2004: Abu Ghraib Torture

After photos emerged showing the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Joe Biden denounced the actions and demanded to know what Donald Rumsfeld knew about it.

Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) displays pictures of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison while questioning Attorney General John Ashcroft on counter-terrorism issues during a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., displays pictures of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on June 8, 2004. Photo: Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

As the “war on terror” expanded in the years after the September 11 attacks, Joe Biden’s early defense of the Bush administration’s detainee policies began to transform into opposition as torture scandals were exposed. Following the publication of graphic photos showing the systematic abuse and torture of people held by the U.S. military at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Biden emerged as one of the leading senators condemning the Bush administration. “What happened in Iraq’s prisons is appalling and it must be addressed with far more urgency than the administration has demonstrated so far,” Biden wrote in May 2004. “So the question for me is, what did Secretary Rumsfeld and others in the Pentagon know, when did they know it, and what did they do about it? If the answers are unsatisfactory, resignations should be sought.” Biden also made the controversial claim that given the damage to the U.S. reputation in the world caused by the abuse of prisoners, it “probably would have done less damage to our image, and our legitimacy, and our motive had Iraqi prisoners been shot, like Saddam and other despots in that region do.”

Biden called for the International Committee of the Red Cross and international observers to have access to people held by the U.S. in the Middle East and called for Abu Ghraib to be closed. He eventually called for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to resign. Shifting from his early defense of holding prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Biden began openly questioning the strategy and legal justification of U.S. detention operations. Without noting that he had personally suggested in 2002 that some detainees were entitled to prisoner-of-war status while others were not, Biden decried the confusion: “There is a sort of morphing of the rules of treatment,” he said. “We can treat Al Qaeda this way, and we can’t treat prisoners captured this way, but where do insurgents fit? This is a dangerous slope.”

Biden denounced the Bush administration’s reported legal justifications for torturing prisoners and said that international treaties and conventions needed to be respected. “There’s a reason why we sign these treaties: to protect my son in the military,” Biden said, referring to his service member son Beau while questioning Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2004. “That’s why we have these treaties, so when Americans are captured, they are not tortured. That’s the reason, in case anybody forgets it.” In June 2005, Biden began calling for Guantánamo, a facility that he had initially supported using to detain people, to be shut down and calling it the “greatest propaganda tool that exists” for terrorist recruiting. “I think we should end up shutting it down, moving those prisoners,” he said on ABC. “Those that we have reason to keep, keep. And those we don’t, let go.” He added, “I think more Americans are in jeopardy as a consequence of the perception that exists worldwide with its existence than if there were no Gitmo.”

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