As a Senate Armed Services Committee inquiry concluded in December 2008, "The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of 'a few bad apples' acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority."
In reality, the chain of responsibility for abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and in other prisons elsewhere began with decisions made by President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and CIA Director George Tenet. They approved what they termed “harsh interrogation techniques,” abuse and humiliation tactics, including those used at Abu Ghraib. The techniques were also applied in prisons at Guantanamo Bay, in Afghanistan and in secret “black sites” established by the CIA in Eastern Europe, Thailand and North Africa. Abu Ghraib got most of the attention because of the leaked photographs and videos that documented the abuse and torture.
Enlisted as Scapegoats
Gary Myers, a lawyer for one of the dozen-odd enlisted men and women charged as a result of the Abu Ghraib scandal, said in 2004 that the military was turning low-level soldiers into scapegoats for “a monumental failure of leadership.” The real story, he said, was not the enlisted, but “the manner in which the intelligence community forced them into this position” by demanding that they “soften up” suspects for interrogation. Well-documented subsequent disclosures proved Myers right.
There was a reason for the abuse and torture uptick at Abu Ghraib in the fall of 2003.
Why Rumsfeld Approved Torture
“The roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists,” reported Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker in May 2004, “but in a decision, approved [in 2003] by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to expand a highly secret operation, which had been focussed on the hunt for Al Qaeda, to the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq. Rumsfeld’s decision embittered the American intelligence community, damaged the effectiveness of élite combat units, and hurt America’s prospects in the war on terror.”
The reason for Rumsfeld’s decision: The war in Iraq was going badly. It was losing the support of the American public and making President Bush’s reelection prospects look dimmer. Unhappy with intelligence being culled from Iraqi prisoners, Rumsfeld ordered interrogations toughened, using tactics adopted at Guantanamo Bay in April 2003 (and approved by Bush). Rumsfeld, who criticized the United States for “having too soft an underbelly,” ordered Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the commander at Guantanamo, to “Gitmoize” Iraq, in the words of Army Reserve Brigadier General Janis Kapinski. Kapinski was in charge of all prisons in Iraq under U.S. military control.
Bringing Gitmo to Abu Ghraib
Miller changed the policy at Abu Ghraib, centralizing interrogations operations at Abu Ghraib and putting intelligence officers, rather than trained detention officers, in charge of running the prison, and employing military police in the interrogation process—a break with past practices. Prison guards, he ordered, “must be actively engaged in setting the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees.”
The Washington Post reported in June 2004 that as of September 12, 2003, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the senior U.S. military officer in Iraq at the time, approved letting Abu Ghraib guards use 32 harsh interrogation tactics, including “military dogs, temperature extremes, reversed sleep patterns, sensory deprivation, and diets of bread and water on detainees whenever they wished.” The directive hues closely to the tactics used at Guantanamo.
Bush had decided that so-called “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo were not protected by the Geneva Conventions. Inmates at Abu Ghraib were, however—even though the same interrogation tactics applied there as they did at Guantanamo.
Few Convictions, No Higher-Ups
Just 12 American soldiers were convicted of charges stemming from the abuse and torture of Iraqi and other inmates at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison in the fall of 2003. The highest-ranking member of the military to be convicted was a staff sergeant—Ivan Frederick, sentenced to eight years). The longest sentence handed down was 10 years, for Charles Graner, a former corporal. Frederick and Graner alone remain in prison.
In Torture Central: E-Mails from Abu Ghraib , Michael Keller, who served as part of a National Guard unit at Abu Gharib in 2005, documents abuse and atrocities against inmates a year after the original Abu Ghraib scandal had been uncovered—and allegedly put a stop to the abuses.