Iraq and the War on Terror

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Chapter One
Iraq and the War on Terror

The war on terrorism and the way it was fought inside Iraq helped create a climate that led to the abuses seen later at Abu Ghraib and other prisons. Iraq became an early focus of the Bush administration's war on terror. After terrorists crashed jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the official policy of the Bush administration was to go after regimes that support terror. Iraq was considered to be one of those regimes because its dictatorial leader, Saddam Hussein, was thought to have weapons of mass destruction that he could pass on to terrorists. Although little evidence was found linking Saddam with the September 11 attacks, public statements by administration officials suggesting that he must be dealt with soon caused many Americans to see him as a major enemy in the war on terrorism.

The administration's concern with Iraq remained high even after it was learned that no Iraqis had been directly involved in the plot. It turned out that al Qaeda, a terrorist organization based in Afghanistan, had actually planned and carried out the attacks. In October 2001 the United States invaded Afghanistan in order to capture or kill the terrorists responsible for the September 11 attacks. By December they had routed the Taliban, the government that had refused to turn over al Qaeda members. Yet, as the fighting in Afghanistan subsided, Bush and other administration officials insisted that Saddam Hussein's regime represented a terrorist threat to America—a threat so dangerous that the president must do everything in his power to ensure that Saddam was disarmed immediately.

Target Iraq

In the months that followed, the Bush administration continued to emphasize the danger Iraq represented to the United States. During his State of the Union speech before Congress in January 2002, Bush made it clear that he considered Iraq a big part of the war on terror. "Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror," he said. "The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over a decade."6

The president also named Iraq as one of three countries—Iran and North Korea were the other two—that he believed constituted an "axis of evil."7 Because these nations sought weapons of mass destruction, said Bush, they represented a growing danger. In the spring of 2002 he announced a new doctrine known as preemptive war. This new doctrine asserted that, in self-defense, the United States had the right to attack any country it felt might threaten it in the future. As Bush said,"We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge."8

By the fall of 2002 it seemed increasingly likely that Iraq would be the first country where Bush's preemptive war doctrine would be tried out. In October the president made headlines when he claimed Iraq had "a massive stockpile of biological weapons that has never been accounted for and is capable of killing millions."9 Then, during his 2003 State of the Union address, he raised the stakes higher by implying that Iraq had been secretly attempting to buy uranium, the raw material for nuclear bombs. The following month Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke to the United Nations. His goal was to get the UN to back a U.S. invasion of Iraq. In support of his case Powell asserted that Iraq had revived its nuclear weapons program and had tons of chemical and biological weapons it would not hesitate to use. During a long and forceful presentation Powell used satellite photos and even held up a vial of a deadly poison called anthrax. Powell failed to get the UN to support a war against Iraq (much of the information he presented that day was later proven inaccurate), but the speech persuaded many Americans that an invasion of Iraq was a necessary part of the war on terror.

Therefore, on March 19,2003, the United States invaded Iraq. The U.S. military was joined on the battlefield by roughly forty-seven thousand troops from a coalition of other nations. The military aspect of the operation went exceedingly well. The coalition quickly gained control of the country with relatively few casualties. Although the invasion force found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction, by the end of three weeks they had fought all the way to Baghdad, Iraq's capital. As coalition troops entered the city, Saddam Hussein went into hiding and his government collapsed.

House of Horrors

Perhaps no one was happier to see Saddam Hussein go than the inmates of a notorious prison called Abu Ghraib. Abu Ghraib's history went back to the early 1980s. It was where Saddam sent political prisoners accused of criticizing him or plotting against his rule. Thousands of Iraqis who entered Abu Ghraib were never seen alive again. Located about twenty miles northwest of Baghdad, the huge prison sat upon 280 acres of dusty land and was surrounded by palm tree groves. High walls topped with razor wire and overseen by twenty-four guard towers made escape unlikely. Since each cell measured twelve feet by twelve feet and held as many as forty prisoners, living conditions were miserable. The peak population was about fifteen thousand prisoners, but weekly executions always made room for more. In 1984 alone, four thousand prisoners were put to death.

Under Saddam Hussein, Abu Ghraib and other prisons like it were known as places of torture, degradation, and execution. "I visited Abu Ghraib [in March 2003] ...," recalls Bob Baer, a former CIA bureau chief."There were bodies there that were eaten by dogs . . . electrodes coming out of the walls. It was an awful place."10 When Saddam was ousted by the United States in the spring of 2003, many Iraqis assumed those days had finally ended. Yet not long after the arrival of coalition troops, torture and mistreatment would once again take place at Abu Ghraib. And within a year of coming under coalition control the prison would become more notorious for its brutality than it ever had been under Saddam.

Up and Running Again

Although Saddam had been deposed quickly, the end of major fighting had not brought much peace to Iraq. There simply were not enough coalition troops in the country to ensure law and order. Some Iraqis came to believe that the coalition was more interested in the nation's rich oil fields than in their own freedom and security. Others, especially those who had been loyal to Saddam, were skeptical of their future under a new U.S.-backed government. Yet others were frustrated with the slow pace of reconstruction. Sewage plants operated sporadically, if at all. Electricity was only available for portions of each day, and blackouts were common. There were few jobs, and food and other basic services were scarce.

Saddam Hussein

At the beginning of 2003 Iraq was ruled by Saddam Hussein, a sixty-six-year-old dictator who had been in power since 1979. Saddam had a well-deserved reputation for extreme brutality toward anyone who represented the slightest threat to his power. Potential rivals were quickly imprisoned or executed—according to some reports, by Saddam himself.

Up until 1990, however, Saddam was considered an ally of the United States. During his eight-year war with neighboring Iran in the 1980s, America supplied Iraq with military help. All that changed, however, in 1990 when Saddam invaded oil-rich Kuwait. An international military coalition led by President George H.W. Bush then mounted an attack that expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait and greatly weakened Saddam's army.

Saddam, however, remained in power after the Gulf War. At war's end he had agreed to periodic weapons inspections supervised by the United Nations. In 1998, after he had violated the terms of that agreement, U.S. and British warplanes began bombing suspected weapons facilities. War appeared imminent again in 2002 when the United States and Britain warned that Saddam was amassing weapons of mass destruction.

Shortly after coalition troops invaded Iraq in March 2003, Saddam went into hiding. He was not captured until December 2003, when he was pulled out of an underground hiding place near his hometown of Tikrit. From there he was transferred to Iraqi legal custody and was expected to eventually face criminal charges for his actions while president of Iraq.

There were also not enough policemen to prevent a huge upsurge in crime and violence. For all these reasons, some Iraqis became willing to take up arms against the coalition. The insurgents killed and wounded soldiers with snipers and attacked convoys with rocket-propelled grenades. By far their most deadly tactic, though, was exploding homemade bombs on streets and roads where coalition troops traveled.

Responding to the danger, the coalition sent out frequent patrols to rout out their attackers from the general Iraqi population. But since few coalition soldiers spoke enough Arabic to be able to distinguish the guilty from the innocent, all Iraqis found in the area of an attack—sometimes hundreds of them—were often arrested and sent off to prison, where their guilt or innocence would supposedly be sorted out later.

The influx of prisoners had to be kept somewhere and, despite its sinister reputation, the huge prison complex at Abu Ghraib seemed the most logical choice. The prison had been stripped bare by looters in April, but coalition authorities decided to return it to its original function. Cells were cleaned and repaired, floors were tiled, and toilets and showers added. By June 2003, just a few months after Saddam was deposed, Abu Ghraib was open again—this time as a U.S. military prison called the Baghdad Central Correctional Facility.

An Unfamiliar Mission

That same month, despite having no prior experience managing prisons, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski of the 800th Military Police Brigade was put in charge of all Iraq's military prisons. Her command included three large jails, eight battalions, as well as a total of thirty-four hundred reservists. Like Karpinski, very few of the soldiers under her command had ever worked in a real prison. Their lack of experience and worsening morale contributed to a tense atmosphere developing inside Abu Ghraib in the late summer and fall of 2003.

Although the MPs (military police) were poorly trained for their new jobs, they were responsible for thousands of prisoners. In addition to being untrained for their assignment, many of the MPs of the 800th did not want to be in Iraq at all. Before the war began, some Bush administration officials had predicted that the majority of coalition troops would be able to leave Iraq by September. The strength of the insurgency, however, made those predictions obsolete. When the men and women of the 800th were told they would not be returning home soon and that their mission had been enlarged to manage the entire Iraqi penal system, many were frustrated and unhappy.

The situation at Abu Ghraib was unlikely to improve anyone's mood. The prison was becoming terribly overcrowded, as more prisoners arrived every day. In addition to the overcrowding the prison was right in the middle of a war zone, contrary to army regulations. Snipers in the palm trees around the prison often fired on U.S. soldiers. At night there were gun battles between the guard towers and armed Iraqis in surrounding neighborhoods. Improvised bombs killed and maimed U.S. soldiers who used the highway that ran past the prison. Meanwhile, countless mortar attacks on the prison killed and wounded guards and prisoners alike.

The stress level on guards at Abu Ghraib steadily increased that summer as their jobs grew more and more difficult. As the insurgency became more deadly, the prison population swelled and the inclination to release even innocent prisoners declined. A typical incident involving fifty-seven Iraqis caught up in a sweep and sent to Abu Ghraib illustrates one reason why innocent prisoners were not released. Although only two of the prisoners were determined to possibly have intelligence value, a general declined to authorize the release of the other fifty-five. He is reported to have defended his actions by saying,"I don't care if they are innocent; if we release them, they'll go out and tell their friends we're after them."11

Meanwhile, day after day, the temperature soared well past the one-hundred-degree mark. Stressed both physically and mentally, and under constant threat of attack, some of the guards stopped thinking of Iraqis as the people they had come to free. Instead many began to regard nearly every Iraqi civilian as the enemy.

A Worsening Situation

During that blazing hot summer the attacks on coalition soldiers became more frequent and more deadly. Yet, at the same time, no weapons of mass destruction had been found and Saddam's whereabouts were unknown. A series of terrorist bombings in August only increased the frustration level. A huge bomb early in the month nearly obliterated the Jordanian embassy. Then insurgents struck the UN headquarters in Baghdad with a massive explosion that killed the chief UN envoy to Iraq and twenty-two others.

The bad news was hurting Bush and the mission in Iraq—this was not how the war had been predicted to go. Some in the administration had insisted that grateful Iraqis would greet the coalition as liberators, but clearly this was not the case. The violent situation threatened the success of the war—not only from a military standpoint, but also from a political one.

At the higher levels of command there was an uncomfortable feeling that the situation was careening out of control. The insurgency threatened the reconstruction of Iraq that had been scheduled to follow Saddam's removal. In response, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld decided that it was time to "get tough"12 with Iraqis in the prison system who were suspected of being insurgents. After all, the coalition had almost no information on who they were or how they operated. If the insurgents were to be stopped and the reconstruction put back on track, such information could be vital.

The desperation to get better information to stop the carnage was keenly felt by soldiers and officers at Abu Ghraib. "There was extraordinary pressure being put on MI [military intelligence] from every angle to get better info," recalls Karpinski. "Where is Saddam? Find Saddam. And we want the weapons of mass destruction."13

Changing the Focus

One of the first steps in the new "get tough" approach was to send for Major General Geoffrey Miller, commander of the detention center at the Guantánamo naval base in Cuba. Guantánamo was the place where suspected terrorists from Afghanistan and elsewhere were taken to be interrogated. From August 31 to September 9, 2003, Miller visited detention facilities in Iraq. His stated mission was to show prison officials which interrogation techniques might be used to "break down" prisoners (that is, make them talk) more quickly. Miller urged the commanders of prisons in Iraq to focus more on interrogating prisoners and less on traditional prison functions, such as monitoring prisoners and making sure they did not escape.

In order to make the whole interrogation process more efficient, Miller recommended that military intelligence officers be put in charge of the interrogation facilities at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Intelligence officers had a different mission than ordinary soldiers—their main job was to find out information about the enemy. Miller briefed prison commanders on the techniques Guantánamo guards used on prisoners before their interrogations. Although guards normally do not assist in interrogations, the guards at Guantánamo had actively helped out interrogators. They rewarded prisoners who provided useful

General Miller's Visit to Abu Ghraib

In early September 2003, Major General Geoffrey Miller, commander of the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, visited Abu Ghraib prison. In an article entitled "Pressure at Iraqi Prison Detailed," the newspaper USA Today noted the apparent impact of that visit.

Regardless of Miller's intended impact on Abu Ghraib, two facts emerge from the documents: Discipline did not improve in the fall of 2003; if anything, it deteriorated. And harsh treatment of a limited number of inmates became a regular occurence."

"Seeking to shape up the intelligence-gathering at Abu Ghraib, the Bush administration ordered Army Maj. General Geoffrey Miller, commander of the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to examine the prison in Iraq. Miller . . . recommended that some of the same techniques used to break al-Qaeda fighters at Guantánamo be applied to prisoners in Iraq....

Miller has vehemently denied encouraging abusive treatment. But the report he produced from his initial tour of the Iraqi prison makes clear he wanted guards and military intelligence officers to work together on inmates in a coordinated fashion to maximize the results of interrogations.

information and punished those who did not. Miller felt that the same process could be used at Abu Ghraib.

Miller hammered home the message that the entire detention process should be designed to pressure inmates to provide information. As he explained to Karpinski that September, "You're going to see. We have control and [the prisoners] know it."14 Perhaps the first evidence of that new policy being put into operation was a cable sent by Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the senior military commander in Iraq, on September 14. In the cable to his boss at U.S. Central Command, Sanchez listed a group of more aggressive interrogation methods he planned to authorize immediately. These included most of the tactics Miller suggested.

Dealing with Prisoners of War

In essence, what Miller was proposing was that techniques previously used on captured terrorists now be used on suspected Iraqi insurgents. There were some important and controversial differences between the people being held at Abu Ghraib and the people being held at facilities in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, however. The treatment of detainees during wartime is a complicated subject, made especially more controversial during the war on terror. Prisoners of war, known as POWs, are protected under international laws called the Geneva Conventions. The most important of these were signed in Geneva, Switzerland, after World War II. Because atrocities against POWs have been so common in the past, the laws were written with the intent of holding nations to more humane standards. Murder, mutilation, cruel treatment, and torture of POWs are clearly against the law. Violations of personal dignity, including humiliating and degrading treatment, are also forbidden. By setting these standards, it was hoped that those who might be tempted to abuse helpless prisoners would choose not to if they knew their actions might one day be punished. The laws state that anyone accused of violating the Geneva Conventions will be brought before the International Court of Justice.

The United States had always been one of the conventions' strongest backers. Like most nations of the world, the United States signed the conventions because it was something a country could do to protect its own captured soldiers. By agreeing beforehand to treat the POWs it held humanely, the United States made it less likely that future enemies would commit atrocities against American soldiers.

The issue of treating POWs humanely, however, began to blur after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Many Americans, both inside and outside the Bush administration, believed that suspected terrorists did not deserve the protections of international law. It was argued that those who receive protection from the Geneva Conventions must be soldiers of a national military who fight in uniform—terrorists, it was said, do not fight for legitimate armies or wear distinguishable uniforms. For this and other reasons, many people argued that the terrorists that had been detained in the war on terror did not count as POWs and thus did not have to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

Moreover, the danger that suspected terrorists posed to society was said to be so great that all available tools should be used to get them to reveal details of their plans. The term for such information is "intelligence," and the war on terrorism was said to require good intelligence if the terrorists were to be defeated. Getting such information, however, often required controversial rough treatment. Cofer Black, former head of the CIA Counterterrorist Center told a joint hearing of Congress in September 2002 that the war on terror required tougher methods in order to properly deal with suspected terrorists."There was a before 9/11, and there is an after 9/11,"he said. "After 9/11, the gloves came off."15 Consequently, the United States began meting out harsh treatment to suspected terrorists in Afghanistan and elsewhere—treatment that fell outside the bounds of what was allowable under the Geneva Conventions and other international laws. When international complaints about the harsh treatment of detainees from Afghanistan surfaced in 2002, Rumsfeld dismissed them as of little importance. He believed that critics did not understand the significance of the information to be gathered from terrorists or the danger that their organization presented.

The situation in Iraq, however, was supposed to be different. Because, in the beginning at least, the Iraqis battling against the coalition were thought to be remnants of Saddam's army, the Bush administration agreed     that the Geneva Conventions applied fully. Iraqis fighting against the invasion of their own country were not exactly terrorists. Unfortunately, the American military police assigned to guard prisoners at Abu Ghraib knew little about the Geneva Conventions. With forces stretched thin, training soldiers in the Geneva Conventions had not been a high priority for military planners.

Given the stressful situation at Abu Ghraib and the lack of training of the soldiers asked to use the techniques imported from other detention facilities, there was considerable danger they would not be able to stay within the very delicate confines of the rules—and that prisoners would end up being abused.