The Prisoner Abuse Scandal

September 29, 2005

Lynndie England became the latest person of low-rank to be found guilty in the prisoner abuse scandal this week – on six out of seven counts of conspiracy and maltreatment of Iraqi prisoners, including an episode when she was photographed holding a strap tied as a leash around a naked detainee’s neck. Her lawyer, like the lawyers for her colleagues convicted before her, wanted to introduce evidence that she was simply following orders (to “soften up” detainees for CIA interrogators), but as with the earlier trials, such a line of defense was impermissible – each soldier is responsible for his or her own actions.

I’d be okay with that if I thought that the military was going to hold people responsible up the chain of command. But the ‘containment’ of the prisoner abuse scandal continues. What’s amazing is that despite a document trail that leads more or less directly from the White House to the Pentagon to Guantanamo Bay to Abu Ghraib, only low-level and reserve personnel have been called to account. The Pentagon assures us that they have conducted numerous inquiries – and the Republican-led Congress seems unwilling to conduct serious inquiries into a Republican administration – on any topic, from misusing intelligence in the run-up to the war, to mismanaging the war itself, to the prisoner abuse scandal that has cost the U.S. so much in the public relations war.

For a while the Pentagon and the Bush administration tried the “few bad apples” defense. But as more allegations of abuse have surfaced, across multiple prisons, using some of the same techniques, trends are easy to spot.

Let’s review the bidding. In the Spring of 2004 that the military had been investigating the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison for months. And then photographs surfaced. The Army has opened more than 400 inquiries into detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan and has so far punished 230 enlisted soldiers and officers in one way or another.

Seymour Hersh’s meticulously-detailed article entitled “Torture at Abu Ghraib” appeared in the May 10, 2004 issue of the New Yorker. Here’s a short version of what Hersh reported.

– Army reserve brigadier general Janis Karpinski was put in charge of 3 prisons in Iraq and 3,400 reservists. Neither she nor the reservists were trained to run a prison.

– Karpinski has long claimed that part of the Abu Ghraib prison was taken out from under her control and handed to Military Intelligence (MI) and OGA (Other Government Agencies – a euphemism for the CIA and its civilian contractors that conducted the interrogations).

– The CIA asked/ordered Karpinski’s (reservist) M.P.s to “soften up” certain prisoners so they would be more compliant in upcoming interviews.

– Karpinski was demoted and suspended in January, 2004. She has since gone public with her version of events.

– Major General Antonio Taguba completed a 53-page report on the abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in February of 2004. It was not meant for release but was leaked and published in May, 2004.

– Taguba reported instances of “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” and he pointed the finger at soldiers of the 372nd Military Police Company and people in the intelligence community (primarily CIA).

– According to the internal report some of the abuse included “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; sodomizing 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.”

– The infamous Abu Ghraib photos came to light after an M.P, Specialist Joseph Darby, got hold of a CD from Specialist Charles Graner (one of those later charged and punished), was outraged by the treatment of the detainees, and then went to his superiors.

– The photos were not included in the report, but were subsequently leaked to the press.

– The photos show sexual humiliation, including leading naked detainees on a leash, chaining naked detainees together, and having them simulate male-male oral sex. This would be humiliating and considered torture if it were done to American prisoners, but Muslims have much stronger rules about sins of the flesh – not only are homosexual acts against Islamic law, it is improper for men to be naked in the presence of other men.

– There were also beatings and soldiers who died during interrogations, documented by pictures of the bloodied faces and bodies of dead detainees and pictures of a blood-splattered interrogation room.

– The abuse at Abu Ghraib was so routine that most of the soldiers apparently felt no need to hide it.

– As Sergeant Ivan “Chip” Frederick wrote in his letters home, “ I questioned some of the things that 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. Frederick wrote home that the MI officers encouraged the troops after such actions and told them they were getting good results and information from the prisoners following such softening up.

– Frederick also wrote that one prisoner, under the control of MI, died and was removed surreptitiously:

“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 twenty-four 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” (without ever being entered into the prisoner numbering system).

There’s more, but you get the point. What’s interesting is the O.J.-like bifurcation on this issue, between Republicans/conservatives and Democrats/liberals. The former get incensed when people claim the prisoner abuse issue is a serious scandal and a genuine example of torture. The talking points, accepted on the right, are that: 1) the bad guys are beheading and blowing up people, while we’re only using “hazing” techniques, 2) the United States treats prisoners better than any other army in history, 3) these guys are all dangerous ‘enemy combatants,’ and 4) so certain forms of coercive interrogation are necessary but you can trust the Pentagon to be careful.

The left responds that: 1) we’re supposed to live up to our own high standards, not simply be better than the enemy, 2) Americans underestimate the seriousness of nakedness and sexual humiliation to Muslims, 3) simply because we’re the U. S. doesn’t mean we should assume the Abu Ghraib photos and the Amnesty International report of serious physical abuse and death are wrong, and 4) many of the people we’ve rounded up, particularly in Iraq, are ordinary Iraqis and we’re turning them against us by abusing them or even by holding them indefinitely.

Back to Lynndie England: she deserves to be held to account, but so do the people above her who told her and the other MPs to soften up the prisoners. And so do the MI and CIA interrogators who responsible for the bloody faces and the dead bodies. And so does everyone up the chain of command who passed on orders, with a nod and a wink, that originated in the Bush White House, saying that ‘enemy combatants’ were not entitled to the protections of the Geneva conventions.

General Taguba recommended various forms of disciplinary action against not only Karpinski but against the military-intelligence officers and private contractors who handled prisoners and who he believed were responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib. This included Colonel Thomas Pappas (commander of one of the MI brigades) and Lieutenant Colonel Steven Jordan (former director of the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center), as well as contract employees Steven Stephanowicz and John Israel (CACI International). Yet only Karpinski (a reserve officer) and Colonel Pappas have been held accountable.

After the Abu Ghraib story broke and the pictures were published Pentagon officers and the Bush administration maintained that the actions of a few did not reflect official policy. But the Taguba report documents systematic abuse and at least failure, if not complicity, of higher level Army leadership. As Hersh says in his New Yorker article: “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.”

In recent days additional allegations have surfaced. In late September, 2005 it has emerged that Army Capt. Ian Fishback and two sergeants (all from the 82nd Airborne Division) escalated their complaints of abuse of prisoners to Senators John Warner, John McCain, and Lindsay Graham after attempting to get their chain of command to take their complaints seriously over a 17-month period.

So it looks like this new round of allegations, along with dozens of other reports since the initial photos came out, will make it more difficult to continue the ‘few bad apples’ defense and to contain the scandal. Since the Republican Congress has been a lap dog for the Bush administration on this and other issues, the military has so far been allowed to investigate itself. American may get to the bottom of this someday, but I’m not holding my breath. Meanwhile, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the gang are allowing their loose standards of prisoner treatment to incalculable harm to America’s reputation abroad. The minimal amount of al Qaeda-related intelligence that has been gathered can’t possibly be worth the public relations disaster we’ve suffered.