WASHINGTON — The Abu Ghraib prison scandal has become a watershed event in the Iraq war, but President Bush has experience handling the political fallout from prison abuses — experience gained in a situation that occurred while he was governor of Texas.
The incident occurred in a 1996 raid at the Brazoria County Detention Center in Texas. Guards searching the facility were videotaped mistreating prisoners. The images have many of the same elements of the Abu Ghraib pictures — prisoners lying on the floor, being dragged and menaced by dogs.
It might now be just a historical footnote, except the lawyer who represented two of the prison guards accused of attacking the inmates, Guy Womack, is now representing Spc. Charles Graner, the prison guard accused of mistreating prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Womack says he'll be taking the lessons of Brazoria County into the courtroom with him in Iraq. “There are quite a few parallels between the two cases,” he said. “Of course, the first one that jumps out at me is that in both cases the only people who were identified to be prosecuted were the junior-most people." In Texas, he argued that the guards acted lawfully — and he says in Iraq he'll argue that the guards thought they were following lawful orders. “Of course, if the cases are so parallel, the defense should be somewhat parallel as well."
And there’s another similarity between the two cases: Womack says that in both cases, the guards were headed toward much lighter sentences or inquiries — until the images became public: "Neither case would have been a case but for photographs or videotapes being leaked to the press."
And there's somebody else who has been touched by both cases: President Bush. The details of the Brazoria County case came to the attention of then-Texas Gov. Bush before the videotapes became public. Bush ordered an investigation, which resulted in only one complaint. Ultimately, Womack says, no reforms were enacted.
'A deep disgust'
Here’s what President Bush said this year: "I share a deep disgust that those prisoners were treated the way they were treated."
And here’s what Gov. Bush said in a local TV interview back in 1997: "I think ‘appalling’ is the right way to describe the treatment of those prisoners." And in 1997, Bush emphasized the power of the images. "There's no question that the videotape, though, shows that we didn't act strong enough, the videotape is clearly an indictment of the process," said the governor. "I think in retrospect, had I known the videotape existed, and I'm confident had other state officials known the videotape existed, we would have pushed for harsher action, quicker action."
The governor’s 1997 comments were pointed out to CNBC by people who are opposed to the re-election of the president.
So how did the Texas case turn out? Two guards got jail time. But of Womack's clients, one was acquitted, and federal prosecutors dropped the case against the other.
The fact that the two cases have similarities may be a coincidence. But the outcome of the Brazoria County case may give some insight to the future of the legal wrangling over Abu Ghraib.
Eamon Javers is an investigative reporter with CNBC's "Capitol Report."
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