Remember Abu Ghraib?


Torture and TruthWhile I’m working on The Guantanamo Files, here’s something relevant to the whole topic: a review I did of Mark Danner’s excellent analysis of the Abu Ghraib scandal, Torture and Truth, which was featured on the Nth Position website:

‘Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror’ by Mark Danner (Granta, 2005)

On April 28, 2004, the US television network CBS broadcast a series of repellent photographs, taken at the American-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, of Iraqi detainees being abused by their captors. Among them, as instantly iconic and bleakly memorable as the most shocking war photos, were two images described by the acclaimed investigative journalist Mark Danner as ‘Hooded Man, a dark-robed figure tottering on a box, supplicant arms outstretched, wires trailing from his fingers; and Leashed Man, face convulsed in humiliation above his leather collar, naked body twisted at the feet of the American female in camouflage pants who gazes down at him without expression, holding the leash casually in hand’.

As the photos were transmitted around the world, they immediately assumed a grimly ironic resonance. Danner describes them as ‘perfect symbols of the subjugation and degradation that the American occupiers have inflicted on Iraq and the rest of the Arab world’, and notes, acutely, that ‘Had [Osama] bin Laden sought to create a powerful trademark image for his international product of global jihad, he could scarcely have done better hiring the cleverest advertising firm on Madison Avenue’.

Those in overall charge of the operation in Iraq –- in particular President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld –- responded by distancing themselves from any kind of responsibility for the scandal, blaming it instead on a ‘few bad apples’. Bush declared that the abuse represented ‘disgraceful conduct by a few American troops, who dishonored our country and disregarded our values’, and the ‘bad apples’ –- the specific military police who committed the abuse and took the photos –- were swiftly punished.

In the meantime, other commentators, including Danner, glimpsed a more brutal truth, which was diametrically opposed to the authorities’ public pronouncements, and which, moreover, was obscured by the focus on the wrongdoers at the bottom of the command chain. From this perspective, the Abu Ghraib abusers were actually scapegoats, and the real story behind the photos was that they provided stark evidence that the scandal was, as Danner describes it, part of ‘an increasingly complex story about how Americans in Afghanistan and Cuba and Iraq came to commit acts, with the apparent approval of the highest officials, that clearly constitute torture’.

Danner’s reasons for declaring that America does, in fact, engage in torture, despite President Bush’s repeated denials, are laid out in a series of articles that he wrote for The New York Review of Books in the wake of the scandal, which are reprinted in their entirety. In them, he not only draws on his own experiences in Iraq, but also relies, for much of his evidence, on a series of often astonishing documents, most of which were leaked from within the US administration itself, with the notable addition of a highly critical report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which, it appears, was deliberately suppressed by the authorities. These reports make up the bulk of the book –- 500 pages in total –- and are reproduced in a series of appendices.

The first of these collects the notorious leaked memoranda in which senior government officials debated whether or not the protection afforded by the Geneva Conventions should be withdrawn from al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan, which interrogation techniques could be lawfully applied, and what degree of pain and suffering could be inflicted without crossing the threshold that separates ‘acceptable’ levels of ill-treatment from torture. Included is the January 2002 memorandum from Alberto Gonzales to President Bush, in which the President’s Chief Counsel advised that the ‘new paradigm’ presented by the war on terror ‘renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions’. Also included are memoranda in which lawyers in the State Department sought to rein in Gonzales, arguing –- ‘prophetically’, as Danner describes it –- that a derogation from the Geneva Conventions ‘would undermine the United States military culture, which is based on a strict adherence to the rule of war’, and an extraordinarily detailed memorandum from Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee, in which the finer points differentiating ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading’ practices from those which are ‘extreme, deliberate and unusually cruel’ (and which therefore constitute torture) are dissected with relation to judgments about torture in cases from around the world, including Bosnia and Northern Ireland. This document is particularly notable for Bybee’s suggestion that, for interrogation to count as torture, the pain endured ‘must be of an intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury such as death or organ failure’, and for his opinion –- succinctly rephrased by former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger –- that, ‘as Commander-in-Chief exercising his wartime powers, the President could even authorize torture, if he so desired’.

The second appendix contains transcripts of the sworn statements of 13 of the detainees tortured at Abu Ghraib, which were conducted in January 2003 after the scandal first surfaced within the military, and which were later obtained by the Washington Post; eight pages of some of the most damning photos; and the full text of the suppressed ICRC reports. Based on first-hand observation and interviews conducted during 29 visits to the prison in the spring and autumn of 2003, the reports offer an unparalleled insight into the widespread brutality of the occupation.

Among its many complaints, the ICRC was critical of the ways in which suspects were rounded up, generally during night-time raids in which violence was commonplace and frequently all male members of the household were arrested, ‘including elderly, handicapped or sick people’. The investigators also criticized the arresting authorities for persistently refusing to explain the reason for arrest, and for failing to inform family members of the detainee’s whereabouts, ‘resulting in the de facto “disappearance” of the arrestee for weeks or even months’. They also found that ill-treatment of detainees during arrest was so widespread that it ‘went beyond exceptional cases and might be considered as a practice tolerated by the CF [Coalition Forces]’; that there were allegations of several deaths (i.e. murders) during transfer and initial custody; and that, although ill-treatment was not systematic during interrogation, it was effectively mandatory for those with suspected ‘intelligence value’, who were ‘subjected to a variety of ill-treatments … that in some cases might amount to torture’. In addition, the ICRC reporters expressed particular concern about the status of over a hundred ‘high value detainees’, who, at the time of the report, had been held for five months for ‘nearly 23 hours a day in strict solitary confinement in small concrete cells devoid of daylight’, even though ‘none had been charged with criminal offence’. Despite ‘repeatedly’ raising the issue of the ‘disappearances’ with the detaining authorities from March 2003 onwards –- ‘including at the highest level of the CF in August 2003’ –- the reporters noted only ‘some improvement’ by the time the reports were filed in February 2004.

Given the explosive nature of the ICRC reports, it comes as no surprise to Danner that they ‘became lost in the Army’s bureaucracy and weren’t adequately addressed’, as ‘three of the highest-ranking military officers in the land blandly explained to senators on the Armed Services Committee’ in May 2004. Danner also notes that on the same day another, unnamed officer told the New York Times that in fact the army had addressed the ICRC reports ‘by trying to curtail the international organization’s spot inspections of the prison’.

The ICRC reports, with their allegations of ‘serious violations of International Humanitarian Law’ at over a dozen detention centers throughout Iraq, including Abu Ghraib, effectively shatter the viability of the ‘bad apples’ scenario, but it is in the third appendix, which contains the full text of three internal reports into the scandal –- conducted by serving Major Generals Taguba, Jones and Fay, and by former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger –- that other details emerge to reinforce Danner’s assertion that what underpins the whole of the ‘Global War on Terror’ is a routine acceptance of torture.

Extracting this information from the reports is a delicate and sometimes frustrating process. Danner notes that the reports were intended to shield the executive from scrutiny; that they were conducted ‘within the military by officers who by definition can only direct their gaze down the chain of command and not up it, and who are each empowered to examine only a limited and precisely defined number of links in the chain that connects the highest levels of the government to what happened on the ground in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in the war on terror’.

The search for the truth is additionally complicated by the fact that many of the problems associated with the scandal can be blamed on the US government’s inability to foresee that the ‘nation-building’ that followed the end of major combat operations might not run as smoothly as the optimists in the Oval Office and the Pentagon had presumed. This blundering, naïve oversight prompts Danner to comment that ‘Not for the first time, the United States has shown itself to be a strange, hybrid creature, military giant and political dwarf’.

The scale of the failure is readily apparent in the reports. Schlesinger states bluntly that ‘there was not only a failure to plan for a major insurgency, but also to quickly and adequately adapt to the insurgency that followed after major combat operations’. Stretched beyond their limits and coming under an increasing number of attacks, the military leaders in Iraq, as Schlesinger describes it, ‘reverted to rounding up any and all suspicious-looking persons –- all too often including women and children’ in vast ‘cordon and capture’ operations. Not only did these operations lack any kind of discrimination –- Fay reports that one senior officer in Abu Ghraib ‘estimated that 85-90% of the detainees were of no intelligence value’ –- but in addition the unwillingness or inability of those making the arrests to follow established procedures –- leading to the ‘disappearances’ described by the ICRC –- served not only to alienate the population still further but also to create what Fay describes as ‘facility overcrowding, an increased drain on scarce interrogator and linguist resources to sort out the valuable detainees from innocents who should have been released soon after capture, and ultimately, to less actionable intelligence’.

In this ‘understaffed, undersupplied, underresourced, and, above all, undermanned’ war, as Danner describes it, Abu Ghraib was also implicated. Fay describes how its interrogation operations ‘suffered from the effects of a broken detention operations system’. In analyzing it, the government’s own experts augment the dismal picture portrayed by the ICRC. In a litany of horrors made all the more powerful by their dispassionate presentation, the most shocking revelations are Schlesinger’s report that ‘Other Government Agencies’ brought a number of ‘ghost detainees’ to detention facilities including Abu Ghraib ‘without accounting for them, knowing their identities, or even the reason for their detention’, and that on one occasion a ‘handful’ of these detainees were ‘moved around the facility to hide them from a visiting ICRC team’; and Fay’s report on one of eight prisoners denied access to the ICRC delegates by General Sanchez: ‘Detainee-14 was detained in a totally darkened cell measuring about 2 meters long and less than a meter across, devoid of any window, latrine or water tap, or bedding. On the door the delegates noticed the inscription “the Gollum”, and a picture of the said character from the film trilogy “The Lord of the Rings.”’

Nevertheless, Danner’s central question of how far torture was sanctioned by the highest authorities focuses, in the end, on a number of additional factors that cannot simply be attributed to the failings of a ‘broken detention operations system’. Of particular relevance is a long and convoluted struggle over acceptable interrogation techniques that had involved ‘various parts of the bureaucracy, both inside and outside the Defense Department’, from December 2002 onwards, and the particular relevance of these definitions –- which, as Danner notes, changed at least three times during the crucial months of autumn 2003 –- to the arrival at Abu Ghraib, in August 2003, of Major General Geoffrey D. Miller, who had previously commanded the detention facility at Guantanamo, and who had been sent to Iraq ‘to review current Iraqi Theater ability to rapidly exploit internees for actionable intelligence’. It is at this point that the keenness of the government’s reporters to insist that there were no connections between the activities of the military police, military intelligence and the higher chains of command (that the abuse was simply the result of ‘Animal House on the night shift’, as Schlesinger describes it) begins to come undone. While managing to ignore the riveting question of who was responsible for moving Miller from Cuba at this time (Rumsfeld, one presumes), Schlesinger is nevertheless forced to admit that on his arrival Miller ‘called for the military police and military intelligence soldiers to work together cooperatively, with the military police “setting the conditions” for interrogation’ –- the very thing that elsewhere he strives so hard to deny –- and as Danner points out, ‘How isolated could the … abuses of the military police have been from military intelligence when, as we learn in the Fay report, one of the most notorious images, that of “several naked detainees stacked in a ‘pyramid’”, served as the “screen saver” on one of the computers in the military intelligence office?’ In the end, even Schlesinger is forced to admit that ‘techniques effective under carefully controlled conditions at Guantanamo became far more problematic when they migrated [to Iraq] and were not adequately safeguarded’, a point that is rendered even more starkly in a ‘still-secret’ section of Fay’s report, revealed to Danner, in which Fay concludes that ‘policies and practices developed and approved for use on al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees who were not afforded the protection of the Geneva Convention, now applied to detainees who did fall under the Geneva Convention’s protections’.

Ultimately, however, something more than ‘adequate safeguards’ is under the spotlight here, for, despite the US government’s high-sounding rhetoric about its principled interrogation guidelines, numerous detainees from Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq have stated that, in fact, these guidelines have persistently been broken –- something that becomes immediately apparent when the countless accounts of extreme physical brutality during interrogations are measured against the guidelines, in which even ‘Mild, non-injurious physical contact, e.g. grabbing, poking or light pushing’ was supposed to require the permission of the Defense Secretary himself. Moreover, when it comes to ‘high value detainees’, the evidence that has emerged indicates that there has never even been any attempt to stick to the guidelines. In May 2004, the New York Times reported that ‘In the case of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a high-level detainee who is believed to have helped plan the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, CIA interrogators used graduated levels of force, including a technique known as “water-boarding”, in which a prisoner is strapped down, forcibly pushed under water and made to believe he might drown’. Even more pertinently, those in the highest positions of power in the United States government have also been deeply involved in the process. According to documents leaked to the Los Angeles Times, when John Walker Lindh was captured in Afghanistan in October 2001 and interrogated in ‘marathon sessions that went on for days’, while he was taped to a stretcher, propped up against a shipping container in the freezing cold, his responses ‘were cabled back to the Defense Department as often as every hour’. Closer to the Abu Ghraib scandal, in December 2003 Lieutenant Colonel Steven Jordan, the head of the Joint Intelligence and Debriefing Center at Abu Ghraib, told Major General Taguba that he had been informed that ‘some of the reporting was getting read by Rumsfeld, folks out of Langley [CIA headquarters], some very serious folks’.

Once this nettle is grasped, it becomes impossible to believe, as Schlesinger asserts, that, when the Abu Ghraib photos were broadcast in April 2004, ‘the highest levels of command and leadership in the Department of Defense were not adequately informed nor prepared to respond to the Congress and the American public’, because, for the previous three months, the photos had ‘remained within the official criminal investigative process’. Furthermore, Bush’s insistence, in May 2004, that he had ‘informed the CIA that he did not even want to know’ where Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other ‘high value detainees’ were being held, becomes equally risible, and the awful truth begins to dawn that, in this never-ending war, in which over 50,000 people were detained in the two and a half years following 9/11, torture was not only sanctioned by the highest authorities in the US government; it was also routinely practiced.

In the closing paragraphs of his most perceptive article on the Abu Ghraib scandal, Danner again quotes Schlesinger: ‘There were five cases of detainee deaths as a result of abuse by US personnel during investigations … There are 23 cases of detainee deaths still under investigation’. Danner continues: ‘The words are blunt, though a writer less fond of euphemism might have put the words even more plainly: “American interrogators have tortured at least five prisoners to death”. And from what we know, Mr. Schlesinger’s figures, if anything, substantially understate the case’.

Hopefully, the full story of these murders, and of the chain of command that led –- and still leads –- from the upper echelons of the US government to its torture chambers around the world will one day be revealed. In the meantime, Danner’s collection of articles and supporting documentation is a grimly compelling portrait of the moral and ethical costs of the first three years of the ‘Global War on Terror’.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

For other articles on Abu Ghraib, see: Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Film Review: Standard Operating Procedure (a review of Errol Morris’ challenging documentary about the scandal) (July 2008), In the Guardian: The 5th anniversary of the Abu Ghraib scandal (April 2009), The Torture Photos We’re Not Supposed To See (May 2009).

For other articles on Iraq, see: Book Review: Road From Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía (January 2008), Iraq’s refugees in Syria: Mike Otterman reports (February 2008), UK government deports 60 Iraqi Kurds; no one notices (March 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Refuting Cheney’s Lies: The Stories of Six Prisoners Released from Guantánamo (January 2009), Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison (May 2009), Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (May 2009), Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney On Use Of Torture To Invade Iraq (May 2009), Cheney’s Lies Undermined By Iraq Interrogator Matthew Alexander (May 2009).

16 Responses

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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