Saturday, November 04, 2006

To the Memory of Alyssa Peterson

Scott Horton

"He has honor if he holds himself to an ideal of conduct though it is inconvenient, unprofitable or dangerous to do so."

- Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Morals (1929)

This week brings news of the circumstances of the death of Alyssa Peterson, an intelligence NCO, in Iraq on September 13, 2003. The facts of her death had been misrepresented by the Department of Defense and were uncovered due to the diligent pursuit of a Freedom of Information request by Kevin Elston, reporter for National Public Radio station KNAU in her hometown, Flagstaff, AZ. Alyssa was a devout Mormon with a flair for languages. She had done missionary work in the Netherlands and mastered Dutch in the process. She volunteered for military service and was assigned for Arabic language training. By all accounts her performance was consistently superior. Alyssa was also described by her contemporaries as a person of exceptional moral character and conscience. She also had more than the average share of patriotism and drive for service. In fact, she volunteered for assignment to Iraq in substitution for a contemporary who did not want to go.

But Alyssa's fate in Iraq was driven by events on the other side of the world, in a conference room in the Pentagon. In the summer of 2003, Donald Rumsfeld, at an intel briefing in the Pentagon, expressed his anger that he was not getting "good humint" out of Iraq. He banged his fist on the table and demanded that they "get Geoffrey Miller out to Iraq and gitmoize the situation." By the phrase "gitmoize," Rumsfeld meant the introduction of a palette of highly coercive interrogation techniques developed for use on detainees in Guantánamo. These techniques included cold cell, long-time standing, sound and light deprivation, and on several documented occasions, waterboarding. In implementation of this vocal command, which was entrusted to Dr Stephen Cambone and his deputy LTG William ("My God Can Beat Your God") Boykin, MG Miller traveled to Iraq at the end of the summer, visiting with LTG Ricardo Sanchez in Baghdad and traveling out to Abu Ghraib itself to speak with senior military intelligence personnel. Throughout this process, Miller advocated the introduction into Iraq of Guantánamo techniques – techniques which are plainly seen in the photographs that emerged in April 2004 when 60 Minutes and The New Yorker broke the Abu Ghraib story. Miller also advocated the use of military police forces to "prepare" detainees for interrogation – in breach of military doctrine concerning the training and deployment of military police personnel. He specifically discussed and advocated the use of military dogs for purposes of terrorizing detainees. Contemporaneously with Miller's visit, and in the weeks before, instructions went out throughout the military intelligence network in Iraq, to "take the gloves off." Physical assault on detainees was authorized and occurred in hundreds of documented cases.

The Guantánamo techniques, ultimately determined to be unlawful by a Supreme Court ruling in Hamdan, under which Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions was found applicable to Guantanamo detainees, were designed from the outset not to conform to the Geneva Conventions. The order given by Rumsfeld to introduce those techniques into Iraq – which was clearly covered by the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions – was a criminal act, a "grave breach" in the language of the Geneva Conventions. Rumsfeld's strategy to avoid indictment and prosecution has, up to this point, focused on retaining his position as Secretary of Defense and using the massive power associated with that office to shield himself and to scapegoat others. As demands for Rumsfeld's removal mount (including the editorial of the Army Times which will appear on Monday, an editorial which gives voice to the near unanimous view of the senior brass in the Pentagon), it is clear that Rumsfeld's desire to avoid prosecution is a major factor behind his clinging to power. Indeed, Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, has been stripped of immunity and bound over for trial on charges which are extremely close to those which Rumsfeld will face – giving authorization for the torture and abuse of detainees.

Alyssa Peterson was serving in Tal-Afar, in northwestern Iraq near the Syrian border. Following the Rumsfeld vocal command, her unit was directed to begin the use of a series of brutal, highly coercive techniques, likely including physical assaults on prisoners. Alyssa reacted to this with shock and she refused to participate.

“Peterson objected to the interrogation techniques used on prisoners. She refused to participate after only two nights working in the unit known as the cage. Army spokespersons for her unit have refused to describe the interrogation techniques Alyssa objected to. They say all records of those techniques have now been destroyed. ...".

After tracking down and interviewing other members of her unit, Elston states that there was a consistent theme. All stressed that she strongly, vehemently objected to the interrogation practices that had just been introduced - practices quite different from what she and her cohort had learned at Fort Huachuca. After this conflict with her command authority, Alyssa was given training for suicide watch and sent to supervise Iraqi guards. An investigation concluded that on the night of September 13, she committed suicide using her service rifle.

However, not everybody is happy with the characterization of suicide that the Pentagon is so adamant about applying to this case. It is interesting that after publication of this account, a flood of letters arrived, most of which questioned the suggestion that she committed suicide and raised the prospect of a homicide. This fact pattern parallels closely the death of Col Ted Westhusing, the Army's leading ethicist, who died under mysterious circumstances after he uncovered strong evidence of corruption in the dealings of a powerful contractor. I discussed Westhusing's case and the concept of "honor" which had been the core of his academic work in this post. The Army insisted it was a suicide and trotted out a highly dubious psychologist's report to support this conclusion. Indeed, highly dubious psychologist's reports now seem to be emerging as a Rumsfeld Pentagon staple. (I expect we will be reading much more on this subject shortly).

In the debate which has emerged over detainee abuse practices, the great focus has been on the detainees and the suffering they incurred. I don't question this approach. But religious scholars and ethicists are quick to point out that torture and mistreatment presents damage at many levels. Obviously the victim. But what about the dignity and integrity of the uniformed service personnel who are ordered to use these techniques? They are morally compromised by this act. Many sustain long-term mental health damage as a result. The literature also suggests that interrogators who use abusive techniques frequently become demoralized and unruly, precisely because they question the moral authority of a command structure which authorizes such obviously immoral conduct.

And then we have the cases like Alyssa Peterson and Ted Westhusing. I am far from convinced that either of these cases is a suicide. But in both we have soldiers who held fast to the concept of honor, and for that both merit our respect. More than this, Peterson and Westhusing are two of the most clear-cut American heroes to fall in this conflict. And it is telling that the Department of Defense expends enormous energy falsifying the noble circumstances of their death. It is telling that they are ashamed of the concept of "honor." It is also strange that the Pentagon is hell-bent on making both of these cases into suicides. Indeed, it seems an overly convenient way to close a disturbing chapter.

Dick Cheney tells us that he pushed for torture to give our interrogators the tools they needed to go the job. But the truth is that the interrogators never asked for these tools, didn't want them, and were as a class offended by Cheney's depraved attitudes. The essential tools for our military, Mr Cheney, are not waterboarding and long-time standing, they are integrity and honor. So why are you determined to take these tools away?


And then we have the cases like Alyssa Peterson and Ted Westhusing. I am far from convinced that either of these cases is a suicide. But in both we have soldiers who held fast to the concept of honor, and for that both merit our respect. More than this, Peterson and Westhusing are the two of the most clear-cut American heroes to fall in this conflict...

Americans who want to restore the nation's honor can take a first step by remembering Ted Westhusing and Alyssa Peterson when they enter the voting booth on Election Day. This is about our country and the integrity of those who serve it.

Oh please...

There is nothing honorable about suicide. It is the ultimate form of quitting.

Moreover, there is even less honor exploiting the suicide of two soldiers to rustle up votes in an election. Indeed, such crass exploitation is reprehensible.

You have no idea why these service members committed suicide and are injecting your own motives for purely political reasons.

In one of the most wretched political seasons in memory, this is a new low.

If I remember anything when I vote, it will be that power always corrupts, and it should be granted to any one group or individual not for very long. The more power someone wants, it seems, the more corrupt it is likely they are.


Great piece, and thanks for it. Sad that your point will be wasted on many who purport to represent absolute values, but its value for us alleged "moral relativists" is absolute---and immense. Blessings.

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


You make a perfectly reasonable point about the emotional cost to our soldiers from enhanced interrogation techniques

But, it's hard to trust your credibility when you make seemingly wild and unsubstantiated accusations - insinuating that those two were murdered.

Do you have ANYTHING (aside from random letters from uninformed readers) to back that up? Aside from you own conjecture.

I mean seriously, you come across as crazy. Please calm my doubts.

Dear Humble Law Student,
Both of these individuals died from bullet wounds, which is not a natural cause of death. The case of Col Westhusing was, as noted in the linked piece, investigated and reported in an extensive feature in the Los Angeles Times. The Times writer quoted a number of sources who cast doubt on the assessment of the case as a suicide, and the piece itself comes off as extremely skeptical. This is not to say that there is a specific suspect or alternative theory, only that the claim that the case is a suicide is subject to severe doubt. Col Westhusing was aggressively pressing a claim of corruption against a contractor. With his death, it appears that this claim went away. That also is unsettling. The totality of evidence in the Alyssa Peterson case is, at this point, far weaker, and the military has still failed to turn over much of what was requested in the FOIA, including a supposed suicide notes. Suicides are faked to cover homicides with some frequency - this is not just a matter of murder mysteries. And beyond this it is extremely difficult to conduct sound investigations in a war setting of this sort. This adds to the circumstance of doubt. However, my view is one of doubt, not certainty. The posture adopted by DOD does not inspire confidence, but rather just the opposite - namely a sense that something definitely is not right here.

Dear Bart DePalma,
To the contrary, I would say that disparaging deceased service personnel in Iraq, as you do here, is "a new low." Enjoy election night. I am sure you're looking forward to it.

I appreciated the post from 12/05, especially the Waldron article (now published; cited by Dahlia Lithwick of Slate in a recent column), which I found very powerful.

SH clarified his noises as to the fact the two "suicides" were controversial. This is helpful, since the matter did raise a red flag. I'd note the E&P piece might have pointed to doubts, but the two part piece doesn't focus on them.

I'm not sure tossing them in really adds to your post, especially w/o the added clarification you now made.

Anyway, it is tragic that two people like these felt compelled to kill themself, if that is what happened.


There is no LA Times link in the post above. You do have a link to the LA Times in a post that this post links to, but that link has expired. I'm guessing I'll have to go to lexis to drudge it up. Unless, you can point me somewhere else?

For the Alyssa Peterson case, the evidence you pointed seems really weak. Especially, when you take into account how the military is almost always draggings its feet regarding deaths that put it in a bad light. Of course, if she was murdered they would have an even greater incentive to drag their feet/ cover it up. But for better or worse, this is their usually MO and hardly supportive of your claims.

I don't think Professor Horton would write something like this unless he had good reason to think it was true. He's taking a risk with this piece if the evidence turns out the other way. And it's not like there's a shortage of eminently verifiable things to criticize (though "verifable" is a relative term, as Bart and "The Dog" continuously remind us).

The possibility that she was murdered left me speechless for more than a minute. But given what we know about Ian Fishback, Fallujah, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, Alberto Mora, and Abu Ghraib, maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised.

I'm going to stick with criticisms I consider more credible (i.e. those that have been verified), but I'm glad others are plumbing the depths of what human beings are capable of.

Dear Humblelawstudent,
I am a little puzzled by your comments but you seem so troubled that I will follow up a bit. I am not leveling a charge against anyone connected with the death of Alyssa Peterson.
Bart DePalma says "there is nothing honorable about suicide." I agree with him. (Of course, Seneca, Socrates and other greater thinkers of antiquity would have a very different take on the issue). Because the conclusion of "suicide" entails a degree of stigmatization of a person who honorably served his or her country in conflict (it may, just for instance, lead to refusal of permission for burial in consecrated grounds), I believe it is unseemly to jump to this conclusion. It is only appropriate where the evidence for this conclusion is clear and convincing. In Col Westhusing's case it certainly isn't. If you send me your email address I will get you the LA Times piece - for copyright reasons I can't post it. In Alyssa Peterson's case, all the information is inconclusive, mostly because the DOD has now made a series of inconsistent statements about what happened and has - still - failed to give a comprehensive account. There is no question of why: her case is tied closely to the introduction of highly coercive techniques which were war crimes. They are extremely anxious not to have any of these facts explored or documented. Indeed, they tell us the records have been destroyed. This is not a circumstance in which stigmatization of a fallen soldier with a tag of suicide is appropriate. My interest here is defense of a deceased person, not accusations against an unknown assailant.

even if it is suicide, it was homocide. how long will we allow these evil men to murder our children? To rape and murder and torture? When will they be called to justice?

Oh please...

There is nothing honorable about suicide. It is the ultimate form of quitting.

What an absolutely despicable human being you are, Mr. Depalma. Absolutely despicable. Whether it was or wasn't suicide, the last thing you have a right to do is judge Alyssa Peterson in her final moment. Shame on you.

["Bart" DePalma]: Oh please...

["Bart" DePalma]: There is nothing honorable about suicide. It is the ultimate form of quitting.

[Thomas Nephew]: What an absolutely despicable human being you are, Mr. Depalma. Absolutely despicable. Whether it was or wasn't suicide, the last thing you have a right to do is judge Alyssa Peterson in her final moment. Shame on you.

"Bart" (as is usual) misses the point. Scott was suggesting that the "suicides" were rather curious, considering that these people were people of honour and principle, and that they would have neither the reason (having refused to engage in the abuse) nor the inclination (being people of principle) to commit suicide themselves.

But even if they did feel that they had "failed" in some way, and that drove them to such desperate acts, suicide is hardly dishonourable. In Japanese culture, this is the atonement some people make themselves if they had a position of authority and something bad happened on their watch. That concept of "responsibility" is lost on those that support the maladministration, needless to say.


Unfortunately I found myself behing a computer with Internet Explorer so I was forced to read what Bart vomited out... For all you firefox-users: dissapear Bart and make Bart eat Pie!(NB warning Javascript!)

Step 1: download and install greasemonkey (
Step 2: download this trollblocker
Step 3: open balkinisation and use the kill or hide function
Step 4: change the code to have fun. In my world I reduced Bart to always saying "I like pie". From now on Bart, I agree with you!

# posted by Anne : 7:38 PM

What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again.
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