CIA torture report: In Iraq, US abuses, and their consequences, are old news

For many Iraqis, the US occupation was defined by episodes of abuse of detainees, including high-profile incidents at Abu Ghraib prison that became a powerful recruiting tool for militants.

Karim Kadim/AP/File
Guards stand at the entrance of Abu Ghraib prison on the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq, Feb. 21, 2009.

While many Americans have expressed shock at the details of CIA interrogation methods revealed Tuesday in a Senate report, there is little such surprise being voiced in Iraq, where the price the US has paid for those policies is also well understood.

After the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, the US military operated scores of detention facilities where brutal and humiliating tactics were used in a bid to stop anti-American insurgents and the spread of Al Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq.

For many Iraqis, the US occupation was defined by chilling episodes of abuse, killings and cover-ups, with the incidents at Abu Ghraib prison high on their list.

There, in late 2003, American guards photographed detainees piled naked on top of one another; menaced by dogs; and strung up with electrodes. A US military report described “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” at Abu Ghraib, noting that they were “systematic.”

So for Iraqis – especially for one of the men photographed in the pyramid of naked, blind-folded prisoners, which has come to symbolize US human rights abuses in Iraq – revelations of CIA torture of detainees come as no surprise. 

“Every time I remember even a moment in that jail, I start crying. I have thought of suicide many times,” says Taleb Mohamed al-Majli, a Shiite metalworker who was detained in October 2003 by US forces in Ramadi, at the family home of his Sunni wife. He was released without charge after 16 months, but says he caught pneumonia after having cold water frequently thrown on him while naked.

“It was terrifying,” says Mr. Majli, contacted by phone while on a religious pilgrimage. “They tortured me,” he says, adding that dogs were brought to his cell door. “I was surprised when I saw my picture when I got out.”

There is no way to independently verify Majli’s account. But the first US military report into Abu Ghraib abuses describes acts ranging from “pouring cold water on naked detainees” and using “working military dogs to frighten and intimidate,” to “sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick.”

Abu Ghraib as a reference point

The Senate Intelligence Committee report released Tuesday connects events in Iraqi prisons to those at CIA “black sites” around the world.

“The CIA used the Abu Ghraib abuses as a contrasting reference point for its detention and interrogation activities,” the Senate report states. It quotes the CIA’s then-Deputy Director John McLaughlin telling a May 2004 committee hearing that, “we are not authorized in [the CIA program] to do anything like what you have seen in those photographs.” [Page 134, n. 798]

The Senate report demonstrates, in overwhelming detail, that that was not true. None of the CIA’s primary secret detention facilities known as “black sites” were in Iraq. But extensive detainee abuse was well documented in US military facilities.

“I was an interrogator at Abu Ghraib. I tortured,” wrote Eric Fair, a US Army veteran and former contract interrogator, in an opinion piece in The New York Times Wednesday.

“Many people were surprised” by what the Senate report contained, the accounts of waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and the “horrific and humiliating procedure called ‘rectal rehydration,’ ” wrote Mr. Fair. “I’m not surprised. I assure you there is more; much remains redacted.”

No actionable intelligence

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California said the CIA spent $40 million and hacked into Senate Intelligence Committee computers three times to prevent the report from being made public, and to counter its conclusions that the CIA engaged in “brutal” abuse and torture of detainees. She said it misled the White House, Congress and American people about its use and effectiveness.

The report found that no actionable intelligence was gleaned from the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” – a conclusion that the CIA disputes.

In Iraq, and for anti-Western militants around the world, the Abu Ghraib scandal and other violent episodes became and remains a powerful recruiting tool.

The clearest evidence may be at Camp Bucca, where Al Qaeda in Iraq militants and other security suspects were housed together. They would go on to form the nucleus of the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that this year declared a caliphate in Syria and Iraq. The group's “caliph”, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is a five-year Camp Bucca veteran.

An 18-month inquiry by the Senate Armed Services Committee found, in 2008, that top Bush administration officials bore major responsibility for abuses in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, according to a report at the time.

Policies approved by Rumsfeld

Prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib “was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own,” but stemmed from interrogation policies approved by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others, who “conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees,” The New York Times reported.

Mr. Rumsfeld had approved the toughest measures in December 2002, but then reportedly ruled them out a month later, before the mistreatment at Abu Ghraib. But the Times reported that those methods continued to spread through the military detention system, even though their use “damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.”

That result has been clear for years.

“Any explanation for these abuses is unacceptable,” says Kamel Amin, spokesman for the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry, reacting to the report on the CIA’s methods. “We are not surprised by this [Senate] report. We observed a lot of cases of [US] abuses in a lot of jails and camps and we recorded them, we followed them.”

While Washington gets kudos for “not hiding the facts from public opinion,” says Mr. Amin, those facts “make a big public reaction, and increases hatred toward the US.”

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