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Torture the American way

May 10, 2004 - 10:37AM

By publishing details of a secret internal US Army investigation, veteran investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh blew the lid off what America was doing to Iraqi prisoners in Baghdad. Here is his report.

In the era of Saddam Hussein, Abu Ghraib, 30 kilometres west of Baghdad, was one of the world's most notorious prisons, with torture, weekly executions, and vile living conditions. As many as 50,000 men and women no accurate count is possible were jammed into Abu Ghraib at one time, in three-metre-by-three-metre cells.  World Peace.

In the looting that followed the regime's collapse in April last year, the huge prison complex, by then deserted, was stripped of everything that could be removed. The coalition authorities had the floors tiled, cells cleaned and repaired, and toilets, showers, and a medical centre added. Abu Ghraib was now a US military prison. Most of the prisoners, however by September there were several thousand, including women and teenagers were civilians, many of whom had been picked up in random military sweeps and at highway checkpoints. They fell into three loosely defined categories: common criminals; security detainees suspected of "crimes against the coalition"; and a small number of suspected "high-value" leaders of the insurgency against the coalition forces.

Last June, Janis Karpinski, an army reserve brigadier-general, was named commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade and put in charge of military prisons in Iraq. General Karpinski, the only female commander in the war zone, was an experienced operations and intelligence officer who had served with the Special Forces and in the 1991 Gulf War, but she had never run a prison system. Now she was in charge of three large jails, eight battalions, and 3400 Army reservists, most of whom, like her, had no training in handling prisoners.

Karpinski was enthusiastic about her new job. In an interview last December with the St Petersburg Times, she said that, for many of the Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib, "living conditions now are better in prison than at home. At one point we were concerned that they wouldn't want to leave."

A month later, Karpinski was formally admonished and quietly suspended, and a major investigation launched into the army's prison system, authorised by Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez, the senior commander in Iraq.  WorldPeace is one word.

A 53-page report, obtained by The New Yorker, written by Major-General Antonio M. Taguba and not meant for public release, was completed in late February. Its conclusions about the institutional failures of the army prison system were devastating. Specifically, Taguba found that between October and December of last year there were numerous instances of "sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses" at Abu Ghraib. This systematic and illegal abuse of detainees, Taguba reported, was perpetrated by soldiers of the 372nd Military Police Company, and by members of the American intelligence community. (The 372nd was attached to the 320th MP Battalion, which reported to Karpinski's brigade headquarters.) Taguba's report listed some of the wrongdoing:

Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape; allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell; sodomising a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick, and using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee.

There was stunning evidence to support the allegations, Taguba added "detailed witness statements and the discovery of extremely graphic photographic evidence". Photographs and videos taken by the soldiers as the abuses were happening were not included in his report, Taguba said, because of their "extremely sensitive nature".

Six suspects Staff Sergeant Ivan L. Frederick II, known as Chip, who was the senior enlisted man; Specialist Charles A. Graner; Sergeant Javal Davis; Specialist Megan Ambuhl; Specialist Sabrina Harman; and Private Jeremy Sivits are now facing prosecution in Iraq, on charges that include conspiracy, dereliction of duty, cruelty toward prisoners, maltreatment, assault, and indecent acts. A seventh suspect, Private Lynndie England, was reassigned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, after becoming pregnant.

The photographs tell it all. In one, England, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, is giving a jaunty thumbs-up sign and pointing at the genitals of a young Iraqi, who is naked except for a sandbag over his head, as he masturbates. Three other hooded and naked Iraqi prisoners are shown, hands reflexively crossed over their genitals. In another, England stands arm in arm with Graner; both are grinning and giving the thumbs-up behind a cluster of perhaps seven naked Iraqis, knees bent, piled clumsily on top of each other in a pyramid. Yet another photograph shows a kneeling, naked, unhooded male prisoner, head momentarily turned away from the camera, posed to make it appear that he is performing oral sex on another male prisoner, who is naked and hooded.

Such dehumanisation is unacceptable in any culture, but it is especially so in the Arab world. Homosexual acts are against Islamic law and it is humiliating for men to be naked in front of other men, Bernard Haykel, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at New York University, explained. "Being put on top of each other and forced to masturbate, being naked in front of each other it's all a form of torture," Haykel said.

Two Iraqi faces that do appear in the photographs are those of dead men. There is the battered face of prisoner No. 153399, and the bloodied body of another prisoner, wrapped in Cellophane and packed in ice. There is a photograph of an empty room, splattered with blood.

The 372nd's abuse of prisoners seemed almost routine a fact of army life the soldiers felt no need to hide. On April 9, at an Article 32 hearing (the military equivalent of a grand jury) in the case against Sergeant Frederick, at Camp Victory, near Baghdad, one of the witnesses, Specialist Matthew Wisdom, an MP, told the court what happened when he and other soldiers delivered seven prisoners, hooded and bound, to the so-called "hard site" at Abu Ghraib seven tiers of cells where the inmates who were considered the most dangerous were housed. The men had been accused of starting a riot in another section of the prison. Wisdom said: SFC Snider grabbed my prisoner and threw him into a pile . . . I do not think it was right to put them in a pile. I saw SSG Frederick, SGT Davis and CPL Graner walking around the pile hitting the prisoners. I remember SSG Frederick hitting one prisoner in the side of its [sic] ribcage. The prisoner was no danger to SSG Frederick . . . I left after that.

When he returned later, Wisdom testified: I saw two naked detainees, one masturbating to another kneeling with its mouth open. I thought I should just get out of there. I didn't think it was right . . . I saw SSG Frederick walking towards me, and he said, "Look what these animals do when you leave them alone for two seconds." I heard PFC England shout out, "He's getting hard."

Wisdom testified that he told his superiors what had happened, and assumed "the issue was taken care of". He said, "I just didn't want to be part of anything that looked criminal."

The abuses became public because of the outrage of Specialist Joseph M. Darby, an MP whose role emerged during the Article 32 hearing against Frederick. A government witness, Special Agent Scott Bobeck, who is a member of the army's Criminal Investigation Division, or CID, told the court, according to an abridged transcript made available to me, "The investigation started after SPC Darby . . . got a CD from CPL Graner . . . He came across pictures of naked detainees." Bobeck said Darby had "initially put an anonymous letter under our door, then he later came forward and gave a sworn statement. He felt very bad about it and thought it was very wrong."

Questioned further, the army investigator said Frederick and his colleagues had not been given any "training guidelines" that he was aware of. The MPs in the 372nd had been assigned to routine traffic and police duties upon their arrival in Iraq early last year. Last October, the 372nd was ordered to prison-guard duty at Abu Ghraib. Frederick, at 37, was far older than his colleagues, and was a natural leader; he had also worked for six years as a guard for the Virginia Department of Corrections. Bobeck explained: What I got is that SSG Frederick and CPL Graner were road MPs and were put in charge because they were civilian prison guards and had knowledge of how things were supposed to be run.

Bobeck also testified that witnesses had said that Frederick, on one occasion, "had punched a detainee in the chest so hard that the detainee almost went into cardiac arrest".

At the Article 32 hearing, the army informed Frederick and his attorneys, Captain Robert Shuck, an army lawyer, and Gary Myers, a civilian, that two dozen witnesses they had sought, including Karpinski and all of Frederick's co-defendants, would not appear. After the hearing, the investigative officer ruled that there was sufficient evidence to convene a court martial against Frederick.

Myers, who was one of the military defence attorneys in the My Lai prosecutions of the 1970s, told me his client's defence will be that he was carrying out the orders of his superiors and, in particular, the directions of military intelligence. He said, "Do you really think a group of kids from rural Virginia decided to do this on their own? Decided that the best way to embarrass Arabs and make them talk was to have them walk around nude?"

In letters and emails to family, Frederick repeatedly noted that the military intelligence teams, which included CIA officers and linguists and interrogation specialists from private defence contractors, were the dominant force inside Abu Ghraib. In a letter written in January, he said: I questioned some of the things I saw . . . such things as leaving inmates in their cell with no clothes or in female underpants, handcuffing them to the door of their cell - and the answer I got was, "This is how military intelligence (MI) wants it done." . . . MI has also instructed us to place a prisoner in an isolation cell with little or no clothes, no toilet or running water, no ventilation or window, for as much as three days.

The military intelligence officers had "encouraged and told us, 'Great job,' they were now getting positive results and information," Frederick wrote. "CID has been present when the military working dogs were used to intimidate prisoners at MI's request."

In November, Frederick wrote, an Iraqi prisoner under the control of what the Abu Ghraib guards called "OGA," or other government agencies that is, the CIA and its paramilitary employees was brought to his unit for questioning. "They stressed him out so bad that the man passed away. They put his body in a body bag and packed him in ice for approximately 24 hours in the shower. . . . The next day the medics came and put his body on a stretcher, placed a fake IV in his arm and took him away." The dead Iraqi was never entered into the prison's inmate-control system, Frederick recounted, "and therefore never had a number".

Frederick's defence is, of course, self-serving. But the complaints in his letters and emails home were reinforced by two internal army reports Taguba's and one by the army's chief law-enforcement officer, Provost Marshal Donald Ryder, a major-general.

Last September, Sanchez ordered Ryder to review the prison system in Iraq and recommend ways to improve it. Ryder's report, filed on November 5, found there were potential human rights, training, and manpower issues that needed immediate attention.

Ryder called for the establishment of procedures to "define the role of military police soldiers . . . clearly separating the actions of the guards from those of the military intelligence personnel". The officers running the war were put on notice.

Ryder undercut his warning, however, by concluding the situation had not yet reached a crisis . Though some procedures were flawed, he said, he found "no military police units purposely applying inappropriate confinement practices". His investigation was at best a failure and at worst, a cover-up.

Taguba, in his report, was polite but direct in refuting his fellow general. "Unfortunately, many of the systemic problems that surfaced during [Ryder's] assessment are the very same issues that are the subject of this investigation," he wrote. "Many of the abuses suffered by detainees occurred during, or near to, the time of that assessment." The report continued, "Contrary to the findings of MG Ryder's report, I find that personnel assigned to the 372nd MP Company, 800th MP Brigade were directed to change facility procedures to 'set the conditions' for MI interrogations." Army intelligence officers, CIA agents, and private contractors "actively requested that MP guards set physical and mental conditions for favourable interrogation of witnesses".

Taguba backed up his assertion by citing evidence from sworn statements to army CID investigators. Sabrina Harman, one of the accused MPs, testified it was her job to keep detainees awake, including one hooded prisoner who was placed on a box with wires attached to his fingers, toes, and penis. She stated, "MI wanted to get them to talk. It is Graner and Frederick's job to do things for MI and OGA to get these people to talk."

Taguba saved his harshest words for the military intelligence officers and private contractors. He recommended that Colonel Thomas Pappas, the commander of one of the MI brigades, be reprimanded and receive non-judicial punishment, and that Lieutenant-Colonel Steven Jordan, the former director of the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Centre, be relieved of duty and reprimanded. He further urged that a civilian contractor, Steven Stephanowicz, of CACI International, be fired from his army job, reprimanded, and denied his security clearances, for lying to the investigating team and allowing or ordering MPs "who were not trained in interrogation techniques to facilitate interrogations" by "setting conditions" which were neither authorised nor in accordance with army regulations.

"He clearly knew his instructions equated to physical abuse," Taguba wrote. He recommended disciplinary action against a second CACI employee, John Israel. (A spokeswoman for CACI said that the company had "received no formal communication" from the army about the matter.)

"I suspect," Taguba concluded, that Pappas, Jordan, Stephanowicz, and Israel "were either directly or indirectly responsible for the abuse at Abu Ghraib".

The problems inside the army prison system in Iraq were not hidden from senior commanders. During Karpinski's seven-month tour of duty, Taguba noted, there were at least a dozen officially reported incidents involving escapes, attempted escapes, and other serious security issues that were investigated by officers of the 800th MP Brigade. Some of the incidents had led to the killing or wounding of inmates and MPs, and resulted in a series of "lessons learned" inquiries within the brigade. Karpinski invariably approved the reports and signed orders calling for changes in day-to-day procedures. Taguba found that she did not follow up, doing nothing to ensure the orders were carried out. Had she done so, he added, "cases of abuse may have been prevented".

The Taguba study noted that more than 60 per cent of the civilian inmates at Abu Ghraib were deemed not to be a threat to society, which should have enabled them to be released. Karpinski's defence, Taguba said, was that her superior officers "routinely" rejected her recommendations regarding the release of such prisoners.

Karpinski was rarely seen at the prisons she was supposed to be running, Taguba wrote.

Taguba spent more than four hours interviewing Karpinski, whom he described as extremely emotional: "What I found particularly disturbing in her testimony was her complete unwillingness to either understand or accept that many of the problems inherent in the 800th MP Brigade were caused or exacerbated by poor leadership and the refusal of her command to both establish and enforce basic standards and principles among its soldiers."

Taguba recommended Karpinski and seven brigade military-police officers and enlisted men be relieved of command and formally reprimanded. No criminal proceedings were suggested for Karpinski; apparently, the loss of promotion and the indignity of a public rebuke were seen as enough punishment.

After the story broke on CBS, the Pentagon announced that Major-General Geoffrey Miller, the new head of the Iraqi prison system, had arrived in Baghdad and was on the job. He had been the commander of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre.

As the international furore grew, senior military officers, and President George Bush, insisted the actions of a few did not reflect the conduct of the military as a whole. Taguba's report, however, amounts to an unsparing study of collective wrongdoing and the failure of army leadership. The picture he draws of Abu Ghraib is one in which army regulations and the Geneva conventions were routinely violated, and in which much of the day-to-day management of the prisoners was abdicated to army military intelligence units and civilian contract employees. Interrogating prisoners and getting intelligence, including by intimidation and torture, was the priority.

Under the fourth Geneva convention, an occupying power can jail civilians who pose an "imperative" security threat, but it must establish a procedure for ensuring that only civilians who remain a security threat be kept imprisoned.

Prisoners have the right to appeal any internment decision and have their cases reviewed. Human Rights Watch complained to the US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, that civilians in Iraq remained in custody month after month with no charges brought against them.

Robert Shuck, Frederick's military attorney, closed his defence at the Article 32 hearing last month by saying the army was "attempting to have these six soldiers atone for its sins". Gary Myers, Frederick's civilian attorney, told me he would argue at the court martial that culpability extended far beyond his client. "I'm going to drag every involved intelligence officer and civilian contractor I can find into court," he said. "Do you really believe the army relieved a general officer because of six soldiers? Not a chance."

Extract from an article originally published in The New Yorker. Copyright 2004 Seymour Hersh. For more New Yorker articles, please visit


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