Tales of Torture

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Chapter Two
Tales of Torture

By the fall of 2003 the growing Iraqi insurgency led to a renewed focus on the interrogation of Iraqi detainees. But the emphasis on getting intelligence that might save coalition lives also led to increased use of cruelty and torture by poorly trained guards at Abu Ghraib. Meanwhile, the reality of what was taking place inside the prison proved far different from the reality presented to the outside world by American military and government figures.

Miller's changes to the interrogation process appear to have been put into practice almost immediately. In early October 2003, a few weeks after his visit, control of Iraq's prisons was turned over to military intelligence officers. These officers, as well as officers from the Central Intelligence Agency and even private contractors hired by the Defense Department, began overseeing the interrogations of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Their most pressing need was to get information about the growing insurgency. With that aim in mind, the entire detention process was considered a prelude to an effective interrogation. Consequently, military police and guards began taking orders from interrogators. This was highly unusual—normally, military police and guards take orders from officers in military police units. The unorthodox situation would prove to have far-reaching consequences.

Mysterious Questioners

The interrogators had a different set of priorities than the military police and guards, and they were accountable to an entirely different set of superiors. As far as many of them were concerned, their mission was to extract information from the detainees in any way they could. The interrogators did not operate openly. They often covered up their name tags or the insignia that showed their rank, indicating that they did not want to be identified. Others wore only civilian clothes and removed their name tags inside the prison. When military police or guards asked interrogators to identify themselves, they sometimes gave phony names. Sergeant Javal S. Davis, one of the military policemen later accused of abuses, recalls receiving answers like "I'm Special Agent John Doe" or "I'm Special Agent in Charge James Bond."16

The interrogators' reluctance to identify themselves indicated that what was going on inside the prison was not in accordance with the standard procedures used in previous wars. But it also confused soldiers who were not always sure whom they should be taking orders from. The secrecy and the difficulty of knowing whether an order was legitimate led to an atmosphere where the bounds of acceptable behavior were unclear. In the end an "anything goes" attitude prevailed among some of the guards.

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh noted that the chain of command at Abu Ghraib was so murky that interrogators and other mysterious figures who gave orders were sometimes compared to ghosts:

It was not clear who was who, even to Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, then the commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade and the officer ostensibly in charge."I thought most of the civilians there were interpreters, but there were some civilians that I didn't know," Karpinski told me."I called them the disappearing ghosts. I'd seen them once in a while at Abu Ghraib and then I'd see them months later.... "The mysterious civilians," she said, were "always bringing in somebody for interrogation or waiting to collect somebody going out." Karpinski added that she had no idea who was operating in her prison system.17

From Maryland to the Middle East

There was plenty of confusion and unprofessional behavior at Abu Ghraib in the fall of 2003, and the members of the 372nd Military Police Company found themselves in the thick of it. A reserve unit from Maryland, the 372nd was sent to guard prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Their duty station included the cellblock known as Tier 1 or, as it was also called,"the hard site."18 It was the part of the prison where detainees thought most likely to have important information about the insurgency were held.

The 372nd arrived at Abu Ghraib just as control of the prison was turned over to interrogators. They received only two days of on-the-job training from the unit they were replacing. That training did not include any information on how prisoners of war should be treated under the Geneva Conventions.

The 372nd soon found itself under a great deal of pressure—both from Iraqi detainees and from their superiors. When they first began work at the prison, they had only two hundred captives to watch over. But that number soared to as many as sixteen hundred after a series of deadly roadside bombings caused the coalition to arrest more and more Iraqis as suspects. Once likely suspects were brought to Abu Ghraib for interrogation, they were given rough treatment—particularly those brought to Tier 1. Both military policemen and prison guards there have testified that they were asked to "soften up" prisoners before interrogations. They were told, "Loosen this guy up for us" or "Make sure he has a bad night."19

"Rape Rooms and Torture Chambers"

The harsh treatment of detainees conflicted with public statements being made by American officials. In October, Bush announced to the world that "Iraq is now free of rape rooms and torture chambers."20 At about the same time, General Karpinski told a reporter for the television show 60 Minutes that prisoners were getting the best care available. Karpinski even bragged that "Living conditions now are better in prison than at home. At one point we were concerned that they wouldn't want to leave."21

Meanwhile, inside parts of Abu Ghraib, some Iraqi detainees were experiencing a different kind of reality. Their sworn statements (made later as part of an army investigation into criminal behavior at the prison) indicate that Abu Ghraib was not the model facility that some claimed.

The worst abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib occurred in an area known as Tier 1. Statements from prisoners held captive in that area of Abu Ghraib report that most were stripped naked upon arrival. Then they were repeatedly humiliated in front of each other and American soldiers, both men and women. There were frequent and severe beatings as well as threats of death and sexual assault if they did not provide interrogators with the information they were looking for.

Mohanded Juma, an Iraqi detainee, recalls his first few days in Tier 1 in his sworn testimony:

They stripped me from my clothes . . . after a short period of time, approximately at two at night, the door opened and Grainer [Specialist Charles Graner] was there. He cuffed my hands behind my back and he cuffed my feet and he took me to the shower room.... Then Grainer and another man ... [who] was young and tall came into the room. They threw pepper in my face and the beating started. This went on for half an hour. And then he started beating me with a chair until the chair was broken. After that, they started choking me. At the time I thought I was going to die, but it's a miracle I lived. And then they started beating me again. They concentrated on beating me in my heart until they got tired from beating me. They took a little break from beating me and then they started kicking me very hard with their feet until I passed out.22

In addition to beatings, threats of sexual abuse and humiliation were made frequently. Ameen Sa'eed Al-Sheikh, detainee No. 151362, was arrested on October 7, 2003, and arrived at Tier 1 the next day. Guards told him he would soon wish he was dead but they would make sure that did not happen. After the soldiers stripped him, says Al-Sheikh,"One of them told me he would rape me. He drew a picture of a woman [on] my back and made me stand in [a] shameful position holding my buttocks."23 Other prisoners were forced to wear women's underwear, masturbate, or simulate homosexual acts in front of female soldiers and inmates.

Torturing for the Greater Good

For a book called The Politics of Pain: Torturers and Their Masters, Herbert C. Kelman wrote a chapter that sought to explain why humans throughout history have been so easily persuaded to torture others. Kelman, a social psychologist and author, believes that most torturers must become convinced that their actions are part of a greater cause. Only then can they operate without feelings of guilt. Kelman's description of typical torturers can be applied to those committing abuses at Abu Ghraib:

"They have come to share the view of the authorities that the task they are engaged in serves a high purpose that transcends any moral scruples they might bring to the situation. They have come to see themselves as playing an important part in an effort to protect the state: to ensure its security and continued integrity, to maintain law and order, or to keep alive the fundamental values of the state that are being subjected to a merciless onslaught by ruthless enemies who are intent on destroying it. This view of the purpose of the torture project as part of a noble effort, in which the perpetrators are prepared to play their role despite any more reservations and feelings of repugnance they might have, greatly enhances the legitimacy of the enterprise."

Cruelty and Degradation

Sometimes it appeared that guards were simply amusing themselves in the cruelest ways they could think of. Some naked prisoners were ridden like animals, fondled by female "soldiers or forced to retrieve food their guards had thrown in the toilet. They forced us to walk like dogs on our hands and knees," said inmate Hiadar Sabar Abed Miktub al-Aboodi. "And we had to bark like a dog, and if we didn't do that they started hitting us hard on our face and chest with no mercy. After that, they took us to our cells, took the mattresses out and dropped water on the floor and they made us sleep on our stomachs on the floor with the bags on our head and they took pictures of everything."24

Another Iraqi, Abd Alwhab Youss, was stripped and then beaten after a broken toothbrush was found in his cell. He was accused of trying to make a weapon out of the toothbrush. Youss was taken to a room where five soldiers worked him over. He was beaten with a broom and at one point his head was held in a pool of urine on the floor. While all this was happening another soldier was yelling at him through a loudspeaker.

Still other abuses occurred in November when a number of detainees rioted in protest against their mistreatment. As reported by The New Standard, immediately after the riot fourteen Iraqi men were stripped naked and brought into a corridor beneath the cell of a female inmate named Um Taha.

"The soldiers made them all stand on one leg," Um Taha recounted. "Then they kicked them to make them fall to the ground." She said that [a] female American soldier . . . was dancing around laughing while using a rubber glove to snap the detainees on their genitals."The soldiers also made all the men lay on the ground face down spread their legs, then men and women soldiers alike kicked the detainees between their legs."25

"Because I Wanted to Pray"

Some guards took special pleasure in ridiculing the prisoners' Islamic religion. When prisoners held their Korans out of their cell bars to read because the light was too dim inside their cells, some soldiers would hit them. Although Iraqi detainee Ameen Sa'eed Al-Sheik had a broken leg, one of the soldiers kept twisting his bad leg in order to force him to curse Islam. The pain was so great that he finally complied with the soldier's wish. Next, he was ordered to thank Jesus that he was still alive. When the soldier asked him if he believed in anything, Al-Sheikh answered that he believed in Allah. The soldier replied,"I believe in torture and I will torture you."26

Inmates were treated particularly roughly during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month when all practicing Muslims fast during daylight hours. At Abu Ghraib's Tier I in November 2003, Ramadan was a brutal time for the prisoners. After fasting all day, prisoners were often denied food at night. But the withholding of food was not the worst of their ordeals. To cite one example, Kasim Mehaddi Hilas, detainee No. 151108, made the mistake of asking a guard what time it was:

Sex, Shame, and Self-Respect

In an article for Salon magazine called "American Torture, American Porn," Alessandro Camon focuses on the sexual games played with prisoners at Abu Ghraib. He believes they were an important part of an interrogation process designed to destroy detainees' self-respect:

"When power is exercised in such an extreme, absolute form as torture, it literally dehumanizes those it's exercised upon. And they know it. Stripped of rights, of the ability to trust a fellow human being, and most importantly, of self-respect, they lose the very sense of who they are. The identity of the torture victim can never be the same again. That's why sexual torture is central to the experience. The emasculation of men, the degradation of women, turns them into something they no longer recognize as themselves. Torture is largely the business of creating shame.... An instinctive understanding of the task can be evinced by the acts of the American torturers. They were aiming to hurt the Arab man where it hurts most—in his masculine pride. There was hardly a more explicit way to do it than to strip him naked and capture him . . . as a pathetic loser, writhing on the floor or engaging in simulated sexual acts on command, while American men and women pose next to him with a grin and a thumbs-up."

He [Specialist Graner] cuffed my hands with irons behind my back to the metal of the window, to the point my feet were off the ground and I was hanging there for about 5 hours just because I asked about the time, because I wanted to pray. And then they took all my clothes and he took the female underwear and he put it over my head. After he released me from the window, he tied me to my bed until before dawn.... He prohibited me from eating food that night, even though I was fasting that day. Grainer and the other two soldiers were taking pictures of everything they did to me. I don't know if they took a picture of me [then] because they beat me so bad I lost consciousness after an hour or so.27

Iraqi detainee Thaar Salman Dawod witnessed an assault on two young boys during the first days of Ramadan. "They came with two boys naked and they were cuffed together face to face and Grainer was beating them and a group of guards were watching and taking pictures from top to bottom and there were three female soldiers laughing at the prisoners."28 Kasim Mehaddi Hilas, another detainee who made a sworn statement, testified that he witnessed at least two sexual assaults of children during this time. One of them was of a boy of about fifteen who was raped by a male army translator while a female soldier looked on and snapped pictures.

Abuse Was Not Universal

Of course, not all—or even most—guards abused prisoners. The MPs who abused prisoners most often worked at night while their supervisors were absent. That may explain why the guards who worked the late shift were the most feared by prisoners. A common theme in detainees' statements was that the day shift would bring them their clothes, while the night shift would strip them naked and begin tormenting them again.

Further evidence that not all guards were to blame came from a detainee named Mustafa Jassim Mustafa. After describing a series of sickening abuses (including guards urinating on prisoners and beating them senseless) in a sworn statement to investigators, Mustafa made a point of emphasizing that most of the guards he knew were respected and liked by the prisoners.

In an article published in the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh provides a memorable example of an American officer who refused to abuse prisoners. Hersh told of a captain in a military police unit who was asked by an intelligence officer to have his MPs keep a group of detainees awake around the clock until they began talking. When the captain refused, a high-ranking military intelligence officer came to him and asked him again to explain why his men could not help out by keeping detainees awake.

"How?" asked the captain. "You've received training on that, but my soldiers don't know how to do it. And when you ask an eighteen-year-old kid to keep someone awake, and he doesn't know how to do it, he's going to get creative."29 Because of the captain's stand, his group of MPs did not get involved in abusing prisoners.

Humiliation in Pictures

Those MPs who did abuse detainees, however, were successful at humiliating and intimidating prisoners. One detainee named Abdou Hussain Saad Faleh testified that there were times he was so terrified that he could not go to sleep, no matter how exhausted he was. The inmates' loss of human dignity was also notable. Hussein Mohssein Mata Al-Zayiadi, a devout Muslim, felt so humiliated by being forced to masturbate in front of female soldiers and other inmates that he claimed he no longer wanted to live. "I was trying to kill myself but I didn't have any way of doing it,"30 he later told an investigator.

Although humiliation and intimidation were products of the interrogations at Abu Ghraib, valuable intelligence was not. Military officials would later concede that very little useful information was gained from the detainees at Abu Ghraib. One of the many tragedies of the whole scandal is that, despite all the suffering involved, little seems to have been learned about the insurgency.

But perhaps the most lasting effect of the interrogations at Abu Ghraib will be the images they produced. As the world learned, the guards at Abu Ghraib took many photographs. Perhaps they were amusing themselves or saving the photos as memorabilia of their tour of duty. But some observers think that cameras were purposely used at Abu Ghraib in order to impress on prisoners that their humiliation would be unending unless they cooperated with interrogators. Otherwise the pictures might even be released to the prisoners'friends and relatives, thus deepening their shame. Whether or not the cruelty was indeed that purposeful, the photographs taken at Abu Ghraib became the single greatest factor in exposing the abuses to the world.

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Tales of Torture

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