Abu Ghraib: details of torture emerging despite massive campaign of damage limitation

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Zafar Bangash

Rabi' al-Thani 13, 1425 2004-06-01

Special Reports

by Zafar Bangash (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 4, Rabi' al-Thani, 1425)

Images of American troops committing appalling atrocities against Iraqi captives at the Abu Ghraib have causes outrage around the world and sparked a massive damage limitation campaign in Washington. ZAFAR BANGASH discusses the implications of the revelations...

Since details of the torture and rape of detainees in Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi prisons became public early last month, US officials have been involved in a massive damage-control exercise . The revelations might still have been dismissed but for the Internet, which helped to spread them worldwide, intensifying hatred and resentment of Americans. Senate hearings into the scandalous behaviour of American troops have also been little more than an attempt to whitewash their crimes, and an opportunity to proclaim America’s mostly non-existent virtues, asserting that the crimes were perpetrated by a few misguided individuals.

The damage control exercise was boosted by the broadcast of a video on al-Jazeera on May 11, apparently showing the decapitation in Iraq of Nick Berg, an American, by hooded men. The Americans immediately accused Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian whom they suspect of being a senior al-Qa’ida operative. The video could not have appeared at a more opportune moment for the Americans. If, as they allege, Berg was executed in revenge for the Abu Ghraib torture and rapes, this suggests that al-Qa’ida or whoever killed Berg get their news from US television stations such as CNN or CBS. Surely al-Qa’ida would have known about prisoner-abuse months ago, because it was widely known to the Iraqis. Why behead an American so late? Similarly, the orange suit is an outfit worn by prisoners in Guantanamo Bay; why would al-Qa’ida make their American captive wear such a costume ?

Nick Berg’s father, Michael, an anti-war activist, has accused the US government of causing his son’s death. Nick Berg was arrested by the Iraqi police in Mosul in mid-March and was in US military custody just before his death. This has been confirmed by an email message the family received from an American military official in Iraq on April 1. Some people are also asking how the US or CIA know that Zarqawi is responsible for Nick Berg’s murder (if indeed he is), when the faces of all the men in the video are covered. Most Western press and media have accepted the American version, and are trying to make connections between the decapitation of Berg and the rape and murder of Iraqi detainees, in order to try to lessen the gravity and impact of Americans’ crimes.

Although a few US soldiers and hired mercenaries have been charged and tried, so that the military can pretend that it is serious about cleaning up its act (one soldier, specialist Jeremy Sivits, has even been sentenced to a year in prison with dishonourable discharge from the service), the truth is that such conduct fits into a broader pattern of US policy crafted since September 2001, although its roots lie deep in the American psyche (which is typically western: the Americans are in no way unusual or worse than others in this respect). Newsweek, an American weekly, reported in its issue of May 24 that, soon after that September, US president George W. Bush signed a directive authorising incarceration of suspects at foreign bases, and ordering that they be "treated harshly" to force them to reveal information.

Despite claims by US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his undersecretary for intelligence, Stephen Cambone, and other US officials that the torture of Iraqi detainees were the isolated acts of "rogue" soldiers, such behaviour is the product of a mindset that regards others as subhuman. Seymour Hersh, an American journalist, in a long article in the New Yorker magazine (May 24), confirms that the broad outlines of a policy authorising treatment of detainees in violation of the Geneva Conventions were communicated to Bush and Condoleezza Rice, his national security advisor, soon after the attack on the Pentagon. Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, his equally aggressive deputy, as well as Cambone and his military assistant, lieutenant general William G. Boykin, then implemented it with characteristic zeal (in a speech at a church in Oregon last fall, Boykin actually said that America as a "Christian" nation was fighting Muslims, the followers of Satan). Motivated as they are by such ideas, it is not difficult to see why they acted with crusading zeal in torturing Muslims.

Such barbarous acts are not confined to Iraq. In November 2001 more than 1,000 Afghan prisoners were suffocated to death in metal containers in Shibergan under the supervision of American troops. Other prisoners have been tortured to death at Bagram airbase and in the notorious Pul-i Charki prison outside Kabul. The deaths of at least five detainees are currently being investigated, but it is unlikely that any American will be punished. More than 600 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been in a legal and diplomatic limbo since early 2002 by a unilateral decision of the US government, placing them beyond the reach of international law. Those few fortunate enough to gain release have told harrowing tales of torture and humiliation.

There is a direct link between Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison. Major-general Geoffrey Miller, a mastermind of torture at Guantanamo, was transferred to Iraq last August to use his brutal techniques on detainees for extraction of information. Sleep-deprivation, detainees being stood naked in front of fellow prisoners and female guards, dogs being set on them, and the rape of both men and women were some of the techniques applied routinely to detainees, most of them ordinary Iraqi civilians picked up from their homes or the streets. Appalling pictures of Iraqi women being raped and tortured have been put on the Internet.

During the Senate hearings of May 7, Rumsfeld said that he took "full responsibility" for what had happened and was "sorry", but he refused to resign. He then revealed what he really meant: he was sorry because there had been soldiers with digital cameras who took pictures and released them to the media. Joseph Darby, the soldier who reported the abuses to the military’s Criminal Investigation Division last January, has been branded a traitor by the military and by people in his hometown.

Abu Ghraib is not the only prison where detainees have been tortured. Four Iraqi journalists – cameraman Salem Ureibi, freelance television-journalist Ahmad Muhammad Hussein al-Badrani, and driver Sattar Jabar al-Badrani, who worked for Reuters, and Ali Muhammad Hussein Ali al-Badrani, employed by NBC – have said that they were subjected to similar torture and sexual abuse at a military camp near Falluja after their arrest in January. They disclosed their ordeals to their employers, but refrained from going public until now because of the degrading nature of their treatment. NBC News and Reuters reported these incidents on May 18 and 19 respectively.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned the US last October that there was widespread abuse of prisoners in violation of the Geneva Conventions. Last December a woman prisoner smuggled a letter out of Abu Ghraib, in which she begged the Iraqi resistance to blow up the prison because a number of women detainees had become pregnant after being raped repeatedly by their captors; they preferred death to facing their families, according to Luke Harding in the Guardian (May 21). Following Joseph Darby’s complaint on January 13, together with photographs of torture and rape, the Pentagon issued a five-line news release on January 16 saying that certain irregularities in the treatment of prisoners were under investigation, but claiming that there was no hint that detainees were being tortured or sexually abused. Everything might still have been swept under the carpet, as the Shibergan massacre was, but for the shocking photographs that appeared on the Internet last month.

"The roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists but in a decision, approved last year by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to expand a highly secret operation, which was focussed on the hunt for Al-Qaeda, to the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq," according to Hersh in the New Yorker. Several codenames were used for the operation, including "Copper Green", that specifically encouraged physical and sexual humiliation of Iraqi detainees in order to obtain intelligence about the growing insurgency, wrote Hersh. Rumsfeld had set up several secret "special-access programs" outside congressional supervision, with "no traceability" and "no budget" to account for, but with the full knowledge of Bush and Rice, to implement his agenda. These arrangements were intended partly to bypass the cumbersome military bureaucracy that made difficult quick response against specific targets.

Because of the secrecy surrounding these operations, provisions of the Geneva Conventions could be totally disregarded, although White House legal counsel Alberto Gonzales warned, in an internal memo dated January 25, 2002, that such action could lead to charges of war crimes against US government officials, including Bush. Gonzales was not concerned with breaches of the Geneva Conventions as such, but with a US law passed by Congress in 1996, known as the War Crimes Act, that forbids any American to commit war crimes, defined in part as "grave breaches" of the Geneva Conventions. His memo urged Bush to declare the war in Afghanistan and the detention of Taliban and al-Qa’ida fighters exempt from the provisions of the Geneva Conventions, in order to avoid charges of war crimes.

Rumsfeld did precisely that in November 2001, when he declared that the Geneva Conventions did not apply in Afghanistan. Having successfully tried and implemented this wild-west plan against the Taliban as well as at Guantanamo Bay, without arousing significant international concern or reaction, the exemption was extended to Iraq as well. In order to carry out this secretive project, Rumsfeld created a new position – undersecretary for intelligence – at the Pentagon for Stephen Cambone. Cambone had already served on a number of commissions headed by Rumsfeld, and had proved his disdain for rules and adherence to law. It was this lethal combination of disdain for legality and total disregard for others’ rights as human beings that created the environment in which the horrible crimes could easily be perpetrated. Rumsfeld and Cambone demanded results; they were not interested in being told about the illegality of their orders or of the acts of their subordinates (which in any case they must have known). Bush wanted results too; hence the carte blanche for Abu Ghraib and other atrocities.

When confronted with stories of torture and rape, Bush tried to brush them aside, claiming that such conduct is "un-American" and that Americans were in Iraq to bring freedom and democracy by winning "hearts and minds"; perhaps he meant freeing Iraqis of their honour and dignity. Initially he refused to apologise; when he did, he addressed his apology to king Abdullah of Jordan! It is difficult to imagine a more hypocritical and meaningless, empty statement.

Even the New York Times has called for an independent inquiry, apart from the current Congressional hearings that it describes as "inadequate" (May 22). In support of its argument, the Times referred to one particular episode: "In one especially chilling case, the former head of Iraq’s air force turned himself in and was held at a "high value" prison, where interrogators appear to have killed him by stuffing him head first into a sleeping bag, sitting on his chest and covering his mouth. The Pentagon papered this over with a press release saying the prisoner ‘said he didn’t feel well and subsequently lost consciousness.’"

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