Monday, May 10, 2004

The Face of America

His photo could be that of any of hundreds of thousands of anonymous U.S. soldiers in desert cammo. But suddenly, Spc. Jeremy Sivits find himself cast on the world stage as The Face of America.

The first public hanging in the Abu Ghraib abuse fiasco has been scheduled for May 16. Not surprisingly, the first perpetrator to be tried is a lower echelon enlisted person - Spc. Sivits. It's not clear what Sivits role in this whole mess might have been, but there's been speculation that Sivits was one of the principal photographers of the pictures the world has seen to date. So, that makes sense to me, in an Orwellian kind of way - go after the guy who took the pictures.

As this event plays out, observers need to keep a couple of things in mind. First off, a military court martial is most certainly not the same as a civilian criminal trial. I guess the best analogy I can make is that it's more like a grand jury hearing, the difference being that both the prosecution and defense present their respective cases. Military personnel typically refer to the courts martial process as "Kangaroo Court", and anyone watching Sivits trial will quickly figure out why military personnel hold this view. If this is indeed televised, it will be very clear very early that it's not like Tom Cruise and Demi Moore going after Jack Nicholson in "A Few Good Men".

While the manner in which Gen. Kimmitt announced the proceedings was quite unusual, his statement that "we try to make these types of proceedings as transparent as possible" is specious. I can not, in my memory, recall any court martials in recent history being held in a public forum. In fact, the military (in general) goes out of their way to shut out press and media, even in murder trials.

A Pittsburgh Post Gazette article this morning on Sivits is quite revealing, in terms of the Bush Administration, Department of Defense, and the military hoping that this very public evisceration of Spc. Sivits will wash the blood from their hands. It's obvious to the most casual observer that Sivits will be the American face of Abu Ghraib. If he was in fact involved, he should be prosecuted to the fullest extent, and that's a good thing. But it's also clear that the timing of the trial, and Sivits himself, were chosen in a last ditch effort to quell world outcry:
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said yesterday that Sivits' military trial, which is open to news media, including Arab outlets, will be held on May 19 at the Baghdad Convention Center. The convention center is being used because it will accommodate what military officials expect to be a large media contingent from around the world.
The Baghdad friggin' Convention Center! I'm sure the place isn't as big as, say, the Javits Convention Center in New York, where the RNC convention is being held this fall, but, wow! Sivits becomes an instant celebrity. I'm already wondering if Entertainment Tonight or E! will be seeking press credentials.

There's a lot more yet to be written in this story. Certainly, there's a lot of risk management involved on the part of the military and Bush Administration. What will Sivits defense team be allowed to bring to the table? Are they going through the normal discovery process (which would suggest this has been in the works for awhile)? Will the various precursor reports (Taguba and Red Cross) be dissected? Will fingers be allowed to be pointed in other directions?

In the final analysis, the following quote from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette is probably the most disturbing:
Sivits' mother, Freda, said yesterday that the family would have no comment on the military's decision to court-martial her son first.

"We've been told to keep our mouths shut," Freda Sivits said. She declined to say who gave the family that advice.
My guess would be someone from "Don" Rumsfeld's organization (and you can figure out on your own why Rumsfeld's name is in quotes).