Abu Ghraib And Beyond

Abu Ghraib Prison sits in the middle of one of Iraq's nastiest patches. Ever since "major combat" ended a year ago, snipers hidden in the palm groves that surround the vast prison compound have routinely fired on U.S. patrols. The guardrails on the highway in front of the prison are mangled for miles from the large number of IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Helicopters constantly buzz around. At night, soldiers in the guard towers get drawn into raging gun battles. And mortars rain on the prison like a lethal hailstorm. "I can't even count how many mortar attacks we've had," S/Sgt. Joseph Lane, an operating-room technician in the prison hospital, told NEWSWEEK last week. "Sometimes there are two or three in a day." And all this while military police must process thousands of Iraqis each month, never knowing who among them is a "bad guy" trying to kill them.

It's hard to imagine a more high- pressure job. And late in the blazing-hot summer of 2003, military-intelligence officers working at Abu Ghraib were taking flak from their superiors inside as well as the insurgents outside. A series of bombings in August had leveled the Jordanian Embassy and the main U.N. office in Baghdad and killed a pro-U.S. ayatollah. At the Pentagon and in the field, military commanders began to mutter that too many intelligence personnel were engaged in the seemingly fruitless search for WMD and too few assets were assigned to find out who was killing American troops. The word came down from Washington: we need better intelligence. "There was extraordinary pressure being put on MI [military intelligence] from every angle to get better info," says Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the former 800th MP Brigade commander, who at the time was responsible for Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi prisons. "Where is Saddam? Find Saddam. And we want the weapons of mass destruction."

So Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the Coalition commander in Iraq, and his top intel officer, Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast, asked for a fixer. They got one in Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the commandant at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the U.S. military had held more than 600 detainees for more than two years without charges. A Texan with a jutting jaw and thinning hair, Miller was nothing if not self-assured, much like his ultimate superior, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. According to a subsequent inquiry by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, Miller's task was "to review current Iraqi Theater ability to rapidly exploit internees for actionable intelligence." Translated into English, that meant to beef up interrogation techniques so as to break prisoners more quickly. Or as Karpinski puts it, Miller's plan was to "Gitmo-ize" the place, to teach the soldiers manning Abu Ghraib his best psychological and physical techniques for squeezing information out of detainees. That included using Karpinski's MPs to "enhance the intelligence effort." At a meeting of top military-intelligence and MP commanders last September, Miller bluntly told Karpinski: "You're going to see. We have control, and [the prisoners] know it."

Miller delivered another message to Karpinski. After touring all 16 prisons under the control of Karpinski's MP brigade, he declared that Abu Ghraib was the best choice for his interrogation purposes and that military intelligence was going to take it over. Karpinski said she responded: "Sir, Abu Ghraib is not mine to give you." She noted it was formally under the control of Iraq's Coalition Provisional Authority and that she and her military team ran it (like all other facilities) for the CPA. General Miller was in no mood for dissent, according to Karpinski's account. "I don't care. Rick Sanchez said I could have whatever I want. And I want Abu Ghraib," Miller said. He even cleared the room, Karpinski relates, saying, "Everybody out. I want to talk with the general." Miller then told Karpinski: "Look, we can do this my way or we can do it the hard way. We are going to take Abu Ghraib."

Exactly what Miller wanted with Abu Ghraib, and what duties he intended for Karpinski's MPs to perform there, remains unclear. Miller says that the recommendations he gave were "in keeping" with the Geneva Conventions, and that he asked only that MPs be involved in "passive intelligence collection"--observing and listening to prisoners. But what happened next no one can dispute, least of all an administration that once unambiguously touted U.S. power as a force for good but that is now asking the world's forgiveness. Gitmo's aggressive interrogation techniques and underlying philosophy of secrecy may have morphed into something terrible in the heat of a brutal guerrilla war. In the dead of night, Iraqi prisoners were brutalized and photographed in obscene and degrading poses. Karpinski's MPs, seven of whom are now charged, maintain that they were simply following new orders, which were, they say, to "soften up" prisoners for interrogation.

Last week Rumsfeld and his top brass desperately sought to minimize the damage--and to pre-empt further fallout from what Rumsfeld called "disgusting" new photos and videos from Abu Ghraib (and, sources tell NEWSWEEK, other detention centers). In hearings on Capitol Hill, Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers apologized for what they and top brass repeatedly called "the actions of a few" rogue MPs and the military-intelligence personnel who egged them on (also named was Col. Thomas Pappas, commander of the 205th MI Brigade). Above all, Rumsfeld and his brass tried to cut off the blame at Karpinski, who had been asked to resign at full pay. Despite his role in having brought Miller in, General Sanchez came away unscathed. General Fast has since been promoted and is slated to head the Fort Huachuca school in Arizona where most of the military interrogators train.

Perhaps most amazingly, the commander who last month was sent in to clean up Abu Ghraib turns out to be none other than the man who Karpinski claims had ordered her to hand it over to military-intel officers back in 2003, General Miller. Today, Miller says, detainees are no longer subjected to sleep-deprivation techniques, nor forced into "stress positions," nor blinded with hoods--unless such methods are specifically approved by a general. And he seems as self-assured as ever while denying that his orders to Karpinski were in any way related to the abuses there. "I will personally guarantee this will not happen again," Miller told NEWSWEEK last week.

But it may be too late for such promises. There is evidence that the 372d MP Company at Abu Ghraib had some bad apples in it, and that Karpinski failed as a commander. There is also evidence of a possible Pentagon cover-up. According to Taguba's report, which was first revealed in The New Yorker, a previous Army investigator, Maj. Gen. Donald Ryder, somehow failed to note last fall that MPs were being asked to facilitate interrogation. In addition, a mounting body of other evidence around the world suggests that abuses did not stop there or even in Iraq, that the Geneva Conventions protecting prisoners of war from beatings and humiliation were being routinely flouted in an environment where, as at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, almost anything can happen because almost no one is held accountable. In Afghanistan, the abuse of prisoners seems to have led to at least three deaths at U.S. interrogation facilities. According to U.S. military pathologists, two Afghan detainees died of "blunt force injuries" to "the lower extremities" and "legs" at Baghram in December 2002 and another Afghan prisoner died at a U.S. military camp in Kunar province in June 2003. Yet 18 months after the first deaths, a military investigation is still incomplete, and no broad inquiry like the Taguba probe has been launched into conditions at Baghram, according to a military spokesman in Kabul.

Rumsfeld insisted last week that the U.S. military has observed the Geneva Conventions regarding POWs and civilians in Iraq. But in his public statements (at least until last week), Rumsfeld has also declared that Geneva Conventions rules do not necessarily mean that all detainees--especially so-called unlawful combatants--will get all the rights and privileges normally accorded prisoners of war. And in recent months, NEWSWEEK has learned, some senior members of Congress have been given highly classified briefings, indicating, in the words of one official, that U.S. interrogators were not necessarily "going to stick with the Geneva Convention." More stressful techniques were going to be used, the briefers indicated, apparently including some measure of physical discomfort.

Many critics say the Bush administration routinely uses the global war on terrorism as a blanket justification for all sorts of human-rights violations. "The United States is running a gulag, a series of detention centers around the world where international legal standards are not having sway," says Carroll Bogert of Human Rights Watch. "They opened the door to a little bit of torture, and a whole lot of torture walked through." Nigel Rodley, who was the U.N. special rapporteur on torture and has written an authoritative book, "The Treatment of Prisoners Under International Law," dismisses Rumsfeld's claims that the Geneva Conventions have been observed. Rodley says that even some interrogation practices the Pentagon acknowledges using are "clearly violations both of international human-rights law and international humanitarian law as codified in the Geneva Conventions." He adds that the problem "goes back to the whole process of essentially creating legal black holes where people are held in the dark and secret reaches of state power. When that happens it breeds a sense of impunity and people do things that they shouldn't do."

One American intelligence officer admitted as much, telling NEWSWEEK: "The U.S. government and military capitalizes on the dubious status [as sovereign states] of Afghanistan, Diego Garcia, Guantanamo Bay, Iraq and aircraft carriers, to avoid certain legal questions about rough interrogations. Whatever humanitarian pronouncements a state such as ours may make about torture, states don't perform interrogations, individual people do. What's going to stop an impatient soldier, in a supralegal location, from whacking one nameless, dehumanized shopkeeper among many?"

Sources say these mysterious prisons include some undeclared facilities set up by the CIA and other "black"- program operatives. The so-called ghost facilities, whose existence has never been publicly acknowledged by the Bush administration, are believed to be where top Qaeda leaders like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaida are held and questioned. One such detention center, where the Indonesian terrorist Hambali and the 9/11 co-conspirator Ramzi bin al-Shibh were believed to have been questioned, reportedly is located in Thailand. Another, according to a knowledgeable source, is located somewhere in the North-West Frontier province of Pakistan.

Even many stalwart Republicans are appalled by what's happened--and what may yet come out. "This is not a few bad apples. This is a system failure, a massive failure," said Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsay Graham, a conservative Republican who once helped to prosecute the impeached Bill Clinton. Graham told NEWSWEEK he believes that more allegations of murder and rape of detainees are likely to surface. Sen. John McCain, whose arms were broken by North Vietnamese torturers, could barely suppress his rage during last week's hearings. Questioning Rumsfeld, the Arizona Republican reduced the normally self-assured Pentagon chief to a helpless sputter when McCain repeatedly demanded, "Who was in charge of the interrogations?" Rumsfeld did not give him a straight answer.

The Pentagon's effort at containment was undermined not just by the accounts of Karpinski and some of her soldiers, but by the conclusions of Rumsfeld's own lead investigator, General Taguba. Last week Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker acknowledged that Army regulations forbid military police from participating in "military-intelligence-supervised interrogation sessions." Deputy CENTCOM commander Lt. Gen. Lance Smith insisted that Miller's changes at Abu Ghraib in 2003 "didn't have anything to do with the methods of interrogating." But Taguba's report clearly outlines Miller's attempt to turn Abu Ghraib guards into "enablers" for interrogation. Taguba cites as evidence the testimony of Sgt. Javal Davis of the 372d and others, who related that military intel was telling them to "loosen this guy up for us," to "make sure this guy has a bad night" and to "give him the treatment." Taguba describes how military-intel officials even complimented one of the charged MPs, Spc. Charles Graner Jr., on his handling of prisoners with statements like, "Good job, they're breaking down real fast."

Just what was "the treatment" given to Iraqis? The answer to that question could ultimately decide Rumsfeld's fate. According to the Red Cross, interrogation methods at the U.S. military's "high-value detention" facility in Iraq, Camp Cropper, located near Baghdad International Airport, include "hooding a detainee in a bag, sometimes in conjunction with beatings, thus increasing anxiety as to when blows would come"; handcuffs so tight they broke the skin; beatings with rifles and pistols; threats against family members; and stripping detainees naked for several days in solitary confinement in a completely dark cell.

General Miller, in a press briefing, tried to show how he was now cleaning up interrogation procedures at Abu Ghraib. "We have approximately 50 approved interrogation techniques. They come from Army Field Manual 34-52," Miller said. Asked to explain what Miller meant, U.S. Army Intelligence Center spokesperson Tanja Linton said she would go away and inquire. She came back to report: "They have no idea what he is talking about." But a senior Defense Department official, speaking on background, confirms that there is a secret list of what he called "categories" of interrogation techniques--which, he says, can be used only with the case-by-case approval of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld.

No one knows exactly what went wrong at Abu Ghraib. But Miller's "Gitmo rules" were being introduced into a much more uncontrolled environment in Iraq. Gitmo has no "hot" war outside its walls and only 600-800 detainees, all of them pre-screened as terrorist suspects and controlled by 800 guards. Abu Ghraib has had as many as 7,000 detainees--and about 700 guards, which is shockingly low. (Karpinski has pointed out that a civilian U.S. prison would have double that prisoner-to-guard ratio.) Many soldiers say they are just as horrified and saddened as the U.S. public by the photos. Sgt. Stacy Renee Ferguson of Factoryville, Pa., was with the 320th Military Police Battalion when it shifted out of Abu Ghraib and the 372d MP unit shifted in. Last week she recalled that the 372d was full of bad attitudes because they had been jerked around--idling forever in Kuwait, told they were shipping back to the United States, eventually detailed to Abu Ghraib. "They obviously didn't want to be there."

Still, some question how seriously Rumsfeld is taking the allegations even now. At hearings last week, he was not shy about admitting mistakes. But he reserved most of his self-flagellation not for moral offenses but for, as he put it, "not understanding and knowing" there were hundreds of photos "that could eventually end up in the public and do the damage they've done." The role and culpability of the military-intelligence hierarchy remained carefully shrouded. And before the photos came out, noted Sen. Jack Reed sardonically, none of the senior officers in the affair had suffered worse than a reprimand. "Is that because a trial, and due process, would bring this out?" Reed asked. We are now likely to discover just that.