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What went wrong at Abu Ghraib

A top-down push for harsh interrogation techniques comes to light, as investigations into Iraqi prisoner abuse continue.

By Ann Scott TysonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 10, 2004


Roughly two months after the scandal became public, a picture is emerging of an atmosphere at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison in which commanders there knew at a minimum of the potential for serious abuses, but put the imperative to gather intelligence ahead of the need for oversight.

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Evidence has been growing of a systematic effort at the upper levels of the Defense Department in the past two years to stretch harsh interrogation techniques to their furthest legal limits, while selectively applying the Geneva Conventions.

"They wanted to get the information any way they could," said one senior military intelligence officer who requested anonymity. He worked at Abu Ghraib when some of the abuses occurred, from beatings to the use of unmuzzled dogs, that have now been seared into public consciousness through photographs.

An Army investigation by Maj. Gen. George Fay, expected early next month, is focusing on whether military intelligence personnel were responsible for abusive treatment of detainees in Iraq. Overall, the Army over the past 18 months has opened 42 investigations into the death or assault of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Already, interviews with members of military intelligence and police units who served at the prison suggest that abuses did not simply result from a handful of low-level soldiers in the facility's loosely supervised and undermanned military police force. So far, only seven such soldiers have been charged in the case.

Instead, as details emerge of the physical abuse and deaths of scores of Iraqi and Afghan detainees in US military custody, other documents and reports suggest a contributing factor was the top-down weakening of military standards of humane prisoner treatment as part of the Bush administration's drive for intelligence in the war on terrorism.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, senior administration officials and legal experts have argued that terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda are not protected by international or US laws governing detainees held by US forces. Senior officials frequently argue that terrorist tactics earn them a lesser level of treatment.

"What kind of incentives would we send if we allow the full treatment under the Geneva Conventions to be extended to enemy combatants who deliberately and purposely violate them?" said deputy assistant secretary of defense Paul Butler in February, arguing the pacts did not apply to inmates at the US military detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, then commanded by Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller.

Frustrated by restrictions on how much stress to place on detainees possessing potentially valuable information on terrorist networks, military intelligence officials in Guantanamo lobbied for and used harsher methods there in late 2002, according to senior Pentagon officials. After military lawyers raised objections, some methods were stopped and a working group devised a policy that got Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's OK in 2003.

Although Pentagon officials have recently stressed that the Geneva Conventions do apply in Iraq, they also acknowledge that they sent General Miller to Iraq in August 2003 and encouraged the transfer of interrogation methods from Guantanamo. This included using military guards to "set the conditions" for interrogation. In November, command of Abu Ghraib was shifted from the military police to Col. Thomas Pappas, who led the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade.

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