'Standard Operating Procedure' at Abu Ghraib Filmmaker Errol Morris and writer Philip Gourevitch conducted 200 hours of interviews with American soldiers about the prisoner-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib. Their book and film, Standard Operating Procedure, are troubling portraits of the human capacity for abuse.
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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan. We're broadcasting today from the Knight Studio at the Newseum, Washington D.C.'s newest museum devoted to journalism and to the news business.

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CONAN: Four years ago almost exactly to the day, CBS News aired a series of startling photographs from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, pictures of American soldiers from the 372nd Military Police Company sitting on Iraqi detainees, laughing at them, mugging for the camera, and pictures of Iraqi prisoners naked, blindfolded and scared.

In many of the pictures, the American soldiers are laughing, grinning, giving a thumbs-up. After they abused, tormented and tortured prisoners, for some reason, the MPs documented it all. A couple of days later, the New Yorker Magazine published an article by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. "The photographs tell it all," he wrote, "the 372nd's abuse of prisoners seemed almost routine, a fact of Army life that the soldiers felt no need to hide."

When filmmaker Errol Morris and writer Philip Gourevitch saw those pictures, they, like many of us, had questions. What happened? Why? How did it happen? Who allowed it to happen? How can good people, and why do good people do bad things? They put those questions to several of the soldiers involved and produced a film and a book both of the same title, "Standard Operating Procedure."

So here's our question to you today, listeners. If you were one of those young MPs at Abu Ghraib, what do you think you would've done? Our number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Later in the program, we'll talk with Dana Priest and Amy Goldstein, reporters for the Washington Post, about their new series exposing poor medical care in immigrant detention facilities here in the U.S. It's another installment in the How Did You Get That Story series.

But first, Abu Ghraib, and joining us here at the Newseum is Philip Gourevitch, editor of the Paris Review and coauthor of the book, "Standard Operating Procedure." And it's good to have you with us today.

Mr. PHILIP GOUREVITCH (Editor, Paris Review; Coauthor, "Standard Operating Procedure"): Good to be with you.

CONAN: And every American, I think, remembers - maybe everybody in the world remembers that one iconic image, a hooded man in a poncho standing on a box with his arms extended and wires dangling from his fingers. How did that picture get made?

Mr. GOUREVITCH: That picture got made because American military policy had changed in the wake of September 11th.

CONAN: Get to policy, specifically that picture.

Mr. GOUREVITCH: That picture is a picture of the policy that changed, and that's crucial. I think to focus exclusively on the pictures, as if they tell us the whole story, is part of the problem, and the line that you used that was many people's first impression, which is that the pictures tell the whole story.

That picture was made during a night at Abu Ghraib prison when a soldier had been - I mean a prisoner had been brought in, an Iraqi prisoner, by members of the criminal investigative division of the military. Most of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib were picked up by soldiers during sweeps around the country. In this one cellblock where the photographs that, you know, were taken, they were the so-called "high-value" detainees.

They were people basically held pending or during interrogation, primarily by military intelligence, but also by other clandestine and intelligence services, including the CIA to a large degree, and in this case, the criminal investigative division, who had picked this guy up on suspicion of being somebody who had killed other CID agents somewhere else in Iraq. And he had given a different name than what they thought he was, if he was the suspect they were looking for.

And so they told the MPs on the block, give him the usual hell night. The usual hell night, at that point, had been established for prisoners during their first, second and third nights on the block, would be usually being stripped naked. On this occasion, it was particularly cold, so that Charles Grainer, who was the MP in charge of the block at that night, actually cut - the poncho that you see is a prison blanket, where he cut a slit and put it over the prisoner's head to keep him a little bit warmer, which is not the reputation Charles Grainer generally has in the public imagination. He is usually seen as the ringleader and the sadist of the bad apples.

But pity pretty much ended there. And he was given a box, an MRE box of cardboard carton, and he was told, much as you might in basic training, give a soldier a log and say, this is your log. Love your log. Carry your log with you, soldier. Sleep with your log. Carry your log. Don't put that log down. They did that with him with this MRE box. They made him stand on it. They made him carry it. There are pictures of him carrying it.

At times he's hooded. most of the time he's hooded, carrying this thing until he was exhausted, stand on it, just physically stand there until he was exhausted, stand with his arms out. And at some point, one of the soldiers, Sergeant Frederick, who was actually the highest ranking of the MPs in charge at that night, came in and saw him there, and saw that there were some loose wires hanging out of the wall behind him, checked them, saw that they were dead wires, tied them on his fingers and took a few photographs.

He and Sabrina Harmon, one of the other MPs who had stepped into the shower room where this was happening, and they took these photos. Although nobody's ever quite said it, it seems pretty clear that they took them in part to take the photos. They put the wires on him to take the photos. There was some joking around, it seems. It doesn't sound funny, but they said, you know, fall off the box and you'll be electrocuted.

It's not clear that he understood this, if it was said in English, or that if it did he believed it. We don't know, but that was the sort o, extent of that story, and that incident which the MPs themselves did not consider to be a moment of torture, or by any means the worst thing. And I think one of the reasons that picture has power - because when you look at it, you see that something terribly wrong has happened, that something has gone terribly wrong, and yet in part, you don't know what it is.

You don't know. What are they doing to him? Why is he there? Is this an electrocution? You can see, if you look at the photograph closely, that these are insulated wires that are wrapped around the fingertips in a way that isn't carrying electricity even if there were live wires, and they aren't live wires. There's no, why has he got this hood on? What's happening to that man? There's the suggestion of the imagery of crucifixion in a various kinds of medieval passion plays, the Ku Klux Klan hood.

There's something haunting and ghost-like. there's something dark about this image that has come to symbolize, more than many of the more harsh images of naked people strung up, stressed out, tied in positions known as a Palestinian hanging or shackled to their jail cells, in puddles of water or so. This image, which in itself is not the most violent, let's say, has become the most haunting.

CONAN: Yet, as you point out in your book, those were not the only photographs taken at Abu Ghraib that night.

Mr. GOUREVITCH: No, by no means. In the adjacent shower, there was the body of a prisoner who had been murdered earlier that day. About 16 hours earlier, or 18 hours earlier, he had been brought in. In this case, he was brought in by the CIA after being captured by Navy Seals. He was suspected of having been involved in probably procuring or providing explosives for the bombing of one of the Red Cross buildings in Baghdad.

Again, we don't know if he was that man, and he was brought in hooded, and brought in to a shower stall, left there for interrogation, and when the MPs were called in to tie his hands up higher, he was tied with hands behind his back in this - well, it's the position that, in fact, causes death in crucifixions. It's the stress of your hands pulled all the way back behind you and the weight on your wrists. And these MPs came in to, at the instruction of the CIA interrogator, to raise him higher, and they came to realize that they were moving a dead man.

He had died there as he - and they took his hood off to see what had become of him. They saw that he was badly battered. He was bleeding. And then the CIA agent said, well, we don't want to take the body with us, and it became a bit of a, what do you do with a body? Horror story of sorts where they left the body in the shower stall. The people who had taken the picture of the man under the hood went into that shower stall later and started taking pictures.

And one of them in particular, a soldier, one of them named Sabrina Harman, who had aspired in civilian life to become a forensic photographer, in fact, when she unzipped the body bag and looked at this body, she took it upon herself to take a lot of pictures. She had been told by her commander that this man had died of a heart attack. And she felt up and lied to. I'm looking at something that is - should be recorded and she did something that corresponded to what one might think of a journalistic impulse.

She took increasingly close photographs, of the corpse, of the wounds. She peeled back the bag, it had been packed in ice. She peeled back these now-melted ice bags, found these lacerations, these photographs that are highly close up of a pinkie. She peeled back a bandage that was on his head where they had actually, after he died, started to give him medical treatment so it looked like he had received medical treatment before his death. And she essentially produced an expose of what became a cover-up and what was already a cover-up, that we otherwise would not know about - the murder of a detainee in American custody.

CONAN: Was anybody ever charged with what the death certificate said was a homicide?

Mr. GOUREVITCH: Yeah, the Army pathologist classified it as a homicide within a week. Nobody has ever been brought to trial for that. The CIA agent who was in the room with him has been identified, Jane Mayer of the New Yorker Magazine wrote about this about a year and a half ago, the case is technically open. I don't know if it works this way for the CIA, but basically there is not statute of limitations on murder, domestically certainly. But there's never been a prosecution. There are layers and layers of protection and evasion and nobody wants apparently to take this thing all the way.

CONAN: But there were charges as a result of that incident.

Mr. GOUREVITCH: There were some charges against Navy Seals who had been involved in the capture. Those were dropped or didn't go to anywhere. And there were charges originally leveled Sabrina Harman for taking the photographs. They were basic - the charges included the phrase "tampering with evidence." Which as she put it, it seemed to me that they'd done that for me, by bandaging a man who had not been bandaged before his death.

They ultimately dropped those charges against her, didn't take them all the way through court, she felt, because nobody wanted to bring the entire case into the courtroom at all. Once you did that you had to introduce all these photographs. And there were two photographs, from the incident with the corpse, where one of her and one of Charles Grader, each taken by the other, posing with the corpse - with the thumbs up, with the smile that Neal mentioned in his introduction that shocked many people.

And I think, in many ways, I think, distracted us from the dead man behind her, and the evidence that she also photographed, and she readily acknowledges that they look bad, as she puts it. The souvenir or trophy photographs that soldiers take, certainly not the first time, and she says and they are ample photographs to support this, that she had fallen into the habit, much the way a politician will have this automatic smile or many of us in a snapshot anytime a camera was pointed at her, she made this thumbs up. And there are pictures of her in front of tourist sites in Iraq, in front of antiquities, in the market with her friends and with prisoners.

CONAN: All with her thumbs up. The body of that prisoner was eventually removed on a gurney, with an IV line running into his arm, to make it look as if he was still alive, a complete charade, as, of course, we know. We're talking with Philip Gourevitch about his book, "Standard Operating Procedure." It's also the name of a new film by documentarian Errol Morris. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call. Put yourself in the place of those young MPs at Abu Ghraib. What would you have done? Stay with us. There'll be more after a short break. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan. We're broadcasting today from the Knight Studio, inside the Newseum, in Washington, D.C. And we're talking with Philip Gourevitch about his collaboration with Errol Morris on the book and the movie documentary, "Standard Operating Procedure," about what happened at Abu Ghraib. You can find an excerpt from "Standard Operating Procedure" and watch a clip from the documentary at our website, npr.org/talk.

We also want to hear from you. If you were one of those MPs at Abu Ghraib, what do you think you would have done? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can read what other listeners have to say on our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation. We'll get to calls in just a minute, but we heard what happened that night, that famous picture, those famous pictures, some of those famous pictures were snapped. But why were those pictures taken ultimately? And why were those prisoners treated the way they were? And that goes back to that broader question that you raised - about policy.

Mr. GOUREVITCH: Well, there was a distinct change in American policy in the War on Terror, which is the context that this took place. And although it took place in the Iraq theater, in the aftermath of September 11th, there was a serious and concerted effort by the administration to consider how to change interrogation policy to allow for much more what they called "aggressive and robust" practices, but also quite specifically by the lawyers, the White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, who later became the attorney general and was forced out for forcing out attorney generals elsewhere in the country.

And from Rumsfeld's Pentagon, from the Justice Department, at that time under Ashcroft, before Gonzales. And in the vice president's office, of course, to really essentially decriminalize torture and to question the applicability of the Geneva Convention to the theaters of war. People often think the Geneva Convention sounds very foreign and French or Swiss and not really like a sort of international convention like the U.N. But it is Army doctrine. The Army doctrine for the treatment of prisoners during wartime is based on the Geneva Convention.

And in the field manual quite strikingly, and in the Army regulations, it specifies that in the event of a conflict, the Geneva Convention should be referred to as the sort of higher document, which is quite striking. And they basically detected weaknesses, very clear weaknesses, both in the definition of torture, which is a vague definition, based on the level of pain that is inflicted and the intention to inflict that pain. So that you have to prove both intent and intensity at levels that are very, very difficult to define in any kind of court.

In fact, there's never been a torture case in an American court, and there are very few that have held up in any kind of international court of this kind. And, also, to say that, gee, the Geneva Convention really seems to mostly apply to wars between state actors. So when we're fighting Saddam's army, Saddam is a sovereign and that is a certain kind of war. In Afghanistan against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, there was a decision not to apply the Geneva Convention.

The people who are at Guantanamo, the idea is that most of them came from that theater and that they are not covered by the Geneva Convention because they are not state actors. They are unlawful combatants, in the terms of the Administration lawyers. And there was a very clear and striking thing, that if the famous mission-accomplished speech on May 1st of 2003, which has been often mocked because the president seemed to be prematurely triumphalist.

What was really important in that speech was the second half of the speech, which was really largely devoted to describing the Iraq War now as a new phase of the war and redefining that war and that theater as part of the War on Terror. Saddam Hussein is never mentioned by name, al-Qaeda and September 11th are repeatedly invoked and that you realize that there a kind of legal pivot that then applied to the building of these prison camps as they started to fight the insurgency. There were large sweeps, people were brought in, and the policy was very explicitly to allow techniques - nudity, dogs, depravation of sleep, stress positions - all of things that had not been standard practice before.

CONAN: So these guards, who are the face of this terrible, terrible scandal, those guards say, we were following orders. We were told to do what the military interrogators, and military intelligence told us what to do.

MR. GOUREVITCH: Well, it's pretty clear, if you follow the dotted line down the chain, that there was an awful lot of pressure on them to do these things and that these, many of these practices. Now, did somebody say stack those people and make them in a pyramid? No. Did a climate in which nudity had become invisible, where the keeping people up for night after night in loud noise, and keeping people in dark cells, keeping people in situations that the Red Cross was reporting to the Army on repeated visits which the Army was trying to stymie, that these prisoners were being held in violation in violation of all of these laws. These soldiers were brought into that climate and they found that even when they said, wait, this seems wrong. This ain't what we're supposed to be doing. They were told, that's what MI wants. Do what you're told.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers on the line. And the question we're asking, put yourself in the place of those young MPs at Abu Ghraib, what would you have done? We'll begin with Adam, Adam is calling from Portland, Oregon.

ADAM (Caller): Hi there. Unfortunately, as a nine-year veteran in the Army, I can fairly unequivocally say I would probably have followed orders. The name of this documentary is very appropriate, "Standard Operating Procedure." You will follow orders. I had a seminal moment where I asked a major that I worked for one time when we had very willingly, very knowingly put American civilian lives at risk, during a training accident, or not a training accident, I'm sorry, a training incident.

We had put American safety at risk in a strictly training environment. I asked my major, I said, hey, why did we do that? We didn't have to. He said, it's because I - there's no way I could go to my commander and say, no, we're not going to complete this training mission. And I realized then that there is no rule or morals or ethics. There's strictly following orders. And I got out halfway through my career.

CONAN: And you say sadly, because you obviously feel this was terribly, terribly wrong, but you would have had no choice but to go ahead.

ADAM: You don't have a choice. You will be subject to non-judicial punishment or potential judicial punishment in the military for not following orders. I made the mistake of refusing to follow an order to operate an unsafe vehicle on an American civilian highway - a semi truck that was not safe even by the Army's own standard.

I was ordered to drive the vehicle. I said no. And I was brought under tremendous pressure. My career was threatened. My stripes, I was a sergeant. My stripes were threatened. I eventually capitulated after some concessions were made. But that's the environment that the military propagates.

CONAN: Adam, thanks very much for the call. I suspect it wasn't an easy one to make.

ADAM: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's talk now with John, John is with us from Des Moines.

JOHN (Caller): Yes, I would like to relate just a short story. I'm a Marine veteran of Vietnam and I had an incident where we were guarding our compound that would be LZ Baldy or Hill 55. I was a 19-year-old lance corporeal, that's E3, and I was ordered to shoot children in a dump who were scavenging through our garbage to find something to eat. And E6 staff sergeant said if the kids come in the dump, shoot them.

And I refused to do it. I don't know where that wisdom came at 19 years old, but I think about that from time to time and I absolutely did the right thing. That was an unlawful order of NCOs can give lawful orders, officers give direct orders, and I never heard anything about that, because I believe it was an unlawful order. And I had no obligation to follow an unlawful order. And I would do the same thing if I'd have been an MP at Abu Ghraib.

CONAN: Philip Gourevitch...

JOHN: I would not do anything that shocks the conscience or that I felt was unlawful.

CONAN: Let's hear from Philip Gourevitch.

Mr. GOUREVITCH: It's interesting. These two calls basically describe some place in between them is where most of these MPs found themselves. They often did question what they were asked to do and they were told that basically that was the climate, that was what was going on. They were living in a terribly scary environment, which by itself doesn't excuse anything, but it often helps to explain some breakdown in the general rules and the general discipline.

They were undersupplied at the very far end of the supply chain. The prison was illegally situated in a combat zone, at the core of the Sunni triangle and under almost daily mortar attack. Prisoners were being killed by incoming fire from insurgents as well as were soldiers. Some of the MI soldiers had been killed days before our infamous MPs got on their post there. Some of the photographs were taken by the MPs specifically because, as they said, they could not believe what was being allowed.

Or they wanted to - because they thought it was off the wall. They took these photographs much as you might take photographs in battle. Not saying, hey, look at us, but hey, look at what's going on around us. Look at this wartime insanity. And when they - and very few people were able to register any kind of a complaint. There weren't any place for them to be transferred. A few people did try to object and they were - some of them were posted elsewhere within the prison.

But elsewhere within the prison wasn't great. One guy got transferred - Matthew Liston (ph) - to the towers. It was in the towers that people were asked to fire with live ammunition on protesting Iraqi prisoners who were held there in concertina-wire enclosures, which wasn't such a great assignment either.

CONAN: Yeah. John, you were trying to say something?

JOHN: Well, yeah, let me just state that you do have to answer to somebody and that is to yourself. And that is the rest of your life you have to answer to yourself and to your conscience about situations that come up through no fault or action of your own. You're just put in a situation where you have to make an instant decision and I will opt to my conscience rather than something that I feel is wrong.

CONAN: John, thank you.

JOHN: And that's all I have to say about that. I think about this - this was life-changing moment for me. I became a man that day and I'm pretty satisfied with - that I stuck to my guns and did not - pardon the pun...

CONAN: Yeah.

JOHN: But I'm kind of proud of myself for not doing that.

CONAN: Philip?

Mr. GOUREVITCH: Well, I think most of us know that most - that sort of statistically, not everybody does stick to their guns, and in large - in group situations, that's not something you can count on. That's why militaries run on very, very strict discipline, and the very, very controlled channeling of aggression rather than...

JOHN: Well, that's why they try to suck 18- and 19-year-old kids into the service to do the dirty work for a government that isn't responsive to the people anymore.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call, we appreciate it.

JOHN: Yes, sir. Thank you.

CONAN: And let's go a questioner here at the Newseum.

Mr. CORB O'CONNER (Audience Member): Hi, my name is Corb O'Connor (ph) from outside Chicago, and now a student at the George Washington University. My question is - I've noticed we've been discussing a lot in the past tense. But I'm curious what our - as a result of Abu Ghraib or maybe changing since then, what our new standard operating procedures are for military corrections facilities or detaining facilities.

Mr. GOUREVITCH: It's an excellent question, and you're absolutely right that it's not the past tense. There has been - there was a tendency in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib pictures coming out to isolate those pictures and to say - what's in the pictures is the whole story, what is in the frame is entirely contained within the frame. And it is these rogue soldiers who are - who disgraced and embarrassed the country.

But meanwhile, consistently, a great deal of very nasty stuff was taking place in American detention facilities, according to policies that to a large extent have become more institutionalized, have been pushed forward. We now have this debate on water-boarding, and you have support from both sides of the aisle for basically practices that until very recently this country was identified internationally as having stood for two hundred and some odd years against. And having been a refuge from, and a bulwark against.

And so when people often say you know we don't even know what the war in Iraq is about, it's so complicated and so confusing, there were so many reasons given and so few have held up exactly. Well one thing it was about, however vaguely, was some fundamental idea of America and its projection of its force and its image into the world as a force for good.

And it seems to me that one of the legacies of Abu Ghraib has not been that we came to the brink and we pulled back, but we came to the brink and that the push back from the administration was - no, we're not - you can't expose us because we're not ashamed, we should institutionalize these things. We have a president now who strikingly is trying to make it a cornerstone of his legacy that these two ideas, aggressive force with prisoners and over-reaching executive powers should be combined.

CONAN: Our guest is Philip Gourevitch. With Errol Morris, he's co-author of "Standard Operating Procedure." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And I have to ask you this. Some controversy has arisen over the way Errol Morris obtained these interviews from which he made his documentary and you wrote your book, that some of the interviewees were paid for their contributions?

Mr. GOUREVITCH: Yeah, I mean, I don't think there's any controversy, actually, about that. There was a report in the New York Times where they put headlines in there was a controversy, and then ran an article saying that there wasn't, that it actually is a standard procedure in documentary film, has been for a long time. Many of these people were paid also by HBO and they found one college professor to say that, well, sometimes, maybe, theoretically, if you gave people money they would become more self-dramatizing or something.

I can tell you as a matter of fact that the most self-dramatizing people need only to be paid attention, not money, and that you really will find that the unpaid often come forward and are unreliable. You're job as journalist is to determine what's reliable and what isn't and nothing of substance has ever been suggested as to the nature of these interviews.

I've pored over them at great length and they're really remarkable and constitute a pretty unimpeachable set of documents. Obviously they're subjective, but one would assume that people speaking about fraught situations are speaking in - at times with self-interest. And it's - what makes stories interesting. It's what our challenge is as journalists.

CONAN: An email from Eric in Tucson, Arizona. "Could you please ask your guest to respond to criticism of the film, saying it doesn't go far enough to follow the chain of command that allowed and even encouraged torture and mistreatment of detainees and led directly to Abu Ghraib?"

Mr. GOUREVITCH: I can respond to the question of how I approached this in the book, because I did not direct the film. But I did - I think the film dealt with the same issue in the same way, and I - and that is - there's been a great deal of coverage of the memoranda that have circulated at the high levels of the administration of policy discussion. Ten days after these pictures first appeared on CBS and in the New Yorker you had calls for the resignation of the Secretary of Defense on the cover of The Economist Magazine - not known as a lefty or a dovish magazine.

On all sorts of places, all of which faded away. But nevertheless that story came out and in the wake of it there was a great deal of leaking of more and more and more. And strangely the story hasn't totally bit. It's always ended up feeling like either a partisan story, a political story, a story of Washington shenanigans, a story that people don't feel a personal stake in.

And what I was interested in was what - we know what the policy is. And I do go through that at some detail in the book, I show how it devolved down through different layers, through the Gitmo rules being brought into Abu Ghraib, being - going through five different drafts of interrogation procedures out of Sanchez's shop and with his lawyers' fingerprints all over them.

But what really interested me is the experience of these American soldiers, the lowest level soldiers, nobody under a Staff Sergeant ever got charged for a crime there in court, who were brought into the situation and what it meant for a soldier to find himself at the forefront of policy on the ground.

CONAN: Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris tell their story in a book called "Standard Operating Procedure," also the name of a documentary film on the very same subject by Errol Morris. Philip Gourevitch, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. GOUREVITCH: Thank you.

CONAN: Coming up, another installment of our Newseum series, How I Got That Story, with Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and Amy Goldstein. Stay with. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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