The Situationist

Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Tenet: “Guilty”

Posted by Philip Zimbardo on December 19, 2008

bush-tenetMore than 10,000 people cast their votes during the last year and a half in a virtual voting booth at Their judgments accord with the recent Senate Armed Services bipartisan report that blames Bush officials for detainee abuse. It also finds that the prison guards and interrogators were not the “true culprits.”

The vast majority of these voters found all four Bush officials guilty of having created the legal frameworks, laws, and motivational conditions that provided the foundation for the abuses and torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay prisons. The guilty verdicts (for George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and George Tenet) were true regardless of political preference, across all age groups, and whether or not they had read The Lucifer Effect book before voting.

Democrats were more likely to vote guilty than were those identified as Republicans, but even so, the majority of Republicans found each of the four officials guilty:

  • Bush: 95 % (Democrat) to 57% (Republican);
  • Cheney: 88% to 72%;
  • Rumsfeld: 89% to 72%;
  • Tenet: 83% to 70 %.

Those identified as “Other” political preference overwhelmingly gave guilty verdicts to all four:

  • 93% Bush;
  • 96% Cheney;
  • 95 % Rumsfeld, and
  • 89 % Tenet.

The percentage of guilty votes increased systematically with age of voters for all four officials: 86% of those under age 21 found George W. Bush guilty, as did 89% of those 21-40, 93 % of those 41-60, and a high of 97% for voters over the age of 60.

For Dick Cheney, the guilt verdicts were even higher at each age level, from 88% under 21, to 93% 21-40, to 97% 41-60, and a maximum of 99% for senior voters. Similar patterns can be seen for former Sec. of Defense Rumsfeld and former head of the CIA, Tenet.

My involvement with trying to understand the causes of the abuses and torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib began when I agreed to be part of the defense team organized by Gary Myers, legal council for one of the Army Reserve Military Police, Staff Sergeant Chip Frederick. In that role, I read all of the many investigative reports by various generals and one headed by James Schlesinger, former Sec. of Defense. I also read all of the relevant Human Rights Watch reports, International Red Cross reports, and more. I spoke with interrogators, military criminal investigators, and senior military officers who were on that scene. After in-depth interviews with Chip Frederick and reviewing his psychological evaluation by a military specialist, and his prior service record, I felt competent in rendering the judgment that he was a “good apple.” And further, that the conditions he and the other MPs were forced to work in and live in constituted the “Bad Barrel” that corrupted him and the other prison guards on the Tier 1A night shift (where all the abuses occurred).

These findings were summarized in two chapters of a book I wrote subsequently, Chapters 14 and 15 of The Lucifer Effect (Random House, 2007). While military justice put Frederick and many of the other MPs on trial for the abuses they had perpetrated on individuals they were supposed to protect while in their custody, none of the officers who should have been in charge were ever tried. Those abuses took place over more than three months in the fall of 2003 before being exposed. Command complicity involves responsibility for illegal or immoral behavior of one’s subordinates that officers should have known about – had they cared enough to be watching the store or the torture dungeon.

My summation to the military prosecutor in Frederick’s trial (2004) stated that although the soldier on trial was guilty of the abuses for which he was charged (for which he got an 8 year prison sentence), it was the Situation and the System that were also responsible. The Situation is the complex set of environmental circumstances in operation on the night shift in the interrogation center of Tier 1A—that created horrendous conditions for our soldiers as well as the detainees. The System includes those in charge of creating and maintaining those situations by means of resource allocation, legal rules, and top-down pressures for “actionable intelligence” by all means necessary.

I ended my conceptual analysis with a call for readers of my Lucifer Effect book to play the role of jurors in deciding on the guilt and accountability of some of the military command in charge at Abu Ghraib, along with Bush officials who were the ultimate Systems Managers. However, the World-Wide Web allows us to go beyond a rhetorical message of how one might vote in this case to creating a virtual voting booth where many people could openly register their vote on the guilt of the civilian officials whom they considered to be responsible for some of these abuses and tortures.

The summary of these votes by more than 10,000 people attest to the widespread public understanding that the abuses of human rights and integrity that have been perpetrated under the banner of protecting Homeland Security are traceable up to the highest levels of our government, and not just down to the foot soldiers doing their dirty work in the trenches of war. It is encouraging that the Senate Armed Services Committee also supports this viewpoint in blaming our leaders and not just the followers.

* * *

For related Situationist posts, see “Lessons Learned from the Abu Ghraib Horrors,” “The Devil You Know . . . ,” “Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil,” “Person X Situation X System Dynamics,” “The Lucifer Effect Lecture at Harvard Law School,” “From Heavens to Hells to Heroes – Part I,” “From Heavens to Hells to Heroes – Part II,” and “Jonestown (The Situation of Evil) Revisited.”

3 Responses to “Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Tenet: “Guilty””

  1. Robert said

    A major problem with social psychology is its horrific idealogical selection bias in applying research findings to the real world. (A minor problem is the selection bias in the reported poll.) In the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi committed the infinitely worse crime of decapitating U.S. civilian Nick Berg. In striking contrast to the outrage elicited by the prisoner abuse, the Iraqi reaction was a mixture of silence and jubilation. I would like to see psychologists ask a question analogous to the one considered in this column, “Who was the true culprit?” Was it just Al-Zarqawi? Or does ultimate blame rest with Allah and Muhammad for giving the orders, including “the legal frameworks, laws, and motivational conditions” embedded in the following statements of the Koran: “Strike off their [infidels] heads, strike off the very tips of their fingers,” and “When you meet the unbelievers in the battlefield strike off their heads.” Until these “top-down pressures” no longer corrupt the “Bad Barrel,” the scourge of Lucifer will continue.

  2. […] mock trial. Or the online “jury vote” carried out by Philip Zimbardo (and reported here). Or hope that I’m wrong and somewhere, here or abroad, someone has the guts to bring the […]

  3. […] Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Tenet: “Guilty” More than 10,000 people cast their votes during the last year and a half in a virtual voting booth at Their judgments accord with the recent Senate Armed Services bipartisan report that blames Bush officials for detainee abuse. It also finds that the prison guards and interrogators were not the “true culprits.” […]

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