Torture and Truth America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror
New York Review of BooksCopyright © 2004 Mark Danner
All right reserved.ISBN: 1-59017-152-7
TORTURE AND TRUTH
IN NOVEMBER of 2003 in Iraq, I traveled to Falluja during the early days of what would become known as the "Ramadan Offensive"-when suicide bombers in the space of less than an hour destroyed the Red Cross headquarters and four police stations, and daily attacks by insurgents against US troops doubled, and the American adventure in Iraq entered a bleak tunnel from which it has yet to emerge. I inquired of a young man there why the people of that city were attacking Americans more frequently each day. How many of the attacks, I wanted to know, were carried out by foreign fighters? How many by local Islamists? And how many by what US officers called "FRLs"-former regime loyalists?
The young man-I'll call him Salih-listened, answered patiently in his limited but eloquent English, but soon became impatient with what he plainly saw as my American obsession with categories and particulars. Finally he interrupted my litany of questions, pushed his face close to mine, and spoke to me slowly and emphatically:
For Fallujans it is a shame to have foreigners break down their doors. It is a shame for them to have foreigners stop and search their women. It is a shame for the foreigners to put a bag over their heads, to make a man lie on the ground with your shoe on his neck. This is a great shame, you understand? This is a great shame for the whole tribe.
It is the duty of that man, and of that tribe, to get revenge on this soldier -to kill that man. Their duty is to attack them, to wash the shame. The shame is a stain, a dirty thing; they have to wash it. No sleep-we cannot sleep until we have revenge. They have to kill soldiers.
He leaned back and looked at me, then tried one more time. "The Americans," he said, "provoke the people. They don't respect the people."
I thought of Salih and his impatience as I paged through the reports of General Taguba and the Red Cross, for they treat not just of "abuses" or "atrocities" but the entire American "liberation" of Iraq and how it has gone wrong; they are dispatches from the scene of a political disaster. Salih came strongly to mind as I read one of the less lurid sections of the Red Cross report, entitled "Treatment During Arrest," in which the anonymous authors tell how Iraqis they'd interviewed described "a fairly consistent pattern ... of brutality by members of the [Coalition Forces] arresting them":
Arresting authorities entered houses usually after dark, breaking down doors, waking up residents roughly, yelling orders, forcing family members into one room under military guard while searching the rest of the house and further breaking doors, cabinets and other property. They arrested suspects, tying their hands in the back with flexi-cuffs, hooding them, and taking them away. Sometimes they arrested all adult males present in a house, including elderly, handicapped or sick people ... pushing people around, insulting, taking aim with rifles, punching and kicking and striking with rifles.
Of course, this is war; those soldiers had intelligence to gather, insurgents to find, a rebellion to put down. However frightening such nighttime arrests might be, Iraqis could at least expect that these soldiers were accountable, that they had commanding officers and a clear chain of command, that there were bases to which one could go and complain. These were, after all, Americans. And yet:
In almost all instances ..., arresting authorities provided no information about who they were, where their base was located, nor did they explain the cause of arrest. Similarly, they rarely informed the arrestee or his family where he was being taken and for how long, resulting in the de facto "disappearance" of the arrestee.... Many [families] were left without news for months, often fearing that their relatives were dead.
We might pass over with a shiver the word "disappearance," with its unfortunate associations, and say to ourselves, once again, that this was war: insurgents were busy killing American soldiers and had to be rooted out, even if it meant one or two innocent civilians were sucked up into the system. And then one comes upon this quiet little sentence:
Certain [Coalition Forces] military intelligence officers told the ICRC that in their estimate between 70 percent and 90 percent of the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake. [emphasis added]
In the fall of 2003 Abu Ghraib contained within its walls-as the war heated up and American soldiers, desperate for "actionable intelligence," spent many an autumn evening swooping down on Iraqi homes, kicking in doors, and carrying away hooded prisoners into the night-well over eight thousand Iraqis. Could it be that "between 70 percent and 90 percent" of them were "arrested by mistake"? And if so, which of the naked, twisted bodies that television viewers and newspaper readers around the world have been gazing at these last weeks were among them? Perhaps the seven bodies piled up in that great coil, buttocks and genitals exposed to the camera? Or the bodies bound one against another on the cellblock floor? Or the body up against the bars, clenched before the teeth of barking police dogs?
Consider the naked body wearing only the black hood, hands clasped above its head: Pfc. Lynndie England, she of the famous leash, frames the body like a car salesman displaying next year's model, grinning back at the camera, pointing to its genitals with her right hand, flashing a thumbs-up with her left. This body belongs to Hayder Sabbar Abd, a thirty-four-year-old Shiite from Nasiriya, also known as Abu Ghraib Prisoner Number 13077. Last June, at a military checkpoint in the south, according to The New York Times, Mr. Abd "tried to leave the taxi he was riding in." Suspicious behavior, rendered more suspicious by the fact that Mr. Abd had served eighteen years in the Iraqi army, part of that time in the Republican Guard. The Americans took him to a detention center at Baghdad airport, and from there to the big military prison at Um Qasr, and finally, after three months, to Abu Ghraib. A strange odyssey through Occupied Iraq, made stranger by the fact that during that time, Mr. Abd says, "he was never interrogated, and never charged with a crime." "The truth is," he told Ian Fisher of The New York Times, "we were not terrorists. We were not insurgents. We were just ordinary people. And American intelligence knew this."
As I write, we know nothing of what "American intelligence knew"-apart from a hint here or there, this critical fact is wholly absent from both reports, as it has been from the public hearings of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other officials. General Taguba, following his orders, concentrates instead on the activities of the military police, hapless amateurs who were "tasked" to "set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses" and whose work, thanks to digital photography, has now been displayed so vividly to the citizens of the world. It is this photography that has let us visualize something of what happened to Mr. Abd one night in early November 2003, following a fight among prisoners, when he and six other men were brought to what was known as "the hard site" at Abu Ghraib, the wing for the most dangerous prisoners:
The seven men were all placed in hoods, he said, and the beating began. "They beat our heads on the walls and the doors," he said. "I don't really know: I couldn't see." He said his jaw had been broken, badly enough that he still has trouble eating. In all, he said, he believes that he received about 50 blows over about two hours.
"Then the interpreter told us to strip," he said. "We told him: 'You are Egyptian, and you are a Muslim. You know that as Muslims we can't do that.' When we refused to take off our clothes, they beat us and tore our clothes off with a blade."
It was at this moment in the interview ... that several pages of the photographs made public last week were produced.... He quickly and unemotionally pointed out all his friends-Hussein, Ahmed, Hashim-naked, hooded, twisted around each other.
He also saw himself, as degraded as possible: naked, his hand on his genitals, a female soldier, identified in another report as Pvt. Lynndie England, pointing and smiling with a cigarette in her mouth. Mr. Abd said one of the soldiers had removed his hood, and the translator ordered him to masturbate while looking at Private England....
"She was laughing, and she put her hands on her breasts," Mr. Abd said. "Of course, I couldn't do it. I told them that I couldn't, so they beat me in the stomach, and I fell to the ground. The translator said, 'Do it! Do it! It's better than being beaten.' I said, 'How can I do it?' So I put my hand on my penis, just pretending."
All the while, he said, the flash of the camera kept illuminating the dim room that once held prisoners of Mr. Hussein....
Such scenes, President Bush tells us, "do not represent America." But for Iraqis, what does? To Salih and other Iraqis they represent the logical extension of treatment they have seen every day under a military occupation that began harshly and has grown, under the stress of the insurgency, more brutal. As another young Iraqi man told me in November,
The attacks on the soldiers have made the army close down. You go outside and there's a guy on a Humvee pointing a machine gun at you. You learn to raise your hands, to turn around. You come to hate the Americans.
This of course is a prime goal of the insurgents; they cannot defeat the Americans militarily but they can defeat them politically. For the insurgents, the path to such victory lies in provoking the American occupiers to do their political work for them; the insurgents ambush American convoys with "improvised explosive devices" placed in city neighborhoods so the Americans will respond by wounding and killing civilians, or by imprisoning them in places like Abu Ghraib. The insurgents want to place the outnumbered, overworked American troops under constant fear and stress so they will mistreat Iraqis on a broad scale and succeed in making themselves hated.
In this project, as these reports make clear, the methods used at Abu Ghraib played a critical part. For if Americans are learning about these "abuses" for the first time, news about what has been happening at Abu Ghraib and other prisons has been spreading throughout Iraq for many months. And if the Iraqis, with their extensive experience of Abu Ghraib and the purposes it served in the national imagination, do not regard such methods as "abuses," neither do the investigators of the Red Cross:
These methods of physical and psychological coercion were used by the military intelligence in a systematic way to gain confessions and extract information or other forms of co-operation from persons who had been arrested in connection with suspected security offences or deemed to have an "intelligence value." [emphasis added]
What, according to the Red Cross, were these "methods of physical and psychological coercion"?
Hooding, used to prevent people from seeing and to disorient them, and also to prevent them from breathing freely. One or sometimes two bags, sometimes with an elastic blindfold over the eyes which, when slipped down, further impeded proper breathing. Hooding was sometimes used in conjunction with beatings thus increasing anxiety as to when blows would come. The practice of hooding also allowed the interrogators to remain anonymous and thus to act with impunity. Hooding could last for periods from a few hours to up to two to four consecutive days ...;
Handcuffing with flexi-cuffs, which were sometimes made so tight and used for such extended periods that they caused skin lesions and long-term after-effects on the hands (nerve damage), as observed by the ICRC;
Beatings with hard objects (including pistols and rifles), slapping, punching, kicking with knees or feet on various parts of the body (legs, sides, lower back, groin) ...;
Being paraded naked outside cells in front of other persons deprived of their liberty, and guards, sometimes hooded or with women's underwear over the head ...;
Being attached repeatedly over several days ... with handcuffs to the bars of their cell door in humiliating (i.e. naked or in underwear) and/or uncomfortable position causing physical pain;
Exposure while hooded to loud noise or music, prolonged exposure while hooded to the sun over several hours, including during the hottest time of the day when temperatures could reach ... 122 degrees Fahrenheit ... or higher;
Being forced to remain for prolonged periods in stress positions such as squatting or standing with or without the arms lifted.
The authors of the Red Cross report note that when they visited the "isolation section" of Abu Ghraib in mid-October 2003, they "directly witnessed and documented a variety of methods used to secure the cooperation" of prisoners, among them "the practice of keeping [prisoners] completely naked in totally empty concrete cells and in total darkness...." When the Red Cross delegates "requested an explanation from the authorities ... the military intelligence officer in charge of the interrogation explained that this practice was 'part of the process.'"
The ICRC medical delegate examined persons ... presenting signs of concentration difficulties, memory problems, verbal expression difficulties, incoherent speech, acute anxiety reactions, abnormal behavior and suicidal tendencies. These symptoms appeared to have been caused by the methods and duration of interrogation.
This "process" is not new; indeed, like so many of the news stories presented as "revelation" during these last few months, it has appeared before in the American press. After the arrest in Pakistan more than a year ago of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the al-Qaeda operations chief, "senior American officials" told The New York Times that "physical torture would not be used against Mr. Mohammed":
They said his interrogation would rely on what they consider acceptable techniques like sleep and light deprivation and the temporary withholding of food, water, access to sunlight and medical attention.
American officials acknowledged that such techniques were recently applied as part of the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, the highest-ranking Qaeda operative in custody until the capture of Mr. Mohammed. Painkillers were withheld from Mr. Zubaydah, who was shot several times during his capture in Pakistan.