identified 27 soldiers that could be tried on criminal charges for the two deaths highlighted in Afghanistan; only seven have been charged, four just last week. It is the U.S. government’s failure to take action that has triggered the leaks of reports and the steady stream of revelations to the news media by individuals working within the system.

They understand what their superiors apparently do not: Torture, abuse and humiliation of suspects in U.S. custody do great damage to the institutions that permit or condone these crimes and the country for which they work. The revulsion against these acts is proof of the deep emotional chord that has been struck. Success in the fight against terror requires that the U.S. win allies among the Muslims whose resentment and anger have provided the cannon fodder for this battle. Instead, the U.S. seems intent on fanning the flames.

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