Editor’s Note: Former Army Sgt. Sam Provance was the only uniformed military intelligence officer at Abu Ghraib who broke the code of silence surrounding the infamous prisoner abuses. He spoke out during the Army’s internal investigation, at a congressional hearing and in press interviews. For his brave integrity, Provance was punished and pushed out of the U.S. military, clearing the way for the Pentagon to pin the blame for the sadistic treatment of Iraqi detainees on a handful of poorly trained MPs. Now, history is repeating itself in Errol Morris’s supposedly hard-hitting documentary on the scandal:
April 30, 2008 – Representatives for film director Errol Morris told me during pre-production that “Standard Operating Procedure” would be the very best documentary on the abuses of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib – the one that would tell the whole truth. I had pinned great hope on that. It didn’t turn out that way.
My perspective on the Abu Ghraib scandal came from spending from September 2003 to February 2004 at the Iraq prison as a sergeant in Army Intelligence. Working the 8 p.m.-to- 8 a.m. night shift, it was impossible not to notice who was directing the operation. And I shared all this with Morris.
But now I’ve seen the film and I’m disappointed. Morris does little to get to the bottom of what happened. He muddies already opaque waters regarding who was actually responsible for the abuse of prisoners.
The film focuses on the awful photos, the people in them and those who took them. This perspective plays right into the hands of the cover-up artists. It perpetuates the myth that the abuses are rightfully laid at the feet of those impressionable, but very human, young soldiers.
Morris should have been looking up the chain of command; at the civilian and military officials actually responsible for ordering these Military Police Reservists to rough up prisoners.
A no-holds-barred documentary? Give me a break.
Finally, the Whole Truth!
I was first put into contact with the makers of “SOP” while I was still in the Army. From the beginning, I was told this was going to be a huge project with the production support of Sony Pictures Entertainment; and that Morris, who had won an Oscar with his documentary, “The Fog of War,” would be at the helm.
This was to be the breakthrough investigation into what really happened at Abu Ghraib, who was responsible for the abuse and why it was ordered – the project that really got people’s attention, going where previous investigators and media had feared to tread.
Call me gullible but, believing this was to be a groundbreaking work, I fully cooperated with Morris. I assisted him in his quest for documents, videos, photos, notes and helped him contact fellow soldiers who were at Abu Ghraib and knew what happened.
When I was discharged from the Army in October 2006, I went to Boston for a two-day interview.
Morris asked me to sign several contracts before and after the interviews, and I did as he asked without paying much attention to them. I do remember however, that in one contract Morris agreed to pay me one dollar.
In any event, I never got the dollar, but was reminded of this last week when I read in the New York Times that others got paychecks for their participation.
I have never asked for or taken money for media interviews. To me, that undermines the process and trivializes the importance of the issues of torture and prisoner mistreatment and their meaning for the moral atmosphere in our country as a whole.
When the film was finished, Morris told me he had intended to use some of the footage from my two days of interviews and the materials I provided, but decided in the end to “narrowly focus” on the Military Police. This, of course, is what so many others have done and is in the worst tradition of a Nixon-style “modified, limited hangout.”
Chain of Command?
Here’s the oddest thing: Even though Morris’s lens is trained on the Military Police, he does find room for a civilian interrogator, Tim Dugan, who worked at Abu Ghraib for CACI, a contractor factory for civilian interrogators.
I witnessed for myself how civilian personnel, like Dugan, corrupted the military. Indeed, they were the genesis of the break from conventional interrogation techniques into what Vice President Dick Cheney hinted at when he spoke of the “dark side” of intelligence.
It was they who ordered the Military Police and some of my own unit’s Military Intelligence soldiers to “soften” the detainees for interrogation, and encouraged the behavior depicted in the photographs. I know; I was there. And, of course, I told Errol Morris.
So I was surprised, to say the least, to see Morris giving Dugan a place to contend that, essentially, the abuses were all the military’s fault.
Odd indeed. Even Maj. Gen. George Fay, whose investigation of Abu Ghraib left much to be desired, reported the pernicious effect civilian interrogators had on the impressionable and inexperienced soldiers.
Fay reported, for example that Daniel Johnson, one of Dugan’s CACI interrogator colleagues, whom I knew at Abu Ghraib, was using Spc. Charles Graner as “muscle” for his interrogations.
And yet, Morris describes Dugan as “remarkable.” Remarkable, indeed, Errol.
Did no one tell you that CACI, Dugan and several of his fellow interrogators were sued by their victims in Abu Ghraib, seeking to hold them accountable for their behavior?
In the civil case brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of Abu Ghraib prisoners, the lawsuit implicates Dugan in the abuse.
“CACI interrogator Timothy Dugan also tortured plaintiffs and other prisoners,” the lawsuit alleges. “For example, he physically dragged handcuffed plaintiffs and other prisoners along the ground to inflict pain on them. He struck and beat plaintiffs and other prisoners. He bragged to a non-conspirator about scaring a prisoner with threats to such a degree that the prisoner vomited.
“When a young non-conspirator directed him to cease the torture and comply [with] Army Field Manual 34-52, Dugan scoffed at his youth and refused to follow the direction.”
The lawsuit further alleges that Dugan took part in a CACI cover-up of when a detainee died by going through “the charade of interrogating a prisoner who was already dead as part of the conspiracy’s efforts to conceal a murder.” Dugan is accused, too, of threatening a fellow CACI employee who talked to investigators.
CACI has denounced the lawsuit as baseless, and the individual defendants were dismissed out on a technicality. However, on Nov. 6, 2007, U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson in Washington denied CACI’s motion for summary judgment and ordered a jury trial against CACI.
A criminal investigation also is pending in the Eastern District of Virginia concerning some of the CACI employees.
In “SOP,” Dugan presents himself as a whistleblower who tried to stop the abuses. He claims that he reported to his “section sergeant” that two Army female interrogators were stripping detainees naked as an interrogation technique, and how shocked he was to see this.
Dugan claims he got the brush-off; was told not to get involved. So who was this “section sergeant?” And is he/she above the law?
Why did Dugan not offer himself as a witness in any of the various investigations? Where has he been if he felt then the way he now says he did? Again, why sport the good-guy badge now?
I came away with the impression that Morris was unprepared for the interview and was being taken for a ride.
For obvious reasons, CACI has gone to extraordinary lengths to separate itself from the horrors of Abu Ghraib, arguing that the military alone was at fault.
CACI recently announced the release of a book, Our Good Name: A Company’s Fight To Defend Its Honor And Get The Truth About Abu Ghraib.
CACI contends strongly that its interrogators adhered to the military chain of command, something it has been feverishly trying to establish in the lawsuits against it.
And so, the behavior captured in the photos? That was the military’s responsibility, not CACI’s.
That is not what I observed from my ringside seat.
I told Morris that the reality was that the civilian contractors paid little heed to the military chain of command, and that they were the ones actually running the show. That didn’t make it into the final version of “SOP.”
Even though it is now an established fact that between 70 to 90 percent of detainees at Abu Ghraib were completely innocent, something I learned directly on site, Dugan implies that the harsh interrogation practices applied there were legitimate – except of course for the failings of the military.
This myth-making is intended to hold CACI harmless and help it maintain its very lucrative government contracts. CACI International had $1.6 billion in revenues in 2005. Folks have always told me it all has to do with money; I suppose they’re right.
But Congress should be asking some simple questions. It should start by asking why civilian contractors are being employed in connection with the interrogation of persons under detention in wartime, a function which previously has been entirely in the hands of the uniformed military?
This could yield some interesting answers. Indeed, evasion of military rules and discipline as well as avoidance of congressional oversight might be at the heart of the answers.
Morris takes pride in calling “SOP” a horror movie and – with the mood music and the needless slow-motion reenactments – he makes sure of that.
However, “SOP” does little more than humanize some of the “bad apples” (a good thing, I suppose), while gratuitously absolving the civilian interrogators actually responsible for fouling those apples.
But, wait. Abu Ghraib is not primarily about Military Police – or civilian interrogators. It is about the many thousands of wrongfully detained Iraqis – many of them abused, tortured and even killed. It is also about their families. What about their story?
Morris has called “SOP” just “the tip of the iceberg,” citing the unused volumes of material he’s collected since production began. But Morris owed his viewers a glimpse of the whole iceberg, not just the small misleading piece that bobbed above the surface.
He has announced his next film project: a comedy. Go figure.