The Unknown Unknowns of the Abu Ghraib Scandal

Guardian (UK)

It’s been over a year since I published a series of articles in the New Yorker outlining the abuses at Abu Ghraib. There have been at least 10 official military investigations since then – none of which has challenged the official Bush administration line that there was no high-level policy condoning or overlooking such abuse. The buck always stops with the handful of enlisted army reservists from the 372nd Military Police Company whose images fill the iconic Abu Ghraib photos with their inappropriate smiles and sadistic posing of the prisoners.

It’s a dreary pattern. The reports and the subsequent Senate proceedings are sometimes criticized on editorial pages. There are calls for a truly independent investigation by the Senate or House. Then, as months pass with no official action, the issue withers away, until the next set of revelations revives it.

There is much more to be learned. What do I know? A few things stand out. I know of the continuing practice of American operatives seizing suspected terrorists and taking them, without any meaningful legal review, to interrogation centers in south-east Asia and elsewhere. I know of the young special forces officer whose subordinates were confronted with charges of prisoner abuse and torture at a secret hearing after one of them emailed explicit photos back home. The officer testified that, yes, his men had done what the photos depicted, but they – and everybody in the command – understood such treatment was condoned by higher-ups.

What else do I know? I know that the decision was made inside the Pentagon in the first weeks of the Afghanistan war – which seemed “won” by December 2001 – to indefinitely detain scores of prisoners who were accumulating daily at American staging posts throughout the country. At the time, according to a memo, in my possession, addressed to Donald Rumsfeld, there were “800-900 Pakistani boys 13-15 years of age in custody”. I could not learn if some or all of them have been released, or if some are still being held.

A Pentagon spokesman, when asked to comment, said that he had no information to substantiate the number in the document, and that there were currently about 100 juveniles being held in Iraq and Afghanistan; he did not address detainees held elsewhere. He said they received some special care, but added “age is not a determining factor in detention … As with all the detainees, their release is contingent upon the determination that they are not a threat and that they are of no further intelligence value. Unfortunately, we have found that … age does not necessarily diminish threat potential.”

The 10 official inquiries into Abu Ghraib are asking the wrong questions, at least in terms of apportioning ultimate responsibility for the treatment of prisoners. The question that never gets adequately answered is this: what did the president do after being told about Abu Ghraib? It is here that chronology becomes very important.

The US-led coalition forces swept to seeming immediate success in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, and by early April Baghdad had been taken. Over the next few months, however, the resistance grew in scope, persistence and skill. In August 2003 it became more aggressive. At this point there was a decision to get tough with the thousands of prisoners in Iraq, many of whom had been seized in random raids or at roadside checkpoints. Major General Geoffrey D Miller, an army artillery officer who, as commander at Guantánamo, had got tough with the prisoners there, visited Baghdad to tutor the troops – to “Gitmo-ize” the Iraqi system.

By the beginning of October 2003 the reservists on the night shift at Abu Ghraib had begun their abuse of prisoners. They were aware that some of America’s elite special forces units were also at work at the prison. Those highly trained military men had been authorized by the Pentagon’s senior leadership to act far outside the normal rules of engagement. There was no secret about the interrogation practices used throughout that autumn and early winter, and few objections. In fact representatives of one of the Pentagon’s private contractors at Abu Ghraib, who were involved in prisoner interrogation, were told that Condoleezza Rice, then the president’s national security adviser, had praised their efforts. It’s not clear why she would do so – there is still no evidence that the American intelligence community has accumulated any significant information about the operations of the resistance, who continue to strike US soldiers and Iraqis. The night shift’s activities at Abu Ghraib came to an end on January 13 2004, when specialist Joseph M Darby, one of the 372nd reservists, provided army police authorities with a disk full of explicit images. By then, these horrors had been taking place for nearly four months.

Three days later the army began an investigation. But it is what was not done that is significant. There is no evidence that President Bush, upon learning of the devastating conduct at Abu Ghraib, asked any hard questions of Rumsfeld and his own aides in the White House; no evidence that they took any significant steps, upon learning in mid-January of the abuses, to review and modify the military’s policy toward prisoners. I was told by a high-level former intelligence official that within days of the first reports the judicial system was programmed to begin prosecuting the enlisted men and women in the photos and to go no further up the chain of command.

In late April, after the CBS and New Yorker reports, a series of news conferences and press briefings emphasized the White House’s dismay over the conduct of a few misguided soldiers at Abu Ghraib and the president’s repeated opposition to torture. Miller was introduced anew to the American press corps in Baghdad and it was explained that the general had been assigned to clean up the prison system and instill respect for the Geneva conventions.

Despite Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo – not to mention Iraq and the failure of intelligence – and the various roles they played in what went wrong, Rumsfeld kept his job; Rice was promoted to secretary of state; Alberto Gonzales, who commissioned the memos justifying torture, became attorney general; deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz was nominated to the presidency of the World Bank; and Stephen Cambone, under-secretary of defense for intelligence and one of those most directly involved in the policies on prisoners, was still one of Rumsfeld’s closest confidants. President Bush, asked about accountability, told the Washington Post before his second inauguration that the American people had supplied all the accountability needed – by re-electing him. Only seven enlisted men and women have been charged or pleaded guilty to offenses relating to Abu Ghraib. No officer is facing criminal proceedings.

Such action, or inaction, has special significance for me. In my years of reporting, since covering My Lai in 1969, I have come to know the human costs of such events – and to believe that soldiers who participate can become victims as well.

Amid my frenetic reporting for the New Yorker on Abu Ghraib, I was telephoned by a middle-aged woman. She told me that a family member, a young woman, was among those members of the 320th Military Police Battalion, to which the 372nd was attached, who had returned to the US in March. She came back a different person – distraught, angry and wanting nothing to do with her immediate family. At some point afterward, the older woman remembered that she had lent the reservist a portable computer with a DVD player to take to Iraq; on it she discovered an extensive series of images of a naked Iraqi prisoner flinching in fear before two snarling dogs. One of the images was published in the New Yorker and then all over the world.

The war, the older woman told me, was not the war for democracy and freedom that she thought her young family member had been sent to fight. Others must know, she said. There was one other thing she wanted to share with me. Since returning from Iraq, the young woman had been getting large black tattoos all over her body. She seemed intent on changing her skin.

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