'She Was Following Orders'

As more photographic evidence of Iraqi prisoner abuse emerges, the question of who was in charge of Abu Ghraib prison remains unanswered. Were American soldiers who physically and sexually degraded prisoners acting independently or under orders from supervisors in the Army? Seven reservists assigned to Abu Ghraib from the 327th Military Police company, based near Cumberland, Md., have been charged with offenses related to the alleged abuse like conspiring to mistreat detainees and failing to protect prisoners. They include Spc. Jeremy Sivits, 24; Spc. Megan Ambuhl, 29; Pfc. Lynndie England, 21; Spc. Sabrina Harman, 26; Cpl Charles Graner, Jr., 35; Sgt. Javal Davis, 26; and Staff Sgt. Van Frederick, 37. All of the soldiers have been separated from their unit and are being held in Baghdad, except Pfc. England, 21, who is pregnant and being detained instead at Fort Bragg, NC.

Harvey J. Volzer, the attorney representing Ambuhl, who faces charges of conspiring to mistreat detainees and dereliction of duty for failing to protect prisoners, recently traveled to Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq to gather evidence for Ambuhl's upcoming trial and got a firsthand look inside the notorious prison. He also spoke with some of the detained and allegedly abused Iraqis. Volzer talked to NEWSWEEK's Julie Scelfo about the abuse allegations and the conditions at Abu Ghraib. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What is your client's alleged involvement in the abuse?

Harvey J. Volzer: My client wasn't alleged to have done anything other than be there. I guess she was following orders to be there.

Does your client appear in any of the photographs?

Her boots are in one photograph. That's about it....The place where all these activities occurred is very tiny. If you're there, you're going to see what's going on. If you're Pvt. England or these two specialists, what in the hell are you supposed to do? You know that Military Intelligence is telling the people above you what to do...I feel sorry for the women. I don't think there's much they could have done to control their situation. England looks like she's a tiny little thing.

What was the purpose of your visit to Iraq?

Sunday [May 2] I spent the entire day at the prison interviewing detainees. I have hand-written, dated statements from [some prisoners] and they're all witnessed by an Army interpreter and every one of them says my client was loving and caring and respected by the prisoners.

What is the prison like?

I don't have to worry about what hell looks like when I die. To the outside, to the causal observer, you wouldn't believe that anybody [actually used the building]. It looked like it had been strafed. Inside, it's just hotter than hell. Frankly, the detainees almost have it better [than the U.S. soldiers assigned to watch them] because they can go outside during the day. Granted, outside means rock on the ground. It's not like you have a tree or anything to take care of you. At least it's outside. It's hotter than hell inside. You have no idea how hot it is.

So it was horrible for American soldiers to work there?

Oh yeah, it really is. You're in the middle of nowhere, the conditions are awful, and there's not really any incentive you can offer to the prisoners, because you don't have anything to offer them. [And] the number of prisoners just grew like topsy in a very short period of time. I don't think the powers-that-be anticipated it would grow that much. The problem was the [number of] reservists intended to [guard the prison] didn't grow at all. It made for an uncomfortable situation--suddenly, you had many more prisoners than guards, some of who were trained in correction work before, but most of them were not. The point is, it's not a situation you'd want in the civilian world, let alone when you're supervising detainees. And the people at Abu Ghraib were the worst prisoners in Iraq. They're the worst criminal offenders against the Iraqi people and the suspected terrorists.

Who was in charge of giving orders to the reservists at Abu Ghraib?

The MPs were under the supervision of Military Intelligence. The role of the prison was dual: to have a place where detainees could be kept and...for intelligence. Military Intelligence [officers] were supervising activities there. It was contested at first, but now it's become obvious with [Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's] testimony.

What about rumors in the unit that the reservists in the photographs were just drinking or high?

Drinking? High? Let me tell you one thing, there is nowhere to get high or drunk over there. We're not talking about the US of A. There's no beer, no liquor. Good luck finding any drugs! How do these idiots think [the reservists] got [the hoods and electric wires and women's underpants]? Iraq is a Muslim country. They have guard dogs and drug sniffing dogs three or four times to get into the country. There's no way to have fun over there.

Are you saying that the objects used for torture were provided by Military Intelligence?

You saw hoods in Guantanamo [Bay], didn't you? And you see them at Abu Ghraib. Do you think it's something the military brigade from Cumberland, Maryland, brought with them? 'Gee, do I have everything, I got my credit card, I got my M16, I got my hood.'....What's the common thing between Guantanamo base, [another jail in Iraq called Camp] Bucca and Abu Ghraib? The other places have....the same techniques, the hoods, the training, the photographs....The only common thing is Military Intelligence is interrogating at all of those places. As the kids say, "Duh!'

I know your client and the other soldiers are being held in Baghdad. Where exactly are they staying?

They all live in the same tent in Camp Victory [a military installation]. They were separated from the other members of the brigade. Spc. Sivits was moved last Saturday [May 1] ... but he left a goodbye note for everybody. It was a goodbye note that said he was moving and I think he asked Graner to pack up his stuff. There's no animosity between them and no back biting.

Are they allowed to socialize with other people in Camp Victory?

Absolutely. They were in same tent compound as I was, tent 81. You hear rockets and mortars.

How are other U.S. soldiers treating them?

As a matter of fact, after the "60 minutes II" [segment about prisoner abuse] came on last Thursday, no one knew it was going to happen, so Friday I was sitting in the mess hall--remember there's an 8 hour gap in time between the United States and Iraq--and CNN plays in the mess hall, and it was a perfect opportunity to ask the people I was sitting with what they thought of it all....And the reaction of the soldiers was, 'What do they expect? We're at war!' If you're trying to get information from terrorists, you can't be asking "pretty please.' So they're not upset at all, and they see these people all the time. There hasn't been anything--no threats, no violence, no 'God, we're going to get killed because of you.' I guess it's because the military is just so different from civilians. One thing that's really impressive is the camaraderie of the troops over there.

How are your client's spirits?

It's what would be expected. She's a little disappointed about all of this that's happening.