The Shame of Abu Ghraib

“Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963)

The Pentagon’s February 7, 2004 statement read: “An inquiry has been launched into claims that American troops have been involved in a spate of sexual assaults.” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave investigators 90 days–until May 7, to get their report to him.

Senator Ben Nelson, among others, expressed dissatisfaction with the response: “I’m concerned, because I don’t feel a sense of outrage by military leadership, not at this point, at least.”

Abu Ghraib prison? No. It’s about charges levied by 112 U.S. servicewomen of rape by fellow U.S. military personnel stationed primarily in Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan.

To get even these few details in one place, however, the U.S. public really had to read the British press (The Guardian, February 27, 2004). The lack of sustained U.S. mainstream media interest in this scandal simply mirrored the lack of sustained interest in the contemporaneous reports of abuses of Afghan and Iraqi detainees by U.S. personnel in Guantanamo Bay’s infamous Camp X-ray, in Afghanistan at Bagram Air Base and Kandahar, and at Abu Ghraib and other Iraq locations

The warning signs were clearly evident well before Combined Joint Task Force 7 (CJTF-7), under the command of LtGen Ricardo Sanchez, issued its January 16 press statement announcing the enquiry into allegations of abuse at Abu Ghraib.

– In late May, the International Committee of the Red Cross was initially denied access as required by international law to the prison tent facility known as Camp Cropper, near Baghdad airport. The camp had already become notorious for violations of international standards of treatment for detainees; at least two Iraqis had been shot dead attempting to “escape.” Others who were released complained of physical abuse by guards. After gaining regular access, the ICRC repeatedly pointed out shortcomings in prison conditions and practices to U.S. authorities at multiple levels, but little seemed to change. (In fact, the ICRC concluded that some abuses were “tantamount to torture.”) What the ICRC did not know at the time was that a number of detainees were being shunted around Abu Ghraib to prevent contact with ICRC representatives (New York Times, May 4, 2004). The camp, ostensibly a temporary facility designed for 250 prisoners, held at least 1,200 in the hot Iraqi summer. It was finally closed in October.

– Camp Bucca, just outside the Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr, was another prison facility that gained early notoriety. Constructed in April 2003, it was the first coalition prisoner-of-war camp in Iraq. Four U.S. soldiers were accused of physically abusing prisoners in May.

– On June 26, 2003, following the deaths of two prisoners at Bagram Air Base, the Department of Defense assured Congress that “All interrogations, wherever they may occur, [will] be conducted without the use of cruel and inhumane tactics.” (Washington Post, May 4, 2004).

– On August 21, 2003, near Tikrit, LTC Allen West, a battalion commander in the 4th Infantry Division, held and twice fired his pistol beside the head of a detainee suspected of knowing information about a pending insurgent attack (Washington Times, October 29, 2003).

– In October 2003, eight Marines were charged with mistreating prisoners at Camp Whitehorse near Nasiriyah, with two Marines facing negligent homicide indictments in the death of an Iraqi man.

Throughout Iraq, temporary incarceration pens were established to confine Iraqis picked up in raids or “arrested” at checkpoints. Often they would be sent to more “permanent” facilities without relatives being informed where they were going (or even that they had been detained), with no legal counsel, and without knowing the charges.

In fact, in October 2003, the coalition did not know how many prisoners it had. The number most often cited was about 5,000; in reality, it was more than double that total.

Thus, contrary to the Administration’s protestations, Abu Ghraib is far from being a special case or an exception. In fact, the Army and Marine Corps opened more than 35 criminal enquiries into actions deemed to contravene international law, including 25 Iraqi deaths. Moreover, in late April, investigators expanded their scope beyond military police units to military intelligence units and civilian contractors, and the Central Intelligence Agency said it is looking at its operations (New York Times, May 5, 2004). Newspapers on May 6 disclosed that the Justice Department was opening a criminal probe of CIA and private contractors hired as interrogators in Iraq.

(Only military personnel are subject to the Uniformed Code of Military Justice for violations of the Geneva Conventions and for criminal offenses. CIA operatives can be prosecuted in federal courts for criminal actions outside the U.S. as agents of the government. But a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) rule promulgated last year exempts contract personnel from Iraqi law, leaving only a Bosnia-era law–the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act–that became law November 22, 2000, as a possible legal recourse against contractors.)

The generals and Administration notables trying to control the public relations devastation from the photos of severe prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib are correct when they say that those involved in all these despicable acts are a very tiny fraction of the total U.S. military deployed to Iraq. But that misses the point that steady streams of detainees released from U.S. custody were telling western media representatives of mistreatment. The persistent nature of the reports of severe abuse and negligence in many locations points to a systemic, command-level failure both to anticipate the problem and to take early action to investigate the charges. The stock answer seemed to be that “conditions are in line with provisions of the Geneva Conventions.”

What is alleged and known of the actions and statements of U.S. officials with regard to prison administration and interrogation methods in Iraq is troubling.

In late summer 2003, a 30-member team from the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, headed by MGen Geoffrey Miller, arrived in Iraq to impart lessons learned from the 18 months of operations at Camp X-ray (opened January 11, 2002) and its successor, Camp Delta. Although the reason for the visit has not been disclosed, CPA officials were undoubtedly unhappy that anti-coalition networks remained quite active. The “logic” in play was that the techniques used to get information from “terrorists” confined in Guantanamo would work in Iraq.

Reported recommendations of the visitors included dividing control of prison activities between two chains-of-command corresponding to the military specialties in the prisons: military police (MP) who ran the facilities and military intelligence (MI) who ran interrogations. Another recommendation was to employ MPs in the “pre-interrogation” phase so that detainees would be more “amenable” to answering questions posed by interrogators. Unfortunately, this left no one clearly in charge, a situation compounded by the presence of CIA, Iraq Survey Group (those searching for weapon of mass destruction in Iraq), and civilian contract personnel.

In this context, it appears that “invisible” (non-physical) but still illegal techniques such as sleep deprivation and forcing prisoners to assume and maintain physically unnatural and stressful positions were employed to break down prisoners. Much worse was the psychological assault against religious taboos and individual dignity perpetrated at Abu Ghraib. One can only wonder how the lower-ranking MPs at Abu Ghraib learned that, for Muslims, nudity before others is deeply humiliating.

In November, which until April 2004 had been the bloodiest month since President Bush declared major combat had ended, MGen Donald Ryder, a Military Policeman and the Army’s Provost Marshal General, took exception to the misuse of MPs by intentionally involving them in intelligence activities for which they had no training. In this, Ryder was supported by the findings of MGen Antonio Taguba whose two-month internal review of MP and MI activities was completed in March.

Taguba’s report finally prompted the Army to send a mobile training team of experts in military prison administration to Iraq to improve prison conditions. But in an unsettling move, MGen Miller is now in charge of all military prisons in Iraq.

The context in which the Taguba enquiry began is interesting in itself. On January 7, CPA head L. Paul Bremer announced an amnesty for 500 Iraqi detainees who had “no blood on their hands”, who renounced violence, and who could find a “guarantor” for their continued good behavior. No list of who would be released was provided: indeed, detainees were often not identified except by numbers, and unless a prospective visitor knew the number assigned to a detainee, gaining entry to the prison was impossible, as members of the International Occupation Watch Center discovered.

January 16 stands out as the peak of contradictions.

First, a military press release announced that CJTF-7 commander LtGen Sanchez had ordered an enquiry into alleged abuses of detainees “at a coalition forces detention facility.” The announcement affirmed that authorities were “committed to treating all persons under its control with dignity, respect, and humanity.” Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita confirmed that abuse allegations were “very serious and credible.”

Second, during a visit to Iraq from U.S. Central Command, the deputy commanding officer, LtGen Lance Smith, told reporters: “I won’t say we’ve turned the corner or that there is light at the end of the tunnel, but our soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors are winning over the Iraqi people. I think we’re on track to leave behind a free and fledgling democracy when we depart here.”

At a regularly scheduled CJTF-7 press briefing January 16, LtGen Sanchez, who had ordered the investigation just a few days earlier, made the following series of statements:

– “I never said that we’re treating them as war criminals. We are treating these people as–according them all of the rights, under the Geneva Convention, of a POW. And I did not state and I have not used the words of ‘war criminal’ at all during this press conference.”

– “Under the laws of war, if there is a security issue or an intelligence reason for the detention of individuals, that is clearly authorized within the Geneva Convention and the laws of war. And in order for us to accomplish our missions, that [detention] can be–that can be employed.”

– “Now, we work very, very hard to ensure that we’re treating everyone with dignity and respect when they are in fact detained under coalition operations. And we’ll continue to do that.”

– “Well, most of the detainees that are being taken are based on intelligence that we’re deriving, that is corroborated, in most cases. I say in most cases because sometimes we’re doing tactical intelligence and follow-on raids based on what we’re finding on the ground as we’re taking down objectives and arresting people. So I feel very comfortable that those folks that we’ve–and furthermore, we screen them for a period of time at the lowest levels of the command and they go through multiple screenings before we make a decision for long-term detention. So I feel fairly comfortable that those that we’re holding have either intel value or are security risks for the coalition or clearly are unlawful combatants that have clearly committed some kind of an infraction against the coalition or the Iraqi people or are criminals.”

And then, on January 29, Sanchez remarked: “In terms of the detainees and where they’re being held, obviously that also is something that, at this point in time, I would rather not discuss. We are in fact detaining individuals according to the authorities that we are provided by the Geneva Convention, and we will continue to do so regardless of location.”

What seems strange, given LtGen Sanchez’s assurances, is that the release program was accelerated. If most of the detentions were for cause, then judicial action should have followed. As it is, MGen Miller said May 5 that the inmate population at Abu Ghraib is to be cut to 1,500-2,000 (Washington Post).

Coalition authorities state that orders have been given to “strictly follow” the rules for conducting interrogations. Others at the MP and MI schools insist that their training courses do not condone any violations of the Geneva Conventions.

All this is fine. But what is missing in the flurry over “damage control” is serious consideration of the overarching ethical and moral issues involved and the failure to learn from the past.

Ironically, back in May and June 2003, the U.S. was engaged in a major effort to compel other countries to sign bilateral agreements exempting U.S. citizens, whether military or civilians, from the potential jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court (ICC) in Rome. Under strict criteria in the ICC charter, its jurisdiction is limited to genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes–the very class of major ethical violations represented by these abuses.

Like most everything in the military, the combatant-noncombatant dichotomy and the consequences that flow from noncombatant status need to be taught and reinforced through serious and periodic refresher training. It is simply foolhardy to expect that common sense or the “golden rule” will be sufficient to keep all soldiers safe from the poisonous atmosphere of violence that is at the heart of warfare.

The necessity for training and retraining was clearly signaled during the last long war the U.S. fought–Vietnam. Declassified pre-graduation surveys from Army Officer Candidate School that addressed the efficacy of training about treating prisoners in accord with the Geneva Conventions showed how inadequate it was. Fully 22 percent of a 1967 class of 179 potential new junior officers replied that they would mistreat prisoners to gain information. In another class during the same era, 50 percent said they would torture prisoners if necessary to obtain intelligence.

As disturbing as this view is, the temptation is to write it off as from another, less professional, pre-all volunteer era. Yet well into the volunteer era–1987 to 1991–the School of the Americas was using training manuals that seemed to condone (some say advocated) blackmail, false imprisonment, torture, and suppressing democratic anti-government movements.

Then there is the question of “outsourcing” interrogations of prisoners and detainees to civilian contractors. Interrogation is an integral aspect of the intelligence collection and analysis cycle, a core military function. Because interrogation involves a denial of freedom, it can rightfully only be a governmental function, one which only government employees, civilian and military, should have authority to conduct. Moreover, only governments are held accountable for acts committed or omitted under international law. A plea of being short-handed is insufficient, both for outsourcing this function and for proper supervision of any and all individuals associated with interrogation.

Interrogation, done properly, is not a haphazard undertaking. Whether in full-scale war or insurgency, there are specific questions, based on the current and anticipated combat situations, which commanders need to be answered. On the basis of when, where, and under what conditions a person was detained, together with initial personal data, a set of questions are developed to elicit useful information. The process or methodology for the interrogation–that is, how many will be participating and in what role–is also decided. A good plan will include options to pursue a line of enquiry if a detainee reveals knowledge about a particular subject. The plan normally is reviewed and approved by a supervisor, after which it is implemented. Based on the outcome of the first interrogation, the detainee’s status should be re-evaluated and a decision made to continue detention and interrogation, institute formal charges, send the detainee to a higher echelon, or release the prisoner. But at all times during the process of detention and interrogation, those detained for questioning retain rights under international law that are inviolable.

That is the law. Yet emerging from Afghanistan, from Iraq, and from the “war on terror” in general is a sense of deja vu Vietnam–that when the Hague Regulations and Geneva Conventions (as well as other international laws and treaties) are inconvenient, they will be sidestepped. This trend includes the strategic “Bush doctrine” of preventive war, which violates the UN Charter, and the “creation” of new categories for captured personnel that negates their legal rights and protections by ostensibly placing them outside the Geneva Conventions. Making an individual a legal nonentity also makes that person somehow “less” than others. And when that mentality takes hold, which is quite possible when a person has unchecked power over another, authority enters onto the slippery slope leading to systemic denial of civil liberties, human rights, and human dignity. That pictures and a video were made of the abuses at Abu Ghraib is prima facia evidence that the MPs involved thought they would not be discovered or were, in fact, encouraged or directed to violate prisoners’ rights by their superiors. This, of course, cannot justify or be a defense for what they did, but it might explain why they physically and psychologically attacked detainees.

Finally, the CPA, the Pentagon, the Bush Administration, and the country must acknowledge a fundamental and inexcusable failure: forgetting that war by its very nature reduces societal inhibitions against violence. War is NOT about good and evil; it is about the SANCTIONED killing of people and destruction of things. (And for this reason, in democracies, militaries are focused against external enemies.) But once adversaries stop fighting (or never fight at all), their status changes and the sanctions are reversed. Adversaries cease to be “legitimate” targets of violence and have certain rights (and obligations) under international law which the winning side must respect.

At least one MP at Abu Ghraib (not one of the abusers) knew something was wrong when he observed: “The injustice that we inflict as Americans is that we can arrest these people and never charge them.” What he didn’t know was just how deep the injustice really ran. Apparently, there are even more revelations to come, with repercussions that, for the most part, can only be imagined.

There is one quantified repercussion that has already occurred. The highly critical country-by-country annual U.S. Human Rights report was to have been released May 5. The State Department decided to delay its publication by a week in light of the international furor over Abu Ghraib and the very obvious hypocrisy the release would entail. Moreover, even the delayed release will not avoid the greater hypocrisy of an occupation (and the abuses it invites) by a foreign power for the purpose of imposing democracy.

Of all the reasons the Bush Administration gave for invading Iraq, the only one that had not been thoroughly discredited in the first 12 post-war months was that tyranny was gone, democracy was nigh, and the Iraqi people would at last be able to make and be responsible for their own decisions. What Abu Ghraib suggests, however, is that the form of state governance is, at root, less important than the principles of personal governance: respect for the human rights, dignity, and the “Light within” every individual.

And therein are two potential lessons.

For Iraqis who lived under tyranny for decades, the humbling of the Bush Administration and the United States illustrates an observation of U.S. philosopher and educator John Dewey: “Any doctrine that weakens personal responsibility for judgment and for action helps create the attitudes that welcome and support the totalitarian state.”

What the Administration and the country as a whole need to re-imagine is the meaning of democracy–something akin to New England Transcendentalist Theodore Parker’s dictum that “Democracy means not ‘I am as good as you are’ but ‘You are as good as I am’.”

Col. Daniel Smith, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran, is Senior Fellow on Military Affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby in the public interest. He can be reached at: