The Legacy of Abu Ghraib
The Legacy of Abu Ghraib
The costs and effects of Abu Ghraib are substantial—and yet to be fully determined. When legal proceedings against the scandal's most visible participants began, it seemed likely that the scandal's ultimate cost would hinge on whether the U.S. government was seen as making a sincere effort to find and punish all those responsible. Despite unanswered questions about the ultimate responsibility, it is likely that the scandal had tarnished America's image as a defender of human rights and limited its international influence. The images of Abu Ghraib became recruiting tools for terrorists and increased the odds that American soldiers captured in future conflicts would be mistreated. The scandal also led to restrictions on presidential powers and raised questions about America's moral authority in the war on terrorism.
When the first photographs of U.S. soldiers humiliating and torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib were released, there was a sense that the way the situation was handled might mitigate the damage. Many Americans pointed out that, as appalling as the pictures were, the responsible parties would be found and justice would be served. Secretary of State Colin Powell sought to reassure foreign leaders that the situation would be corrected. "Watch America," he said. "Watch how we deal with this. Watch how America will do the right thing."83
Changes Caused by Abu Ghraib
Both the judicial system and the Bush administration made immediate attempts to rectify what happened at Abu Ghraib.
On June 23, 2004, in what was seen by many as an attempt to undo the damage done by the "torture memos," the Justice Department announced that it was rewriting its legal advice on how interrogations could be conducted. A few days later the CIA said that it was suspending the use of interrogation techniques at its detention facilities around the world until a ruling could be made on what was permissible. Suspended techniques included suffocating prisoners until they were close to losing consciousness, shining bright lights in their eyes, blasting them with loud noises, and forcing them into stressful positions.
Also in June, the Senate passed a measure attempting to limit U.S. interrogation techniques to those that the U.S. would consider legal for other nations to use. The proposed law also urged that detainees be released or prosecuted promptly—not held indefinitely.
In July 2004 the Supreme Court ruled that the president could not lock up suspected terrorists indefinitely without first giving them a chance to show that they had been wrongfully captured. Abu Ghraib was not mentioned in the decision, but according to Steven Shapiro, national legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union,"it is hard to believe that it did not affect the court and reinforce the view that unchecked power invites abuse."84
Finding Out Who Knew
Elizabeth Holtzman is a former congresswoman from New York who served on the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment of Richard Nixon. In an article for Newsday, she voiced the belief, shared by many, that undoing the damage of Abu Ghraib required a full accounting of the role of higher ranking officials:
"We need to know what directives [President] Bush gave for CIA and military interrogations in Iraq. We also need to know what the president and his subordinates, such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, knew about inhuman treatments of Iraqi prisoners—and when they knew it and what they did about it....
We know that the orders for inhuman treatment came directly from Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top military officer in Iraq. But we don't yet know where he got his orders....
We simply cannot prosecute only the 'small fry' [that is, the lone soldier] for this scandal that has undercut our mission in Iraq and besmirched our reputation. We have to demonstrate the rule of law applies to everyone responsible, including the president, if the evidence warrants.... There must be a thorough investigation of the higher-ups, and that requires a full congressional inquiry and the appointment of a special prosecutor.
The horrendous mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners has disgraced the United States and endangered our troops and citizens. The best way to vindicate our country and undo the damage done to Iraqi prisoners is to ensure that everyone responsible is held accountable—without exceptions. We may pay a terrible price if we fail to do so."
In the immediate aftermath of Abu Ghraib, charges were filed against six of the low-ranking soldiers whose faces could be identified from the photographs. The Defense Department was not disposed to act kindly toward these men and women. One official at the Pentagon referred to them as "the six morons who lost the war."85 Because twenty-four-year-old Specialist Jeremy Sivits agreed to plead guilty to all the criminal charges filed against him, he was the first accused offender to be sentenced. Sivits was given a year in prison and a discharge for bad conduct. He described the situation at Abu Ghraib as something out of a horror movie and apologized for what he had done."It was wrong. It should not have happened," he testified."I've let everybody down."86 In October 2004, Staff Sgt. Ivan "Chip" Frederick followed Sivits to prison. Frederick was given a sentence of eight years.
Sivits and Frederick were two of the seven low-ranking reservists initially accused of crimes. They and their fellow military policemen and policewomen all defended their actions in a similar fashion. Private First Class Lyndie England, a female soldier seen in photos leading a naked Iraqi around on a dog leash, said she had acted at the request of intelligence officers who wanted her to soften up prisoners for questioning. Sergeant Javal S. Davis, another of the military policemen charged with crimes, was asked why he did not report the abusive behavior he saw. He replied that Military Intelligence controlled that wing of the prison and that he and the other military police assumed that if they were doing anything wrong, someone would have said something. Davis was asked about Specialist Charles Graner, who seemed to have been involved in some of the most brutal abuses:
The MI [military intelligence] staffs, to my understanding, have been giving Graner compliments on the way he has been handling the MI holds [prisoners held by military intelligence], [an] example being statements like "Good job, they're breaking down real fast"; "They answer every question"; "They're giving out good information, finally"; and "Keep up the good work"—stuff like that.87
Like many of the MPs charged with offenses, Sivits pointed out that he and other prison guards had been working alongside military intelligence personnel who encouraged the very behavior he and others were now being punished for. Not until September 2004, however, was the first military intelligence soldier court-martialed. Specialist Armin Cruz was sentenced to eight months in jail for mistreating prisoners. In January 2005, Graner was sentenced to ten years in jail for his role in the abuse.
Did More Deserve Justice?
Although dozens of other MPs and intelligence specialists were facing punishment, some human rights advocates and other observers began to complain the investigators were focused too intently on the low end of the chain of command. It was believed that higher-ranking officials might be responsible for pieces of the puzzle but were not being investigated. It was still unclear, for example, who had ordered General Geoffrey Miller, the former commander at Guantánamo, to overhaul interrogation practices at Abu Ghraib. It was also unclear what intelligence recommendations Miller had made—and which ones were then approved by General Ricardo Sanchez, the top commander in Iraq. Sanchez told Congress he never approved the illegal use of dogs, yet he was not asked why his signature appeared on orders allowing interrogators to use dogs and other illegal measures. Perhaps the most important question that was left unanswered was the matter of exactly who, if anyone, in the Pentagon knew of the interrogation practices going on at Abu Ghraib.
Just Following Orders
Most of the MPs accused of abusing Iraqis inside Abu Ghraib said that they were following orders given to them by intelligence officers. The "following orders" defense is also called the Nuremberg defense because it was used in the Nuremberg trials which prosecuted Nazi war criminals after World War II.
Germans accused of war crimes claimed they were not responsible for their actions because they were only doing what their superiors told them. That was not considered a sufficient excuse—the judges at Nuremberg said that the accused should have known the orders were criminal. Likewise, during the Vietnam War, an American officer named William Calley used a similar defense unsuccessfully. Calley and his men killed most of the people living in a village called My Lai.
Lawyers for the accused MPs at Abu Ghraib, however, note that there is a big difference between murder and abuse. They also question whether reservists knew enough about the Geneva Conventions to disobey orders that violated them."Ask any American what the Geneva Conventions require in the gray area of intimidation, or ask a young, unsophisticated private guarding a prison while their buddies on the outside are being shot," said one defense lawyer."You're going to do exactly as they did if told to."
Although a jury could conclude that an accused soldier might not have known he or she was breaking the law, the accused faced a huge problem with such a defense—they also had to prove who gave them the orders. However, many of the officers and civilians working at Abu Ghraib never clearly identified themselves. In addition, some of the superior officers who were there denied giving orders to torture prisoners.
The Defense Department launched at least eight separate investigations after Abu Ghraib hit the news. Yet, the independence of the investigators—all of whom were working for their ultimate boss, Secretary Rumsfeld—was questioned from the very beginning."How," asked Reed Brody, special counsel for Human Rights Watch,"are investigators appointed by Rumsfeld going to determine whether Rumsfeld ordered, condoned, or acquiesced in torture?"88 Brody cited the first investigation conducted by Lieutenant General Paul Mikolashek, the army's inspector general. Mikolashek looked at ninety-four cases of detainee abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq. Brody believed that this many cases of abuse were clear evidence of a widespread pattern of abuse that must have been either condoned or ignored by superior officers. But Mikolashek concluded that the abuses did not result from any policy and were not the fault of senior officials. Instead, he said, they were unauthorized actions taken by a few individuals.
General Karpinski, who was relieved of her command, was the highest-ranking officer to be punished for Abu Ghraib. In public statements she insisted that she was being made a scapegoat for others above her who were more responsible. She claims that she argued with Miller when he recommended turning over the prison to military intelligence but that he insisted that she do so because his recommendation had the backing of Sanchez. Speaking of the area where the worst abuses occurred, she said,"That particular cellblock was under the control of the military intelligence command at the time and in fact from November on Abu Ghraib Prison was under the control of the military intelligence command."89 Karpinski's attorney, Neal Puckett, claims that the Taguba investigation's mission was limited to finding out what was wrong with the 800th MP Brigade and therefore was not likely to find wrongdoing elsewhere. He accused the investigation of not being interested in finding the truth: "The direction was not something terrible has happened, go find out what went wrong and . . . then we'll deal with it."90
Abu Ghraib and Arab Anger
Whether all of the appropriate people were brought to justice in America mattered little to the average Iraqi. The pictures of beatings and humiliations of their fellow citizens hardened Iraqi attitudes toward the coalition. Even before the abuses were revealed, many had been enraged by the treatment being doled out at Abu Ghraib and other prisons. Abdullah Abdurazzaq, a detainee who was mistreated at Abu Ghraib and then later released because he was innocent is still angry about what happened to him. "How can we not hate the Americans after the treatment we have received?" he asks."It is not human."91
Inadequate record keeping by American soldiers who did not speak Arabic increased the problems at Iraq's prisons and also hardened attitudes. Thousands of Iraqis were unable to find out where, or even if, missing family members were imprisoned. Misspelled names or data-entry errors made it impossible to locate hundreds of detainees. Sometimes detainee numbers were not on file or linked to a different name. Once behind bars, many detainees, including some children, were kept there indefinitely—even those who had done nothing wrong. Coalition leaders admitted that many detainees were imprisoned unnecesarily. All these indignities and humiliations contributed to a mounting frustration.
In a television interview about Abu Ghraib and its aftermath, Hisham Melhem, a correspondent for the Lebanese newspaper, As-Safir, described how the situation had affected Arab attitudes about the United States: "If you wanted to write a script or a scenario as to how you undermine the credibility of the United States in the Middle East today, you couldn't have done a better job.... I think one could argue if you have any illusions about winning hearts and minds in Iraq and the Arab world for that matter, you should forget that."92
However, some Americans believed that Arab outrage was extremely hypocritical given the lack of concern for human rights in the Arab world. "Indeed," wrote Frida Ghitis in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "some of those expressing shock and horror at the very thought of prisoner mistreatment are governments whose use of torture is routine."93 Whether or not the outrage was hypocritical, it was definitely widespread within Iraq itself. Newsweek reported that the first poll taken inside Iraq after Abu Ghraib showed that the scandal had accelerated a long-term decline in support for the U.S. occupation. Although 71 percent of Iraqis said the incidents at Abu Ghraib surprised them, most agreed that such abuses were widespread. And, a distressingly high number—54 percent—said they believed that "all Americans behave this way."94
The Iraqi loss of confidence in the American mission in Iraq went hand in hand with greater support for the resistance and increased violence. Although a direct cause and effect relation was impossible to prove, the Abu Ghraib scandal seemed to have provoked the insurgency and significantly endangered coalition troops. As one Iraqi, Majid al-Salim, put it,"Americans are driving people into the arms of the Maqawama [the resistance]. We now look back at Saddam's era with nostalgia. He was a good leader. There was security."95
In the months after the scandal broke, the level of violence and bloodshed inside Iraq climbed steeply. Attacks on U.S. and other occupying forces increased to between forty and fifty a day (more than double what they had been early in the year) and continued to rise. In September 2004 there were more than twenty-three hundred attacks on civilian and military targets inside Iraq.
American soldiers who had never abused any detainees were angered that what had happened at Abu Ghraib made their jobs more dangerous. Mike Billips, a reporter for Time, visited soldiers near the Fort Stewart army base in Hinesville, Georgia, not long after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. The soldiers he talked to were either on their way to Iraq or had just returned. None were pleased about what had happened.
"It makes me mad that we fight this war to help these folks and somebody does this [that is, abuse prisoners],"96 said Chris Crozier, a mechanic with the 3rd Infantry Division. Billips found that while the soldiers might disagree on who was responsible, all agreed that the soldiers on the ground would have to face the rage that abuse had sparked. The rising death toll of Americans since the scandal suggests that the soldiers' fears were justified.
Another long-term effect of Abu Ghraib could be that American soldiers captured in future conflicts will face mistreatment. According to journalist Seymour Hersh, a two-star general complained to him about what he felt was a likely outcome of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal."Look, I take my boys into combat, and the last thing that I want is to know that [if] my boys get captured, they're going to be stripped naked, hands tied and hoods put over their heads. . . . We've opened the door for them to do it to us more."97
Soldiers were not the only Americans who had to pay a price for what happened inside Abu Ghraib. Businessmen, travelers, and diplomats all faced increased danger as a rash of kidnappings and beheadings swept the country. In May 2004 a U.S. businessman named Nick Berg was captured inside Iraq by Islamic militants. A grisly videotape of him being beheaded was then sent to news organizations. Berg's killers claimed that his murder was carried out to avenge the abuses of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib. Likewise in June, when Islamic radicals in Saudi Arabia kidnapped a U.S. military contractor in Riyadh, they announced that they had a legal right to treat him the same way that Iraqi prisoners had been treated at Abu Ghraib.
An Overblown Scandal?
Despite the surge in violence, many Americans believed that the scandal and its fallout were greatly exaggerated. Although the abuse of prisoners was abhorrent, they argued that America on the whole treats its prisoners far better than most other countries. Some suspected that the uproar over Abu Ghraib was being manipulated for political gain by forces opposed to the Bush administration. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma expressed that viewpoint when he spoke out during congressional hearings on the matter."I'm probably not the only one up at this table that is more outraged by the outrage than we are by the treatment,"he said."I have to say . . . that I would guess that these prisoners wake up every morning thanking Allah that Saddam Hussein is not in charge of these prisons."98
Others pointed to the way the scandal was being handled as proof that the United States was acting honorably."In all the furor over the photographs from Abu Ghraib, what's been overlooked by many is the fact that the American military was not only already investigating allegations but announced that the inquiry had begun three months ago,"wrote Mortimer B. Zuckerman in U.S. News & World Report. "Major General Antonio Taguba's investigation was thorough and his conclusion was that the abuse was the result of the actions of a handful of guards and their superiors, not the result of an official policy or order."99
Americans like Gordon Bishop, an author, historian, and syndicated newspaper columnist, were similarly disappointed in the uproar over Abu Ghraib:
Why are American leaders apologizing for fighting terrorists? ... There never should be apologies in a global war on terrorists.... What happened at a prison in Iraq to some prisoners of war has been blown all out of proportion by the self-righteous, politically correct liberals opposing the "War on Terror."President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did not have to apologize for the humiliation suffered by some Iraqi prisoners at the hands of a few dumb soldiers.100
Bishop believed that any comparison between U.S. military treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Saddam's famed brutalities was innaccurate and ridiculous.
Still other Americans believed the nation was in a struggle to the death with Islamic terrorists and thus applauded any action that helped defend the country, including the rough treatment of terrorists. Writer Tammy Bruce vividly expresses that viewpoint in an article for FrontPageMagazine.com.
I believe when it comes to Al-Qaida leadership and operatives, anything goes. I don't care if you put women's underwear on their heads, or frankly, even pull out a few fingernails of those responsible for mass murder, to unmask their continuing plans for the genocide of civilized peoples.... It's called "torture lite," it works, and I'm all for whatever it takes to get information, and, yes, to punish and annihilate terrorist leadership around the world.101
Abu Ghraib and the War on Terrorism
However, one of the more troubling aspects of Abu Ghraib is that it has the potential to make the apprehension of terrorists more difficult. In order to win the war on terrorism the United States will need the cooperation of nations where terrorists seek refuge. But the prison scandal helped spur a sharp rise in anti-Americanism all over the Middle East and, to a lesser extent, Islamic nations elsewhere. In that atmosphere, cooperation may be difficult.
The photographs from Abu Ghraib inflamed public opinion. Honor is extremely important in Arab culture and the images from inside the prison seem to show the human dignity of Arabs under systematic attack. Newspapers and television stations in the Arab world ran many more pictures of Abu Ghraib than did the Western media. They were also much more likely to interpret the abuses as a direct affront to their culture and religion. A claim heard often in Iraq was that America was just like Saddam's ruling party—a regime that tortured and killed thousands of devout Muslims.
Meanwhile, extremist Islamic groups were all too happy to encourage that kind of thinking because it made people more receptive to their anti-American messages. The pictures from Abu Ghraib served their purposes well. The Islamic religion teaches that it is shameful and immoral to expose one's body in public and has strict rules regarding sexual behavior. Religious Muslims were outraged to see the near-pornographic pictures of fellow Muslims being shamed in such a way. It was all the proof that some devout Muslims needed that the United States was indeed a godless and profane country that must be driven from the Middle East, as the extremist groups claimed.
Did Abu Ghraib Help the Terrorists?
Reed Brody, a counsel for Human Rights Watch and author of Disappeared: The U.S. Ghost Detainees, makes the case that the rough treatment of terrorist suspects at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere weakened the war on terror and lessened respect for the United States. In an article for the International Herald Tribune, he explains why:
"These [the detainees] are not nice men, to say the least. Why should we care about what happens to them? First, because, despite the information apparently gleaned from some of these suspects, overall the U.S. treatment of its prisoners has been a boon rather than a setback for Al Qaeda, and has thereby made the world less safe from terror. As the Sept. 11 commission [the panel that studied the attacks of September 11 and made recommendations on how to deal with terrorism] said,'allegations that the United States abused prisoners in its custody make it harder to build the diplomatic, political, and military alliances the government will need.'
Second, the torture and 'disappearance' of prisoners by the United States invites all the unsavory governments in the world to do the same. Indeed, countries from Sudan to Zimbabwe have already cited Abu Ghraib and other U.S. actions to justify their own practices or to blunt criticism.
But our concern must stem, first and fore-most, from the acceptance of methods which are antithetical to a democracy and which betray the U.S. identity as a nation of law. If the United States embraces the torture and 'disappearance'of its opponents, it abandons its ideals and becomes a lesser nation."
Indeed, some argue that after the prison scandal, attitudes toward the United States in the Middle East had reached an all-time low. Stephen Holmes, research director of the Center for Law and Security at New York University, believes that Arabs and Muslims who were once friendly or neutral toward the United States are becoming increasingly hostile."This," he says,"is a very dangerous development, since it means that anti-American attitudes are putting more Middle Easterners beyond the reach of diplomacy."102
On the other hand, others were convinced that the disturbing images from Abu Ghraib would have no effect on the larger war on terror. According to author Gordon Cucullu, worrying about public opinion in the Middle East is pointless:
From a practical standpoint, it is difficult to see how [they could hate us more].... They danced in the street in joy [on September 11, 2001]. They bounce on the hoods of destroyed Humvees and drag American bodies through the streets....
I worry less about the Arab Street [Arab public opinion] losing its "good will" than I would fret about a recurring Ice Age.103
Questioning What America Stands For
It is likely, however, that the legacy of the Abu Ghraib scandal will have far-reaching consequences for the military and for America's moral authority in the world. Until September 11, 2001, soldiers were bound by a strict code as to how to treat prisoners. In essence, the policy was that the United States treated prisoners as it wanted its own soldiers to be treated if captured. That code of honor appears to have eroded at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.
Fiaz Khan, a citizen of Pakistan, outlines the challenge facing the nation in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib."People look up to the ideals of the American constitution and recognize it as America's real glory and greatness," says Khan. "Abu Ghraib . . . [makes] it difficult to distinguish the U.S. government from its enemies."104
Whether the damage will be long lasting remains to be seen. If the affair is handled in a way that seems just to fair-minded people—and more abuses do not surface in the meantime—then the cost in American influence and prestige may be contained. President Bush and many others have called the war on terrorism a war of ideas. "Now, as the photographs of Abu Ghraib make clear,"says Mark Danner,"it has also become a struggle over what, if anything, really does represent America."105