A Scandal Breaks
A Scandal Breaks
International human rights organizations, as well as individual soldiers troubled by incidents they witnessed, attempted to alert authorities to the abuses taking place at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 and early 2004. Although the army knew about the abuses by January and conducted an investigation, little substantive action had been taken by April 2004. Few people outside of Iraq had ever heard of Saddam's infamous prison until the images of prisoners being abused suddenly showed up in their newspapers and on their television screens. At that point the world reacted with horror and outrage.
Hints of Disaster
Complaints about prisoners being abused were registered almost as soon as Abu Ghraib reopened. One of the first hints that the prison might be in violation of international standards came from the human rights organization Amnesty International. In July 2003, the organization reported that released prisoners from Abu Ghraib complained of extreme heat while housed in tents, insufficient water, inadequate washing facilities, open trenches for toilets, and no change of clothes—even after two months of detention. For these reasons, Amnesty International criticized the U.S. military for subjecting Iraqis to "cruel, inhumane or degrading"31 conditions. They also complained that detainees were forced to wear hoods for long periods of time, were deprived of sleep, or forced to remain in painful positions for hours at a time.
The International Committee of the Red Cross also was aware of prisoner-related problems in Iraq. The Red Cross monitors the behavior of governments at war to ensure that they abide by the terms of the Geneva Conventions. In that role the group conducts unannounced inspections of prisons in war zones. A month after two unannounced inspections of Abu Ghraib in October 2003—visits that included a tour of the cell block where the worst abuses were taking place—the Red Cross complained in writing to the military. Although they witnessed prisoners being kept naked in completely dark and empty concrete cells, no corrective action was taken. And, in fact, when the Red Cross delegates requested an explanation from the authorities, they were told that the practice was "part of the process"32 and would therefore continue. A confidential letter that military officials sent to the Red Cross explained that many Iraqi prisoners were not entitled to the full protections of the Geneva Conventions—a position that conflicted with the Bush administration's public statements that the Geneva Conventions were "fully applicable"33 in Iraq.
Karpinski would claim later that, despite the serious charges made by the Red Cross that fall, senior officers in Baghdad treated the reports in a lighthearted manner. Meanwhile, the army's response to the Red Cross's November complaint bordered on annoyance. They also told the Red Cross that in the future no-notice inspections would not be permitted at the site—all inspections would have to be scheduled in advance.
That may help explain Abu Salem's recollection of a Red Cross visit in January 2004. Salem was a forty-one-year-old Iraqi who spent six months in Abu Ghraib before being released. He claimed that although the detainees in his wing were kept naked all the time, the night before the Red Cross visit they were given new clothes. "They told us that if we complained to the Red Cross about our treatment we would be kept in jail forever," said Salem. "They said they would never let us out."34
Warnings from Within
Members of human rights organizations were not alone in being troubled by what was going on inside Abu Ghraib that fall. Some within the army itself were raising concerns. The highest ranking officer to do so was Major General Donald Ryder. His report on Iraq's prison systems was released on November 5, 2003. Although Ryder found that Abu Ghraib was overcrowded and lacked basic sanitation and medical facilities, he differed from the Red Cross in that he saw no evidence of prisoner abuse. Ryder may have missed the abuses because his assignment was to study the capabilities of the prison system—not to inspect any one specific prison.
However, Ryder identified a major problem that would soon become glaringly evident—the role of the military police in Iraqi prisons was not clearly defined. MPs seemed responsible for two things. As prison guards, they were supposed to help make prisons run safely and efficiently. But they also seemed to be assisting interrogators in squeezing information out of captives. Ryder did not think the two roles were compatible. Soldiers assigned duty as prison guards are usually not part of the interrogation teams. It takes years of training and experience to became a good interrogator. None of the prison guards, however, had any training on interrogating prisoners. Despite their lack of training, some of the guards working in Iraq's prisons had worked with interrogators. Before Iraq they had served in Afghanistan, where author Seymour Hersh wrote they had helped "set favorable conditions"35 for interrogators. That was a nice way of saying that guards helped break the will of prisoners so that they would be more likely to talk to interrogators. But, having untrained nineteen- or twenty-year-old guards administering punishments was a situation that demanded strong supervision. Ryder was concerned enough to call for the establishment of clear procedures. By then, however, it was too late—the worst abuses were already occurring.
Some of the soldiers who observed those abuses tried to alert their superiors. Specialist Matthew Wisdom, for example, questioned the treatment of seven prisoners, who were hooded and bound, that he delivered to Tier 1 at Abu Ghraib. Although those prisoners had been accused of starting a riot in another section of the prison, Wisdom was shocked by the rough treatment they received: "Specialist First Class 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 Staff Sgt Frederick, Sgt Davis, and Corporal Graner walking around the pile hitting the prisoners."Wisdom left the area for a few minutes, but on his return he "saw two naked detainees, one masturbating to another.... I thought I should just get out of there. I didn't think it was right.... I saw Staff Sgt. Frederick walking towards me, and he said, 'Look what these animals do when you leave them alone for two seconds.'"36
Wisdom was disgusted by what the guards were forcing the prisoners to do. He told his superiors about what had happened and assumed the matter would be taken care of."I just didn't want to be part of anything that looked criminal,"37 he said.
Members of the Detainee Assessment Branch at Abu Ghraib had raised similar concerns. Their job was to screen detainees for possible release. The vast majority of those they dealt with had been found innocent of any activities that threatened the coalition and were about to be set free. As a part of the release process, interrogators often asked prisoners about their treatment while in U.S. custody. The answers they received made them uneasy.
"One guy said he was thrown to the ground and [was] stepped on the head," said one soldier."That's when I started paying attention to it."38 They also heard from a woman prisoner who claimed she was repeatedly kicked by a guard. Other prisoners told of electric shocks, of being forced to stand naked while female interrogators made fun of their genitals, and how a group of blindfolded former Iraqi generals were beaten until covered in blood. One prisoner's file included photos of burns inflicted on his body. "We couldn't believe what we were hearing," said one of the soldiers. Concerned that crimes were being committed, the soldiers in the Detainee Assessment Branch passed along what they heard in the reports to their superiors."We didn't want people to know that we knew about it and didn't report it,"39 one soldier explained. Their reports were sent up the chain of command to Karpinski, General Barbara Fast, and a military lawyer. Whether they were read is not known.
Blowing the Whistle
Immediately after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, reporter Andrew A. Green attempted to learn more about Specialist Joseph Darby, the soldier who alerted the army to the abuses going on there. Green spoke with Darby's wife in Cumberland, Maryland, and the interview was published in the Baltimore Sun:
"Bernadette Darby, [Joseph's] wife of six years, said she didn't know a thing about her husband's role in uncovering the scandal until a reporter called yesterday. But it sounded like something he would do, she said. 'Whenever he knows something's wrong, he doesn't stand by it,'she said.'I'm behind him 100 percent.' ... Joseph Darby wasn't excited to be deployed to Iraq, Bernadette Darby said, because he had recently returned from a tour of duty in the Balkans. But once he got there, he came to believe that the United States needs to be in Iraq....
Bernadette Darby said she is a little nervous about how other military families will react to her husband's role in uncovering the scandal, but she said she is proud of him and would do the same if she were in his situation. 'It sickened me whenever I saw those pictures,'she said.'Trust me, his whole unit, they're not all like that. The community is in an uproar about it, and it's just—they're not all sick like that.'"
A Shocking CD
What is known for certain is that no action was taken until mid-January. That was when a military policeman in the 372nd named Joseph Darby came across a computer CD belonging to Specialist Charles Graner. The CD contained numerous digital photographs of guards taunting naked Iraqi prisoners who were forced to assume humiliating poses. The Iraqis were piled in human pyramids or forced to simulate oral sex or masturbation with each other. At least one photo showed a naked Iraqi being led around with a leash. Another showed an Iraqi standing on a box and connected to electric wires. Some photos showed terrified prisoners being confronted by dogs. There were also pictures of the battered faces of two dead Iraqis.
Darby was shocked by the pictures and felt that someone should know about them. His first action was to anonymously put the disk in an envelope and slide it under the door of a member of the army's criminal investigation division. Later, Darby agreed to testify about what he had seen. In contrast to their response to the written complaints of human rights organizations, the army's reaction to the photos uncovered by Darby was remarkably swift. There was little doubt that the pictures could trigger a public relations disaster—the photos had been passed from computer to computer within the unit and might already be on the Internet. The day after Darby slipped the CD under the door, a criminal investigation was launched. Four days later, a guard leader and a company commander at the prison were suspended from their duties. Karpinski was also quietly suspended. On January 19, 2004, General Ricardo Sanchez, the senior commander in Iraq, ordered a separate, high-level investigation of the 800th Military Police Brigade. Major General Antonio Taguba was named to head that investigation. He and a team of investigators spent the entire month of February conducting interviews at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in Iraq.
Crimes amid Chaos
Taguba found a prison in chaos. It was filled beyond capacity while the guards who were supposed to be ensuring order were undertrained, undermanned, and short of the resources to do their job properly. He also discovered that horrific abuses had indeed occurred. He cited numerous examples of "sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses."40 These abuses included "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."41
The situation was even more appalling when one realized, as Taguba's final report concluded, that the majority of detainees at Abu Ghraib were not guilty of anything other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A confidential report given to the White House by the Red Cross noted that military intelligence officers they had talked with had estimated that 70 to 90 percent of the prisoners detained in Iraq had been arrested by mistake. Taguba said that at least 60 percent of the inmates at Abu Ghraib were not deemed a threat, yet, because of a lack of a proper system to release them in a timely manner, many had been kept behind bars indefinitely.
In addition, Taguba had little good to say about what he claimed was the widest range of leadership failings he had ever seen. He was appalled at how poorly prepared the soldiers working in Iraq's prisons had been for their difficult mission, and he attributed that to poor leadership. He recommended that Karpinski and seven military police officers and enlisted men not only be removed from command but formally reprimanded. On February 26, 2004, seventeen military personnel were suspended from their duties, but no details of their crimes were given to the public. On March 20, six low-ranking soldiers were charged with abuses at Abu Ghraib.
Major General Antonio Taguba, the army officer who first investigated the abuses at Abu Ghraib, is a Filipino immigrant whose own father was tortured during World War II. Tomas Taguba was captured by the Japanese and survived the infamous Bataan Death March, a forced march in which between five and eleven thousand Allied soldiers died.
The Taguba family moved to Hawaii from the Philippines when Antonio was eleven years old. After graduating from college at Idaho State in 1972, he joined the U.S. Army. As an officer he rose through the ranks and after twenty-five years of service became a general. During his career, Major General Taguba has been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, and the Bronze Star. His reputation for honesty and integrity is a likely reason he was chosen to conduct the first investigation into the Abu Ghraib Scandal.
Investigation Remained Secret
Since the Taguba report was classified as secret, its findings were not passed on to the American public. There seems to have been a conscious effort to keep Taguba's finding within military circles. No doubt there was concern that the shocking abuses he found would cause an uproar if generally known—both within the United States and the rest of the world.
Even inside the military, knowledge of Abu Ghraib was severely restricted."Everybody I've talked to said, 'We just didn't know'—not even in the J.C.S. [Joint Chiefs of Staff],"42 one well-informed former intelligence official reported. The entire investigation was conducted under conditions of unusual secrecy. Although Taguba's superior approved the report on April 6, few of the nation's top military leaders at the Pentagon were aware of the report's explosive findings.
The public comments made by Bush during this time suggest that he, too, had little awareness of the conclusions reached by the Taguba report. During March and April he and other members of his administration made a number of statements celebrating the fact that rape and torture were no longer a feature of Iraqi life. For example, the president told a group of women on March 12, 2004, that, "Every woman in Iraq is better off because the rape rooms and torture chambers of Saddam Hussein are forever closed."43
A Bombshell Broadcast
The lid of secrecy over the scandal, however, was about be blown off with a dramatic one-two punch. On April 12 the CBS television news program 60 Minutes II informed officials at the Pentagon in Washington that they were about to broadcast a story on Abu Ghraib prison—a story that included graphic photographs of guards abusing prisoners. General Richard Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a hasty call to CBS News anchorman Dan Rather requesting that the broadcast be delayed. Meyers claimed that the pictures could incite violence against U.S. troops and might endanger hostages held by Iraqi militants. CBS agreed to delay the broadcast, but on April 28 they ran the story.
The broadcast showed numerous photographs of guards posing next to naked prisoners, as well as shots of prisoners being forced into simulated sex acts. It also mentioned the existence of a picture of a dead Iraqi who appeared to have been badly beaten. One memorable shot, which, for many people, would come to represent the whole Abu Ghraib affair, showed a prisoner standing on a box with electrodes attached to his arms. Reportedly, he was told that if he fell off the box he would be electrocuted. Such methods were used to keep exhausted prisoners from falling asleep while standing up. Another hard-to-forget image showed a guard dog attacking a terrified, naked prisoner. In many of the pictures the Americans were laughing, posing, pointing, or giving the camera a thumbs-up.
A spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq also spoke during the 60 Minutes report. Brigadier General Mark Kimmett, deputy director of coalition operations in Iraq, noted that,"If we can't hold ourselves up as an example of how to treat people with dignity and respect, we can't ask that other nations do that to our soldiers."44 Kimmit did his best to limit the damage to America's image. He said that, if given the opportunity, he would tell the Iraqi people that these actions were reprehensible and not representative of all Americans. He had a similar message for the American people:"Don't judge your army based on the actions of a few."45
The CBS report was followed a few days later by an article in the New Yorker by Seymour Hersh that revealed the findings of the Taguba report. Taken together, the CBS broadcast and Hersh's article unleashed a firestorm of criticism—both within the United States and internationally. Like other international observers, La Razon, a newspaper in Madrid, Spain, noted that the damage done went far beyond Iraq: "The authors of these despicable acts have not only degraded Iraqi prisoners; the humiliation has been suffered by the values of freedom and democracy that, theoretically, the forces of the West represent and defend."46 South Africa's Business Day expanded on a similar theme, wondering whether the scandal "may be the end of the assumption that the great democracies of the west are run by men and women of honor.... Being taken prisoners by the British or the Americans used to be a guarantee of safety. No longer."47 The pictures from Abu Ghraib horrified even America's strongest ally, Britain."We went to Iraq to get rid of that type of thing, not to do it,"48 said British prime minister Tony Blair.
Understandably, the harshest condemnations came from the Middle East. In an interview with Ray Suarez of the Public Broadcasting System, Hisham Melhem, a correspondent for the Lebanese newspaper, As-Safir, voiced a disgust that was nearly universal in the Arab world:
A Promise by the President
On May 5, 2004, President Bush attempted to address the anger in the Arab world over Abu Ghraib by appearing on Al Arabiya, a twenty-four hour news station based in the Middle East. One of the first questions the reporter asked was how the president thought the scandal would be perceived in the Middle East:
"Terrible. I think people in the Middle East who want to dislike America will use this as an excuse to remind people about their dislike. I think the average citizen will say, this isn't a country that I've been told about. We're a great country because we're a free country, and we do not tolerate these kind of abuses....
Secondly, it's very important for the people of the Middle East to realize that the troops we have overseas are decent, honorable citizens who care about freedom and peace; that they are working daily in Iraq to improve the lives of the Iraqi citizens, and these actions of a few people do not reflect the nature of the men and women who serve our country."
People were shocked, they were stunned that these abuses were occurring and that the Americans were the perpetrators now. Those who came supposedly to Iraq as liberators ended up as tormentors of those people. The irony is that these abuses were taking place in Abu Ghraib, the most notorious prison during Saddam's regime, a facility that should have been razed to the ground and in its place built a shrine or memorial to its many victims.49
Al-Ahram, a newspaper in Cairo, Egypt, was not alone in predicting that the scandal would ensure Arab hate and distrust of American policies for decades. Ahmed Abu Zeid, a member of Egypt's parliament, warned "that the savage way the Americans dealt with Iraqi prisoners could create generations of [terrorist mastermind Osama] Bin Ladens determined to take revenge and retaliate against America."50
Mixed Reactions at Home
President Bush was quick to assure the world that the United States was not practicing torture."Let me make very clear the position of my government and our country: We do not condone torture," the president said."I have never ordered torture. I will never torture. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being."51 His words did little to put the issue to rest, however. Most Americans reacted with shock and dismay to news of the Iraqi prison scandal. As the shock wore off, controversy erupted. While some people were upset by the evidence suggesting that American soldiers were engaged in torture, others felt that the affair had been blown out of proportion. Two letters, published side by side in Time magazine, illustrate how Americans could think about the scandal in entirely different ways. Ross Edwards of Palatine, Illinois, was appalled by the fact that the abuses at Abu Ghraib put all American soldiers in greater danger while at the same time tarnishing the nation's reputation:
As a former U.S. soldier who served in Iraq, I am ashamed of the abuse inflicted on Abu Ghraib prisoners by American troops. The actions shown in the photographs were deliberate, and the soldiers' excuse that they were simply following orders is absurd. Every U.S. service member has the right to decline an order that is morally wrong. All the proper training in the world cannot replace a lack of morals. This scandal undermines everything that I and many others did to help the Iraqi people.52
Meanwhile, Chase Hoozer of Houston, Texas, spoke for those who believed that the scandal was overblown:"We should be angered by the extensive outrage over Abu Ghraib. It's easy for people to judge soldiers, but I thank them for the job they are doing. They are dealing with fighters who kill Americans without thought or concern. The critics should shut up."53
Still others argued that what the photographs depicted was not so much abuse as aggressive hazing or joking. Still others argued that in the new war on terror, the United States owed no apologies. Influential radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh emphatically told his audience of roughly 20 million listeners that what had happened at Abu Ghraib was no different than a prank at a college fraternity and that it would be a tragedy if soldiers' lives were ruined over it. "I'm talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You [ever] heard of the need to blow some steam off?"54
Rumsfeld Under Attack
Perhaps the most visible administration figure in the days after the scandal broke was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld quickly came under fire for behavior that suggested he did not consider the issue a high priority. He admitted that he had not read the Taguba report, which had been completed in February, until the first week of May. He had also not looked at the sickening photographs from Abu Ghraib until more than a week after they were shown on 60 Minutes II. Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee were upset because Rumsfeld had briefed them on the Iraq war on the same day that the 60 Minutes story ran, yet he had not warned them about the shocking images that he knew were about to be broadcast. Some White House aides complained that, while Rumsfeld had mentioned Abu Ghraib to President Bush back in February, he had done so with little sense of urgency.
Rumsfeld also faced tough questions about the possibility of American troops committing murders. One of the more disturbing photos from Abu Ghraib showed a dead body wrapped in cellophane. According to reporter Seymour Hersh, the bruised and battered corpse had been packed in ice until someone decided the best way to dispose of it. After twenty-four hours, men posing as medics placed a fake intravenous needle in one arm, then took the body away to an undisclosed location. One of the guards testified that the dead man's name had never been entered into the prison's inmate-control system. Calls for an explanation by Rumsfeld increased when it was revealed that since September 11 at least twenty-four other prisoners had died while in U.S. custody. "We're not just talking about giving people a humiliating experience,"said Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina. "We're talking about rape and murder and some very serious charges."55
Graham was far from the only lawmaker who wanted answers about Abu Ghraib. Both Democrats and Republicans expressed outrage. On Friday, May 7, Rumsfeld spent an uncomfortable day testifying to Congress about Abu Ghraib. He said he took full responsibility for what happened, but at the same time he implied that the scandal could have been prevented if someone had stepped forward."It breaks our hearts," he said at one point,"that someone did not say, 'Wait. Look, this is terrible. We need to do something.'"56
A Vow to Find the Truth
President Bush's actions immediately after the scandal broke left little doubt that he thought the matter was of grave concern. He said that the photographs sickened him, and he insisted that the events at Abu Ghraib did not represent the true nature of the American people. He also took the unprecedented step of going on satellite television to broadcast an explanation to the Arab world:
This is a serious matter. It's a matter that reflects badly on my country. Our citizens in America are appalled by what they saw, just like people in the Middle East are appalled. We share the same deep concerns. And we will find the truth, we will fully investigate. The world will see the investigation and justice will be served.57
Indeed, it became apparent to many observers that the way in which the scandal was handled could serve to salvage some of the damage done, or threaten to make things worse. As one Washington Post editorial reluctantly concluded:"Pentagon officials say they will pursue investigations vigorously and that those guilty of crime will be brought to justice. It is essential to the preservation of this country's fundamental values that they do so."58
Whether relations with Arab countries could be mended remained to be seen, but the widespread shock and outrage spurred the U.S. government to launch a series of investigations that May. The investigators' findings, it was hoped, would explain whether the atrocities at Abu Ghraib were caused by the actions of a few renegade soldiers—or were evidence of a deeper, more widespread problem.