What if the FBI had tortured Zacarias Moussaoui, the would-be 20th hijacker, into revealing the plot to destroy the World Trade Center in time to stop it? Who could blame it? These were not people playing by any rules of civilized warfare, and nor are terrorists in Iraq. At Abu Ghraib, military-intelligence officers were concerned about the poor "product" they were getting from prisoner interrogations, and they pressured the military-police guards there to "soften up" their charges between sessions. That, at least, is the defense of the six MPs now facing charges in the scandal. So why did Cpl. Charles Graner Jr. order a young woman to pull her shirt up to her neck? She was an accused prostitute. MPs allegedly ordered Hussein Mohsen Matar to masturbate, and rode on his naked back as he crawled on all fours. He was an accused thief. Haqi Ismail Abdul-Hamid, famously menaced by a snarling dog, had at least kicked an Iraqi policemen and threatened to kill Coalition soldiers. But he was ordered released as a mental case. Not only did military police torture prisoners at Abu Ghraib, they often tortured the wrong prisoners.

The case files of 26 abused detainees, interviewed by military criminal prosecutors in the Abu Ghraib scandal, were obtained by NEWSWEEK this month. Charge sheets and interrogation reports show 13 of the victims were there for criminal offenses ranging from theft to rape. At least eight of the other 13 who were initially picked up as terrorists were later ordered released without any charges. Terrorist suspect Mohammed Habibullah's interrogator noted his statements were "sketchy and unreliable at best," and added, "NEVER leaving unless it's to the loony bin."

It's difficult to escape the conclusion that the Abu Ghraib torturers were just having a good, if sadistic, time. One military investigator wrote in his notes on Graner: "the biggest S.O.B. on earth," a comment he underlined twice. The price for the party is enormous: damage done to Iraqi support for the American occupation has been incalculable. The details are sickening. Noor, a detainee whose full name is being withheld by NEWSWEEK, was forced to expose her breasts and genitalia and is shown in the MPs' pictures giving a forced smile for Graner, who sources believe was the photographer. Subsequently a letter signed by a woman named Noor circulated widely in Baghdad saying she had been raped and impregnated by American soldiers, and begging the resistance to "please kill all of us." Prisoner Satar Jabar's photograph, showing him hooded and wired up, has become familiar to Iraqis, who derisively call it "the Statue of Liberty." Far from being a dangerous insurgent, however, Jabar, 24, was an accused car thief.

"This is a prison that was clearly out of control," says Joseph Margulies, an attorney who represented Guantanamo detainees in their recent successful Supreme Court appeal. "There was either a deliberate or a negligent breakdown within the prison such that they don't even know who's there." The U.S. military is reviewing the deaths of 32 Iraqis in detention, many of them at Abu Ghraib. One was Munadil al-Jumaily, a healthy 40-year-old who died Feb. 10 of a cerebral contusion and hemorrhage. But his family didn't learn about it until his 12-year-old son Mustafa saw al-Jumaily's body May 22 in an Iraqi newspaper--on ice, with MPs Sabrina Harman and Graner posing with thumbs-up gestures over the battered corpse. "They will say they were following orders," says al-Jumaily's brother Majib. "But you could see they were enjoying themselves--look how they smile." However the scandal plays out, that image will be hard to erase.