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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Pressure for results

A military team sent from Guantanamo in October carried out an "overhaul" at Abu Ghraib, creating "tiger teams" of interrogators paired with analysts to get better information, says Spc. David Monath, a reservist sent to work as an intelligence analyst at the prison last September.

Yet Specialist Monath and others say they were frustrated by intense pressure from Colonel Pappas and his superiors - Lt. Gen Ricardo Sanchez and his intelligence officer, Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast - to churn out a high quantity of intelligence reports, regardless of the quality. "It was all about numbers. We needed to send out more intelligence documents whether they were finished or not just to get the numbers up," he said. Pappas was seen as demanding - waking up officers in the middle of the night to get information - but unfocused, ordering analysts to send out rough, uncorroborated interrogation notes. "We were scandalized," Monath said. "We all fought very hard to counter that pressure" including holding up reports in editing until the information could be vetted.

Despite such pressure, intelligence officers at Abu Ghraib estimate that the vast majority of detainees had no valuable information, and many were innocent: In one case, 20 Iraqi professionals from Mosul were swept up in a raid and held for months after being set up by one man who either disliked them or owed them money.

Amid this urgent yet often chaotic quest for information, military intelligence (MI) officers were involved in abuses by ordering detainees stripped naked and paraded before others, intimidated by unmuzzled dogs, or placed in "stress positions" for hours, documents and interviews indicate. Pappas told investigators the idea of using dogs came from Guantanamo's Miller.

Three military intelligence soldiers were fined and demoted after allegedly sexually assaulting a female detainee at Abu Ghraib in October. In November, Monath says MI leaders held a meeting and started to restrict the number of night interrogations, realizing that a lack of supervision had created an opportunity for abuse.

In one death under investigation, a detainee being interrogated by either MI or the CIA in a shower stall at Abu Ghraib died after being severely beaten in the face, according to preliminary testimony by Spc. Jason Kenner of the 372nd Military Police Company. "He was shackled to the wall," Specialist Kenner said. "A battle" ensued between intelligence personnel and the CIA over "who was going to take care of the body," he said.

And in at least one instance late last October or early November, MI personnel were also involved in an apparent attempt to keep abuses secret by hiding five detainees during a Red Cross visit to Abu Ghraib.

There is no question in the minds of MI and MP officers and soldiers interviewed that at least by November, MI brigade commander Pappas had the final say in what went on at Abu Ghraib, not Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who led the 800th Military Police Brigade. This led to animosity between the two groups, as well as confusion over who did what.

"Everyone knows you're not supposed to abuse [prisoners], but no one tells you how to treat them," said Lt. Joseph La Jeunesse of the Army National Guard's 870th Military Police Company, which served there from October until this spring.

Meanwhile, the entire prison was strained as detainee population passed 7,000 even as the number of MPs was declining. Several detainees escaped. Fights and riots broke out, with one involving over 1,000 detainees throwing rocks and metal and guard towers. After MPs ran out of their supply of nonlethal rubber bullets, they shot and killed at least three detainees while quelling the unrest.

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