Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Facing Up to Abu Ghraib

A couple months ago, a friend of mine (whom I know visits this site) sent me and a few other folks an e-mail in which she alluded to as yet unrevealed allegations of raped children and other atrocities at Abu Ghraib... you remember, that former Saddamite prison in Iraq where U.S. soldiers went all Nazi-camp-guard after "Mission Accomplished" was declared. I didn't exactly shrug it off, but I did wonder if perhaps our shared propensity to ascribe all manner of evil to the Bush administration wasn't in advance of the facts as had been reported.

Since then, I've read a number of reports that such atrocities did in fact take place. Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker, who broke the Abu Ghraib story among other items having to do with how the administration misled the country into war, spoke about this at a recent ACLU convention. And now Rolling Stone has published an article titled "The Secret File of Abu Ghraib."

The article title is a little pulpy, but the particulars are almost unfathomable. Keep in mind that these actions were perpetrated, not against suspected terrorists, but rather unto "Iraqi criminals and insurgents":

The secret files -- 106 "annexes" that the Defense Department withheld from the Taguba report last spring -- include nearly 6,000 pages of internal Army memos and e-mails, reports on prison riots and escapes, and sworn statements by soldiers, officers, private contractors and detainees. The files depict a prison in complete chaos. Prisoners were fed bug-infested food and forced to live in squalid conditions; detainees and U.S. soldiers alike were killed and wounded in nightly mortar attacks; and loyalists of Saddam Hussein served as guards in the facility, apparently smuggling weapons to prisoners inside.

The files make clear that responsibility for what Taguba called "sadistic, blatant and wanton" abuses extends to several high-ranking officers still serving in command positions. Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who is now in charge of all military prisons in Iraq, was dispatched to Abu Ghraib by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last August. In a report marked secret, Miller recommended that military police at the prison be "actively engaged in setting the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees." After his plan was adopted, guards began depriving prisoners of sleep and food, subjecting them to painful "stress positions" and terrorizing them with dogs... In the files, prisoner after prisoner at Abu Ghraib describes acts of torture that Taguba found "credible based on the clarity of their statements and supporting evidence provided by other witnesses." The abuses took place at the Hard Site, a two-story cinder-block unit at the sprawling prison that housed Iraqi criminals and insurgents, not members of Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations. In one sworn statement, Kasim Mehaddi Hilas, detainee number 151108, said he witnessed a translator referred to only as Abu Hamid raping a teenage boy.

The secret files make clear that day-to-day living conditions at Abu Ghraib were "deplorable" for soldiers as well as prisoners. The facility was under constant attack from mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. The files make no reference to the number of attacks, but a partial list obtained by Rolling Stone indicates that there were more than two dozen explosions between July and September alone. Six detainees and two soldiers were killed, and seventy-one were injured. But officers at Abu Ghraib told Taguba that their repeated requests for combat troops and armored vehicles to protect the facility were ignored by top brass...

The prison was filled far beyond capacity. Some 7,000 prisoners were jammed into Abu Ghraib, a complex erected to hold no more than 4,000 detainees. Prisoners were held in canvas tents that became ovens in the summer heat and filled with rain in the cold winter. One report found that the compound "is covered with mud and many prisoner tents are close to being under water." Another report described the conditions in one compound: "The area is littered with trash, has pools of water standing around latrines, and the bottles of water carried by detainees for water consumption are filthy. The tents lack floors and are inadequate to provide protection from the elements." Detainees wore soiled clothes because laundry facilities were inadequate; mentally ill detainees were "receiving no treatment."

In a series of increasingly desperate e-mails sent to his higher-ups, Maj. David DiNenna of the 320th MP Battalion reported that food delivered by private contractors was often inedible. "At least three to four times a week, the food cannot be served because it has bugs," DiNenna reported. "Today an entire compound of 500 prisoners could not be fed due to bugs and dirt in the food." Four days later, DiNenna sent another e-mail marked "URGENT URGENT URGENT!!!!!!!!" He reported that "for the past two days prisoners have been vomiting after they eat.
According to an internal Army investigation contained in the secret files, the civilian-run Coalition Provisional Authority had hired at least five members of Fedayeen Saddam -- a paramilitary organization of fanatical Saddam loyalists -- to work as guards at the prison. An Iraqi guard, probably one of "Saddam's martyrs," had smuggled the gun and two knives into the prison in an inner tube, placed them in a sheet and tossed them up to the second-story window of Cell 35. In May, when Taguba testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen.Wayne Allard asked him a direct question: "Did we have terrorists in the population at this prison?" Taguba answered, "Sir, none that we were made aware of." His own files make clear, however, that a more accurate response would have been: "Yes, sir -- but only among the guards."

The whole article is worth a read.

There's also this piece about Pfc. Lynddie England, now on trial for her role in the abuses. Draw your own conclusions, but I think it's pretty clear that the choice between blaming "a few bad apples" and directing responsibility up the chain of command is a false one: both are culpable and should be held responsible.

It is disgraceful and horrifying beyond my ability to express, that Americans have acted this way. While the story has largely disappeared from the mainstream corporate media--it's such a downer, after all, and this is summertime!--I promise you the Arabs will not forget this in any of our lifetimes. The least we can do is take action to punish those responsible, and do so in a timely manner rather than push this off in deference to the political calendar. I'd be pretty surprised, however, to see the Democrats raise Abu Ghraib as an issue this year, for fear of accusations they were politicizing the story... and utterly shocked, of course, to see the Republicans, who have the power to do something about it, do anything whatever to call attention to this national shame.

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