Lessons from Abu Ghraib

Morality aside, experts say prisoner abuse is also ineffective.

The physical and mental abuses allegedly meted out by US guards at the infamous prison of Abu Ghraib were highly unprofessional - and probably unproductive as well, say intelligence experts.

Stressing prisoners prior to questioning is a relatively standard military interrogation practice. Methods can include some actions that might surprise civilians, such as lying to prisoners, covering their faces, and depriving them of some physical comforts.

But standard practice should never include the sadistic and humiliating treatment recently revealed in Iraq, intelligence experts say. Such abuses are only likely to harden prisoners or produce worthless information. "You don't learn anything if you torture people," says Arthur Hulnick, a 35-year veteran of the CIA and military intelligence who supervised the questioning of North Korean defectors.

Overall weaknesses in the US military system for handling the 8,000 war prisoners and other detainees in Iraq include overcrowded facilities, too few military police and government interrogators, as well as a lack of higher-level supervision and outside scrutiny. This system, while failing to prevent the extreme mistreatment of prisoners by at least a few US soldiers at Abu Ghraib, much more regularly failed to even keep track of Iraqi detainees.

Exposure of the problems at Abu Ghraib has fueled a firestorm of protests about US conduct as the critical transfer of limited authority to Iraqis approaches. The reaction around the world has been such that some US ambassadors have cabled Washington for guidance on how to respond. Congress has been critical, as well, with key members demanding explanations, and committees booking hearings into the extent of military culpability.

The system for tracking detainees in Iraq is "still only about half as good as it ought to be," US Central Command Chief Gen. John Abizaid was quoted as telling the Wall Street Journal in October, just prior to when the abuses took place at Abu Ghraib.

"If you don't have the right ratio of guards to prisoners, you can't protect the prisoners" - or even keep track of them, says one military analyst. For example, Iraqi prisoners often just tore off the paper tags tied to them bearing their prisoner numbers. Confusing things more, Iraqi interpreters would repeatedly retranslate the prisoners' names with different English transliterations at each new level of the detention system.

To be sure, an overburdened detention system does not imply that abuses have been rampant. Many detainees are known to be treated humanely according to the Geneva Convention, and so far less than two dozen US military personnel in Iraq - including six men and women accused in the Abu Ghraib case - have been implicated in instances of mistreatment.

Still, according to US military doctrine, military police specialized in running prisons are trained to maintain custody of prisoners using a minimum of physical force in camps operated with a clear, unbroken chain of command. The recognition of a command failure was reflected in the announcement Monday by the top US commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez that seven commissioned and noncommissioned officers in supervisory positions at Abu Ghraib had received severe reprimands, with a milder admonishment for one.

Further clouding the command picture are reports that the facility, which is run by military police, may have been put under the control of a military intelligence unit. The presence of civilian contractors working side by side at the prison with military personnel without being subject to military discipline is also an issue.

An employee of one contractor, CACI International Inc., based in Arlington, Va., was allegedly involved in the abuse. The company, which says it is "engaged across a wide range of national intelligence disciplines from the most complex space-based operations to human-source intelligence," stated May 3 that the Pentagon had given it no information on the charges.

The close involvement of civilians is "problematic" and "creates a lot of stress" because while "military personnel are subject to the code of military justice, it's unclear what [legal] responsibilities the civilians have," says Deborah Avant, a political scientist at George Washington University here who specializes in private security firms.

Such blurry roles are exacerbated in Iraq's lawless environment, she says. "It's a situation where there is a lot of opportunity for misbehavior because it's the wild west." Indeed, civilians in Iraq are reportedly being hired as interrogators, reflecting the larger problem of a shortage of military intelligence personnel in Iraq, where pressure is strong to gather tactical information to warn of ambushes and track down networks of insurgents.

"The reservoir is pretty dry," says Richard Coffman, a CIA veteran who now runs the international security company Coffman Global Group in Potomac, Md. "We're running out of qualified, experienced intelligence officers to do all the things we need to do in Iraq, Afghanistan, and homeland security."

Amid the vast demand for "actionable intelligence," US military personnel use several techniques to place detainees under physical and mental stress - methods US officials say are legal, but which some critics dub "torture lite."

These techniques involve disrupting detainees' circadian rhythms with bright lights and sleep deprivation, and by withholding food or providing it at odd times in an effort to disorient them and break down their resistance. Other methods used, such as holding detainees in cramped facilities where they cannot lie down or stand up, or forcing them to stand for long periods of time, are criticized by some experienced interrogators.

"We would scream bloody murder if people did that to our troops," says Mr. Hulnick.

Meanwhile, the sanctioning of such methods - in an environment of inadequate supervision - could lead to the kinds of sadistic and degrading treatment perpetrated by the US military police at Abu Ghraib, experts say.

"Psychological testing shows there are certain kinds of people, given a chance where they have total control over someone, will abuse them in some way," says Hulnick. "It's also clear that this stuff was very sophomoric and done probably to humiliate the people over whom the guards had control because they were the enemy, the bad guys, the 'rag heads.' "

Other military intelligence experts express doubt that such humiliation could have been ordered in an effort to gain information, arguing that most interrogators know it is counterproductive. "Was MI [military intelligence] making the reservists do this? I don't think so. I think we've got six rotten soldiers," says Zhi Hamby, director of administration for the National Military Intelligence Association, a nonprofit group in Gaithersburg, Md.

In addition to a clear and responsible chain of command, standard methods to prevent the mistreatment of detainees include good recordkeeping as well as cameras placed in interrogation rooms that offer the added benefit of picking up information interrogators might miss.

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