'Standard Operating Procedure' at Abu Ghraib

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Empty cells inside the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. i

In Standard Operating Procedure Errol Morris and Philip Gourevitch investigate the prisoner abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib. Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images
Empty cells inside the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq.

In Standard Operating Procedure Errol Morris and Philip Gourevitch investigate the prisoner abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib.

Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

In 2004, CBS News aired a series of shocking photographs from Abu Ghraib prison, revealing the torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of American soldiers.

When filmmaker Errol Morris and writer Philip Gourevitch saw those graphic images, they wanted to understand what happened and why. They embarked on a new project, Standard Operating Procedure, a film and a book that incorporate 200 hours of interviews with the soldier photographers present at Abu Ghraib.

Philip Gourevitch talks with Neal Conan about Standard Operating Procedure, in which soldiers explain how they rationalized their actions, creating a troubling portrait of the human capacity for violence and cruelty.

Excerpt: 'Standard Operating Procedure'

Book Cover of Standard Operating Procedure
Author Philip Gourevitch

Philip Gourevitch is the editor of The Paris Review and a staff writer for The New Yorker. He is the author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families and co-author of Standard Operating Procedure. hide caption

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McCotter had not known Abu Ghraib's history or its symbolism when he first admired its possibilities. The buildings alone were mute, and the flamboyant murals of Saddam that decked their walls were no different from a thousand others he'd seen in Iraq: a stern Saddam pointing an admonishing finger; a playboy Saddam in shades and a Panama hat; a happy soldier Saddam in epaulets, crowned by crossed swords and circled by fluttering white doves. But he had since heard the harrowing stories of the prison's past: how so many prisoners were kept in some cells that half of them had to stand while the other half slept; how they were fed one meal a day of soup, rice or lentils, and a piece of bread; how guards extorted protection money from prisoners and their families; how Saddam's son Qusay, the secret- police chief, would stop by and order a thousand executions because he felt like it; how prisoners were bolted to the floor and hung from the rafters, subjected to electric shocks, and beaten until they might feel lucky to be killed. McCotter had explored the death house-the torture chambers and cells for the condemned within earshot of the clanging iron trapdoors of the gallows. His interpreters had read to him the last words of prayer and despair scratched into those cell walls, and one day, while inspecting work at the prison, he had been summoned to the gate because an American reporter was there accompanying four Iraqis who had their own desperate plea. "All of them were missing either their hands or their forearms," McCotter said. "Their story was that when they were incarcerated there, under the Saddam Hussein regime, their arms or their hands had been amputated for punishment. They said they knew where they were buried on the prison grounds, and they wanted to recover those bones and things for proper disposal or burial or something of that nature." McCotter explained that he could not grant them access on account of security regulations. Besides, he said, the American reporter had cameras, and he wasn't about to let anybody come into a prison site and start taking pictures.

So McCotter and his team understood the political sensitivity of Abu Ghraib. But they couldn't see any alternative to Abu Ghraib. "Of course it had a bad reputation," Gary Deland said. "Find me a place of any size in Iraq that didn't have a bad reputation. Who was running the system? Saddam Hussein and his henchmen. His sons killed for sport, for hell's sake." To build an equivalent prison from scratch would take two years. When that happened, McCotter said, good — tear the place down, do whatever — but for now, Iraq needed Abu Ghraib and Abu Ghraib was his baby. "So I'm pushing as hard as I can to get this done," he said. "I take full responsibility for that. As a correctional professional I have no regrets whatsoever." Only the harder he pushed, the more resistance he got. "This thing was run all the way up the ladder to Washington," he said. "That was above my level." At the end of June, Amnesty International reported allegations of abusive treatment of Iraqis in military custody at Abu Ghraib and at Camp Cropper, a military detention center at Baghdad airport. The report described prisoners held for weeks without charges or judicial review, without access to family members or lawyers, and in wretched conditions. On June 12, the prisoners at Abu Ghraib's Camp Vigilant held a demonstration, demanding that they be told how long they would be there. An MP captain promised them an answer the next day. But no answer came, and there was another demonstration. This time prisoners threw bricks and other projectiles at the MPs, and the MPs opened fire. One prisoner was shot dead. He was in his tent when he was hit. Seven prisoners were wounded in the fusillade, and several of them were also in their tents.

The first press reports on the reopening of Abu Ghraib appeared two weeks later. On July 13, an Associated Press dispatch said, "Apparently recognizing the public relations problem, the Americans replaced a Saddam portrait at the prison with a big sign in English and Arabic: 'America is a friend of all Iraqi people.' " The story told of Iraqis gathered in staggering heat at the prison gate, pleading with unresponsive MP guards to know whether missing family members were inside. The CPA chief, U.S. Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, was quoted, scolding Amnesty International for failing to mention that "the Iraqi people are living in freedom today." In fact, Bremer said, "the human rights of the average Iraqi are light- years better today than they were twelve weeks ago." Yet Bremer, who was on the Pentagon payroll despite his civilian diplomatic title, also said that the military detention camps in Iraq were "completely and utterly unacceptable under any international standards," and CPA officials said they were hustling to improve them. Such reports did not help McCotter's cause, as he lobbied to make Abu Ghraib Iraq's flagship prison. He kept explaining that his project to renovate the hard site had nothing to do with military detention, and he decided that if the problem with Abu Ghraib was its symbolism he would make a symbolic gesture. He had his contractors build an extension to the prison's perimeter wall to dogleg around the old death house, sealing it off from the grounds and giving it a separate outside entrance. "Let the Iraqis turn it into a museum or an Iraqi memorial," he said. That seemed to help. In the third week of July Bremer helicoptered in to check out the prison with the special envoy of the United Nations, Sergio Vieira de Mello. "And the next thing I know," McCotter said, "the deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, shows up. We spent half a day out there walking him through everything. We took him through the death house. We briefed him on why we needed what we needed. We briefed him on the other prisons. He took it very, very seriously, and less than a week later the word came down — rebuild the complex."

"Have you ever been fishing for halibut?" Gary Deland said. "It's like hauling up a piece of plywood. It's not that the halibut fights you so much. It's not aerodynamic. It's a big, flat fish that lays on the bottom. In fact, its eyes roll around to one side so it can look up. But it's a very hard fish to land without really fighting, and the bureaucracy was kind of like that. It was this constant weight, that no matter what you wanted to do, you knew you have to go fight." By comparison, he said, getting shot at was the easy part of being

in Iraq — and frankly, part of the thrill. Deland had avoided going to Vietnam with a college deferment, and he had come to regret that he missed the action. "I figured I owed my country something. Other people had gone in harm's way for me. Why shouldn't I, now that I have the chance, do the same?" And he said, "The other thing is I tend to enjoy doing things that involve adrenaline."

Deland found plenty to enjoy in Iraq. Security was deteriorating; the civilian cell phone service could not communicate with the military network; the military was too thin on the ground to provide reliable escort service; and he loved the high- speed, stop- for- nothing driving, the "little tight pucker" he felt, hurtling into unsecured neighborhoods of Baghdad in a car full of men with guns, his pockets stuffed with tens of thousands of dollars in cash (because there were no banks) to buy photocopy machines, or a fleet of buses to serve as paddy wagons, on the local gray market (because there was no other way to get them). "Beyond exciting," he said. At one point, the prison team had three million dollars in cash stashed with their weapons in their office bathroom — a folly of marble and gold plate with no running water. Deland loved the daredevil lunacy of this system of finance, procuring receipts in Arabic and praying they added up. He loved hitching a ride on a Black Hawk to check on a project in An Najaf one day, then tearing down the highway to Al Hillah or Abu Ghraib the next, and seeing progress. He loved getting out of the Green Zone. Beyond the blinders and sclerosis of the bureaucracy, he discovered a sense of almost dizzying possibility in Iraq's pandemonium, where the absence of government allowed him to implement sweeping institutional changes with a speed and autonomy he had never known before. For instance, when it became apparent that the Saddam- era guards the prison team had rehired in its haste to open its first prison were refusing to feed prisoners whose families didn't bribe them, Deland fired the whole corrupt lot, and established his corrections academy to train a new generation of recruits to replace them.

"The very first academy we had, a third of the class left the first day, when we said you couldn't shake down families and inmates for money," he said. "People got up and walked out — 'What do you mean? How am I going to feed my family, then, on what you pay us?' They weren't going to hide the fact that they were doing this. It was the way it was always done." So there were bad days, and there was no end of setbacks. "We would create these role plays," Deland said, and he gave an example of how they would go: "OK, we have this inmate who is saying this and doing this and you tell him to leave his cell and he won't do it. Based on the training you just had, what do you do? "Well, you go beat him until he moves or he dies. "OK, that would be one way, yes. Now, let's look at some other options here."

By early July, two of the original members of the prison team had quit in exasperation, and at the end of the month, Lane McCotter flew home for an emergency leave because his father- in- law had died. For three weeks in August, Gary Deland said, "I was the only person in Iraq that was part of the Justice Department's team sent over to build and maintain a corrections system." He, too, would be going home soon, but nobody had yet been hired to take over his mission. Deland pressed on with his corrections academy; he looked after his prison projects; he paid the contractors at Abu Ghraib to triple their crew and work around the clock to get the new medical facility ready in a month instead of six. But at the same time, Army contractors were throwing up a huge new tented camp at Abu Ghraib — Camp Ganci, named after a New York City firefighter killed on September 11, a facility that would double or triple the military's prison capacity before Deland could open a single cell block at the hard site. Deland felt "a terrible frustration." He had seen enough danger, racing between prison projects, that the speed and scale of Camp Ganci's construction made sense to him. The military was conducting an average of two thousand patrols a day to counter lawlessness and armed resistance. "Instead of simply going in and machine- gunning a whole bunch of people, they had more and more and more and more people to incarcerate," Deland said. The problem was that he didn't have the prisons to house them. He had analyzed the inmate populations of other countries in the region — Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Turkey, Syria, and Saudi Arabia — crunched the statistics, and concluded that the Iraqi corrections system he was there to build would need seventy—five thousand beds. So far, his team had three prisons that were back in business or about to be, with a total of seventeen hundred beds. The hard site would add two hundred by summer's end, and as the work at Abu Ghraib continued into the fall there would be a thousand more. "It's still a drop in the ocean," he said. "Despite the strongest possible efforts to get this thing done, we were enormously undermanned."

It wasn't just the lack of manpower that discouraged Deland. What upset him more was the waste of the occupation's limited resources on keeping a growing number of people in prison without cause. "We had people that were there when I arrived, they were there when I left, and there was no reason in the world for them to be there. They were picked up in sweeps, and nobody knew what to release them for. Their only charge might be 'wrong place, wrong time,' literally written on their arrest sheet. You got some soldiers going down the street, somebody starts shooting at them, OK — close the street off, pick people up. But as soon as you've determined this guy is only there because he is running a Coca- Cola stand on the side of the road, and this one was sitting on his front stoop, let them go." What's more, he said, "celebratory fire is pretty common over there." So what if the guy firing the machine gun out his car window wasn't shooting at anyone? "They arrest him," Deland said. "He's got a fourteen- year- old son in the car with him? They arrest him. For what? Didn't know what to do with him, couldn't leave him on the street. Now we can't get him out of jail."

Camp Ganci was supposed to address this problem at Abu Ghraib. Officially, it was meant to hold Iraqis suspected of strictly civilian crimes, so that prisoners of genuine military concern could be concentrated in Camp Vigilant. But in practice the distinction between criminal and military prisoners had always been sloppy, and it often seemed meaningless as the prison population grew. Even when Deland got judges to throw out groundless charges, and found lawyers to take release orders to the prison, the soldiers at the gate would tell them no.

There were exceptions, of course. Every week, some prisoners got to see a judge or a lawyer, and some got released, but the process appeared increasingly arbitrary. "What we kept hearing was, they have intelligence value," Deland said. "Well, hell, anybody on the street has got intelligence value. You can talk to them and see if they know anything. Don't count me just as a humanitarian that just wanted to help these poor people, although I did. There were also pragmatic reasons. We didn't have enough space for the bad guys. Why tie it up with the good guys?"

Deland was proud of the work his tiny team had accomplished with local contractors. But as his time in Iraq ran out, and the country grew more treacherous — by the day, it seemed — the prospect of Iraqi self- government grew more remote. Deland feared that the rebuilding of Iraq's civilian criminal justice system was being sidelined when it had only just started, and he felt "a terrible frustration."

"I grew up on John Wayne and Roy Rogers and all that stuff in the forties that developed certain ideas in your mind," he said, and at first he had seen Iraq as it was reflected in its wasted prisons — as an open frontier, almost a blank slate. Running the corrections academy gave him a new perspective. "We tend to look at things through American eyes," he said. "You should look at them through the other side's eyes. They saw this differently. They had no experience in the rule of law. It astounded us. Then you thought about it for a while. Why did it astound us? You're not just fixing wires. You're changing an entire culture. Corrections aside, I don't think the American government had any idea exactly how enormous the project was going to be. Everybody focuses on, 'Oh, there was no weapons of mass destruction when you got there; you must have crappy intelligence.' Well hell, there was a whole lot of reasons to say we didn't have good intelligence. We didn't know anything about the country, hardly, when we got there."

The map shows one Iraq, but Deland was simplifying when he spoke of one Iraqi culture. The country was a tangle of cultures — ancient and modern, sectarian and secular, each with its clans, tribes, regions, and classes, its codes and its creeds-and with Saddam's overthrow, all that he had stamped down sprung up: the violently thwarted passions of humiliation and revenge, exclusion and ambition, ideology and greed, political feuds and private vendettas. The occupation, too, was fundamentally fragmented, a grab bag of uncoordinated agendas, with snarled and conflicting lines of authority and accountability, tugged this way and that by opportunistic local allegiances, and hobbled by political calculations that often had less to do with Iraq than with Washington bureaucracy and careerism. There was a great deal at stake for America, of course, but never as much as there was for Iraqis. Everyone knew that sooner or later, individually and collectively, the Americans would get to go home — or have to — leaving the war's spoils to forces beyond their control. Until then, the big, vague idea was to put Iraq back together, not according to a unified vision, but piece by piece, so for the most part nobody really knew what anybody else was doing. And, in the absence of civilian control, as things continued to fall apart, the only coherent imperative was military.

From Standard Operating Procedure by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris, Copyright 2008. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press.

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