Abu Ghraib

by Henry Farrell on September 23, 2004

Extracts from Mark Danner’s article on “Abu Ghraib”:http://www.nybooks.com/articles/17430 in the NYRB.

More important, the reports suggest how procedures that “violated established interrogation procedures and applicable laws” in fact had their genesis not in Iraq but in interrogation rooms in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba—and ultimately in decisions made by high officials in Washington. … the Americans arrested thousands of Iraqis—or, as Schlesinger puts it, “they reverted to rounding up any and all suspicious-looking persons —all too often including women and children. The flood of incoming detainees contrasted sharply with the trickle of released individuals.” … having filled Abu Ghraib largely with Iraqis of “no intelligence value”—whose families in most cases had no way to confirm where they were—the overwhelmed American command could not devise a way to get them out again, especially when faced with the strong opposition of those who had arrested them in the first place:

bq. Combat Commanders desired that no security detainee be released for fear that any and all detainees could be threats to co-alition forces…. The [chief of intelligence, Fourth Infantry Division] informed [Major General] Fast that the Division Commander did not concur with the release of any detainees for fear that a bad one may be released along with the good ones.

The system was self-defeating and, not surprisingly, “interrogation operations in Abu Ghraib suffered from the effects of a broken detention operations system.” Indeed, these reports are full of “broken systems” and “under-resourced” commands, from Abu Ghraib itself, a besieged, sweltering, stinking hell-hole under daily mortar attack that lacked interpreters, interrogators, guards, detainee uniforms, and just about everything else, including edible food, and that, at its height, was staggering under an impossible prisoner-to-guard ratio of seventy-five to one, all the way up to the command staff of Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, which lacked, among other vital resources, two thirds of its assigned officers. … And though they don’t say so explicitly, it is clear that the writers of these reports put much of the blame for this not on the commanders on the ground but on the political leadership in Washington, who, rather than pay the political cost of admitting the need for more troops—admitting, that is, that they had made mistakes in planning for the war and in selling it to the public—decided to “tough it out,” at the expense of the men and women in the field and, ultimately, the Iraqis they had been sent to “liberate.” …

In mid-August, a captain in military intelligence (MI) sent his colleagues an e-mail—recently shown to me—in which, clearly responding to an earlier request from interrogators, he sought to define “unlawful combatants,” distinguishing them from “lawful combatants [who] receive protections of the Geneva Convention and gain combat immunity for their warlike acts.” After promising to provide “an ROE”— rules of engagement—”that addresses the treatment of enemy combatants, specifically, unprivileged belligerents,” the captain asks the interrogators for “input…concerning what their special interrogation knowledge base is and more importantly, what techniques would they feel would be effective techniques.” Then, reminding the intelligence people to “provide Interrogation techniques ‘wish list’ by 17 AUG 03,” the captain signs off this way:

bq. The gloves are coming off gentlemen regarding these detainees, Col Boltz has made it clear that we want these individuals broken. Casualties are mounting and we need to start gathering info to help protect our fellow soldiers from any further attacks. I thank you for your hard work and your dedication.


… As early as October 2001, after the capture of John Walker Lindh in Afghanistan, a Navy admiral told the intelligence officer interrogating Lindh that “the secretary of defense’s counsel has authorized him to ‘take the gloves off’ and ask whatever he wanted.” …

During a period of about two months, military police beat the detainee savagely into unconsciousness, ripped his ear, urinated on him, “high-cuffed” him to the bars of his cell for hours so that the skin of his hand split and oozed pus, and sodomized him with a police baton—to give only a brief summary of what, in the detainee’s statement, is an exhaustive and exhausting catalog of imaginative and extremely disgusting tortures carried out over many days. Now during this time, as General Fay meticulously confirms, military intelligence soldiers interrogated Detainee-07 on at least six occasions, as befits a prisoner judged of “potentially high value.” General Fay, however, finds here only a “circumstantial connection to MI,” concluding that the intelligence officers “should have been aware of what was being done to this detainee.”

The problem here is that it is quite obvious from the report that military intelligence officers were “aware of what was being done to the detainee” —indeed, that they ordered it. Throughout the general’s patient recounting of his forty-four “serious incidents”— his careful sifting of them into categories (“Nudity/Humiliation,” “Assault,” “Sexual Assault,” “Use of Dogs,” “The ‘Hole,'” and “Other”), his determination to classify them according to responsibility (“MI,” “MP,” “MI/MP,” or “UNK,” for unknown), and his dogged effort to separate what he calls “violent/sexual abuse incidents” (which is to say those, generally speaking, committed by military police, which were not a matter of policy) from “misinterpretation/confusion incidents” (those committed by military intelligence soldiers, who, however, were “confused” about what was permitted at Abu Ghraib as a matter of policy)—throughout all this runs a tone of faintly hysterical absurdity. Throughout we see distinctions that are not distinctions at all, and that recall nothing so much as the darkest passages of Catch-22 …

With no fear of a full, top-to-bottom investigation from a Congress that is firmly in Republican hands, administration officials, and particularly those at the Department of Defense, have managed to orchestrate a slowly unfolding series of inquiries, almost all of them carried out within the military by officers who by definition can only direct their gaze down the chain of command, not up it, and who are each empowered to examine only a limited and precisely defined number of links in the chain that connects the highest levels of the government to what happened on the ground in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in the war on terror. …

The delicate bureaucratic construction now holding the Abu Ghraib scandal firmly in check rests ultimately on President Bush’s controversial decision, on February 7, 2002, to withhold protection of the Geneva Convention both from al-Qaeda and from Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. The decision rested on the argument, in the words of White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez, that “the war against terrorism is a new kind of war,” in fact, a “new paradigm [that] renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions….” In a prefiguring of later bureaucratic wars, lawyers in the State Department and many in the military services fought against this decision, arguing, prophetically, that it “would undermine the United States military culture, which is based on a strict adherence to the law of war.”

For torture, this decision was Original Sin: it made legally possible the adoption of the various “enhanced interrogation techniques” that have been used at CIA secret prisons and at the US military’s prison at Guantánamo Bay. As it turns out, however, for the administration, Bush’s decision was also Amazing Grace, because, by implying that the US military must adhere to wholly different rules when interrogating, say, Taliban prisoners in Guantánamo, who do not enjoy Geneva Convention protection, and Iraqi insurgents at Abu Ghraib, who do, it makes it possible to argue that American interrogators, when applying the same techniques at Abu Ghraib that they had earlier used in Afghanistan or at Guantánamo, were in fact taking part not in “violent/sexual abuse incidents,” like their sadistic military police colleagues, but instead in “misinterpretation/confusion incidents.” …

General Miller’s report, which remains secret but was made available to me, recommends, among other things, that those in charge of Abu Ghraib should “dedicate and train a detention guard force subordinate to [the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center] that sets conditions for the successful interrogation and exploitation of internees/detainees. This action,” he adds, “is now in progress.” The MPs, in other words, should be working for the interrogators and spending significant time “softening up” prisoners, by keeping them awake, “making sure this one has a bad night,” etc.—doing, that is, precisely what the accused military police, no doubt self-servingly, claimed they were doing in at least some of those dreadful photographs. …

This confusion over doctrine supposedly allowed some of the more gruesome practices that are so patiently set out in General Fay’s report, including sensory deprivation, routine nudity and humiliation, “exploiting the Arab fear of dogs,” and prolonged isolation of a particularly revolting kind:

bq. DETAINEE-14 was detained in a totally darkened cell measuring about 2 meters long and less than a meter across, devoid of any window, latrine or water tap, or bedding. On the door the [Red Cross] delegates noticed the inscription “the Gollum,” and a picture of the said character from the film trilogy “Lord of the Rings.”

Detainee-14 was one of eight detainees to whom General Sanchez denied the Red Cross access. …

There simply was no clear dividing line, no point where sadistic abuses became instances of “misinterpretation/confusion”—where, that is, an interrogator simply erred in applying a technique that while permitted in Afghanistan or Guantánamo, constituted a violation in Iraq of the Geneva Conventions. How isolated could the so-called “Animal House on the night shift” abuses of the military police have been from military intelligence when, as we learn in the Fay report, one of the most notorious images, that of “several naked detainees stacked in a ‘pyramid,'” served as a “screen saver” on one of the computers in the military intelligence office?

via “Backword Dave”:http://backword.me.uk/2004/September/mutineers.html



cm 09.23.04 at 6:13 am

As I said elsewhere, “spreading democracy” indeed.


bad Jim 09.23.04 at 7:47 am

Well, worse things were done in the middle ages…


bob mcmanus 09.23.04 at 12:42 pm

I am, thirty years after seeing Lt Calley get cheered and excused, Gordon Liddy made a hero, twenty years after Oliver North made a folk icon, a few short weeks after watching the audience at the RNC….very tired of the chain of responsibility ending at the President.

There is a party that appears to believe in the rule of men, not law; and a party that appears to have a different conception of what constitutes the identity of America; and a party with a consistent pattern of behavior that cannot be explained away by non-sanctioned excesses of its misjudged leadership.

There may be good people mistakenly belonging to that party, but after thirty years or more of public history, I do not believe they constitute its majority.


Sam 09.23.04 at 1:03 pm


[i]The delicate bureaucratic construction now holding the Abu Ghraib scandal firmly in check rests ultimately on President Bush’s controversial decision, on February 7, 2002, to [b]withhold[/b] protection of the Geneva Convention both from al-Qaeda and from Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.[/i]

This argument really aggravates me. Saying that Geneva Convention protections were withheld from al-Qaeda is like saying the protections for pregnant women were withheld from me (I’m a man). The Geneva Conventions specify to whom they apply; the 3rd applies to uniformed soldiers fighting as an army, with a well-defined chain of command (Article 4, Part 2); the 4th applies to civilians who take no part in fighting. They simply do not apply, and have never applied, to guerilla fighters.

Note that this argument doesn’t mean that guerilla fighters have no rights, nor that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were in a way justified.


Jim Miller 09.23.04 at 1:33 pm

Every Abu Ghraib story from now on should include a warning line, perhaps something like this: The Abu Ghraib story came from the team of Mary Mapes and Dan Rather.

Rathergate, or, if you prefer, Danron, give us strong reasons to suspect every story this team produced. Every story. Especially after the blatant falsehoods Rather and company told during the stonewalling period.

Need examples? How about Rather’s claim that Bill Burkett was an “unimpeachable” source? Or his claim that no one had criticized Mary Mapes. Among many others, her own father has.

I don’t claim to know the true story of Abu Ghraib, but only a fool would believe that Mapes and Rather got it right — without independent confirmation from unbiased investigators.


ChrisDA 09.23.04 at 1:47 pm

Sam, I can’t understand your aggravation: it seems we’re talking about a spirit vs letter of Geneva Conventions issue.

Yes, +legally speaking+, it is accurate to say that Bush was only reiterating the non-applicability of GC protections to non-uniformed fighters, rather than actually withholding the protections from such fighers. But if one looks at the +spirit+ of the GCs, they never envisaged a third category between civillians and uniformed military.

Bush’s position, that the GCs expect fighters to ‘earn’ GC protections by donning a uniform etc, is utterly incompatible with the spirit of the GCs.


Antoni Jaume 09.23.04 at 2:00 pm

mr. Jim Miller, where I live we don’t get the news from the same sources as you, and Abu Ghraib has more than enough independent verifications to be certain of your own dishonnesty.



bob mcmanus 09.23.04 at 2:01 pm

“they never envisaged a third category between civilians and uniformed military.”

Actually I believe GC did envisage such a third category, which would include spies and saboteurs. This might pertain to the 16 9/11 hijackers. On the field in Afghanistan and Iraq, on the other hand, everyone should have been presumed to be a soldier or a civilian, and given whatever respective protections applied.


bob mcmanus 09.23.04 at 2:28 pm

The Republican Party position that, in a combat zone, any armed person not in uniform (in the most generous examples, many were just “fingered”) may be considered an “illegal combatant” or whatever the term is….and thereby subject to indefinite waterboarding without any legal protections is way way beyond irresponsible.

Henry, I suspect, will find my use of “Republican Party Position” offensive, but we are several years into a very public and widely understood policy. Anyone still supporting the Bush administration either give tacit approval to this policy, or in the case of those who say: ” Hey, no fan of torture here, but really like Republican trade policy.” has a mistaken sense of priorities.

I leave before the King of Comity bans me.


Sam 09.23.04 at 2:54 pm

Chrisda–as I understand both the conventions and the history, the Conventions intentionally leave fighters who are not part of an army (spies, saboteurs, bandits, guerillas) unprotected. Soldiers get immunity for acts that would be crimes (murder, assault) under any normal circumstances; but ONLY soldiers get that immunity–civilians continue to be subject to ordinary criminal law. The goals are that all fighting be conducted by armies, the distinction between army and non-army be clear, and that all armies follow certain rules designed to protect both soldiers and civilians–hence the emphasis on uniforms and on “groups conducting themselves according to the laws of war.” Traditionally, non-uniformed fighters could be, and often were, summarily executed. In all the crimes that the Germans were tried for at Nuremberg, executing Resistance fighters did not enter in at all AFAIK; executing non-fighters in retaliation did, but that is quite a different issue.


Iron Lungfish 09.23.04 at 3:05 pm

Sam, it’s widely acknowledged that the overwhelming majority of the prisoners we’ve taken in Abu Ghraib were NOT terrorists. They were civilians rounded up in massive sweeps of entire villages. This isn’t an issue over whether the Geneva Conventions apply to al Qaeda. This is an issue over whether the Geneva Conventions apply to Iraqi civilians we’ve grabbed at random and throw in prison in the hopes that some of them might possibly have something to do with the insurgency.


Henry 09.23.04 at 3:11 pm

Bob – the snarky tone of your comments here about my moderating policy contrast with what appeared to be a sincere apology for your previous remarks a couple of days ago, but which apparently wasn’t sincere at all. Let me reiterate – saying that you look forward to the day when all libertarians are strung up by the neck is not the kind of commenting that I’m prepared to tolerate under any circumstances. If you want to make comments along those lines, there are plenty of other blogs that you can go to where those comments will go down a treat – I invite you to take yourself over to them. It’s not only deeply offensive but it kills serious argument – driving it out in favour of self-indulgent blustering by both left and right. Of which there is already too much in the blogosphere. If you want to comment on my posts, you’ll have to live by the rules – a minimum of politeness and respect towards people who you disagree with. If you don’t like that – well as I said, there are plenty of other blogs out there for you.


jr 09.23.04 at 4:12 pm

To second iron lungfish’s comments to Sam- many of the detainees at Guantanamo were not combatants, but were picked up in villages, often not by US forces but by the murderous thug Abdul Rashid Dostum, who got $5000 a head for them, no questions asked. And by the way, the Geneva Convention defines prisoners of war to include “members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict and operating in or outside their own territory, even if this territory is occupied…” Sounds like guerillas to me.


Sam 09.23.04 at 5:05 pm

Iron Lungfish and jr–thanks for your comments.

I agree that most of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib were not terrorists but civilians, and as such the Geneva Conventions DID apply to them. My annoyance is with those, such as the quoted article, who confuse the issue of how terrorists/guerillas may be treated with the issue of how civilians must be treated; the 4th Geneva Convention applies in one case and doesn’t in the other. By confusing the two cases, illegal abuses of civilians can be justified by appealing to the fact that such treatment of terrorists might be justified and legal.

Also, jr, your quote is misleading; the full quote is as follows: “(2) Members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict and operating in or outside their own territory, even if this territory is occupied, provided that such militias or volunteer corps, including such organized resistance movements, fulfil the following conditions:[ (a) that of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates; (b) that of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance; (c) that of carrying arms openly; (d) that of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.” Parts (b) and (c) eliminate almost all guerillas.


bob mcmanus 09.23.04 at 5:12 pm

“when all libertarians are strung up by the neck is not the kind of commenting that I’m prepared to tolerate under any circumstances.”

A incendiary mistatement of my comment, which I will not repeat, but was directed at a Political Party, not a political philosophy.
And certainly not the Libertarian Party.

That the return of Abrams, Poindexter, Negroponte to positions of responsibility and that atrocities in Central America and current atrocities are mere coincidences and in no way reflects on the political organization that empowers them is not a position I can logically accept. Should that be beyond the realm of civil discourse I would submit then that our discourse is impoverished.


Henry 09.23.04 at 5:29 pm

Bob – Your original comment:

bq. The right think they can destroy the system and create the Libertarian Paradise, but I am now hoping to seem them all on a gallows in my lifetime. I have never been so hopeful.

Perhaps you can explain to me precisely how my summary of what you said is an “incendiary mistatement?” And where exactly do I say or even hint that referring to the return of Negroponte etc is outside the realm of civil discourse? I wouldn’t have had any particular need to reply to your comment to this post if it hadn’t been for the bit at the end where you used heavy-handed sarcasm to express your grumpiness at my previous rebuke. Let me say it again – if you want to tell everyone about how you’re “hoping” for the day when the right is on the gallows, then please do it elsewhere. If you want to post comments here, then behave properly. I can’t say that I find many of your comments useful or interesting – most of the time you seem to be using my posts as an excuse to tilt against your own particular windmills – but I’m not going to ban you for that as long as you keep to minimal rules of civilized discourse.


Katherine 09.23.04 at 8:14 pm

But you have to have an initial hearing before you determine that someone is ineligible for the protections of the Geneva convention. We didn’t.

More than that: if you say the main international law on the treatment of prisoners does not apply, and the domestic law on the treatment of prisoners does not apply, and that even if they did apply the President could override them and order torture, and you send away the JAG corps and the Red Cross, and you send in unaccountable civilian contractors to conduct interrogations however they see fit….the consequences are entirely predictable, and you bear a large amount of responsibility for what happened.


bob mcmanus 09.23.04 at 8:20 pm

I regret those words, and the sentiments they imply. Your interpretation was more accurate than my own memory.

I am observing my third episode of government sanctioned barbarity, and I tire. I suppose I do seek impractibly broad solutions to what are likely intractable problems, and choose my targets badly. I should abandon my outrage, but there remains some remnants of the 1960’s in me. Or simple immaturity. I try to determine what aspect of the American character repeats in these events, as if so determining I could then change the American character. Nothing of a less ambitious nature has seemed to be effective. Here we are again.

“I can’t say that I find many of your comments useful or interesting – most of the time you seem to be using my posts as an excuse to tilt against your own particular windmills ”

This is useful, interesting, and even kind. Thank you.


Donald Johnson 09.23.04 at 10:36 pm

Bob, don’t go too far in your apology. You overstated things, but I can think of a fair number of prominent Americans I’d like to see in prison for their role in massive human rights violations. It can make you a little crazy if you think about it too much, especially when we are endlessly subjected to people telling us we are engaged in a war of good against evil. I assume that people a hundred years from now will regard us with the same mixture of condescension and contempt we give to 19th century Americans who denounced savage Indian atrocities (which could be as brutal as a Hamas suicide bombing) while ignoring their own acts of land theft, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide. There’s no good reason for taking comfort in that thought, but it keeps me from excessive ranting sometimes. Viewed logically, though, it just means we never seem to learn anything useful in real time, but have a firm grasp of what people did wrong three or four generations back.


Henry 09.24.04 at 12:25 am

Bob – I probably responded too intemperately myself – while sticking to my guns on the main point of what kind of tone I’d like to see in comments, I certainly came off much more harshly than I should have with respect to your other comments – blame annoyance and grumpiness at what seemed to be a backtracking on your earlier statement. Apologies.

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