“You can’t spell abuse without Abu,” said one US Army medic to another, Sgt. Andrew Duffy, after throwing a seriously injured and handcuffed Iraqi prison to the ground, face-first, upon his arrival at Abu Ghraib.
The majority of abuse at the notorious US torture prison, formerly Saddam Hussein’s notorious torture prison, wasn’t fatal. But it was even more heinous and brutal than most Americans realize, even those who have seen the photos that are now international symbols of US brutality in the War on Terror and recruiting tools for countless terrorists.
The abuse started the moment detainees entered the prison’s gates, where the following sign greeted them: “MILITARY POLICE BATALLION… Where it all begins… INPROCESSING HOLDING AREA–WINNING THE HEARTS AND MINDS OF THE IRAQI PEOPLE…ONE DETAINEE AT A TIME”
Male prisoners were stripped naked and forced to wear women’s panties. Beatings and death threats were common. Prisoners were forced to crawl on their hands and knees and bark like dogs. They were also menaced and attacked with dogs. They were then taken to flooded cells and forced to sleep on the floor without mattresses. Food was thrown in dirty toilets and they were forced to eat it. Some prisoners were made to curse Islam and force-fed pork and alcohol during the holy month of Ramadan.
One detainee was repeatedly beaten on his broken leg until he denounced Islam. He was then ordered to thank Jesus that he was still alive. When he protested that he believed in Allah, one of his captors told him, “but I believe in torture and I will torture you.”
Men were forced to masturbate in groups while soldiers, including women, laughed and took photos. At least one detainee, a teenage boy, was raped by an Army translator while a female soldier took photos. This was detailed in General Antonio Taguba’s scathing report on Abu Ghraib, which concluded that the majority of Abu Ghraib prisoners– the Red Cross said 70 to 90 percent– were innocent.
Innocent detainees were sodomized with nightsticks, truncheons, wire and chemical lights. One sadistic sodomizing soldier, Charles Graner, appears in many of the now-infamous Abu Ghraib torture photos. He’s the one smiling and giving the thumbs-up over the body of a dead detainee.
“The Christian in me says its wrong,” Graner said about torturing prisoners. “But the corrections officer in me says ‘I love making a grown man piss himself.'”
Soldiers threatened to rape detainee’s wives. They allegedly did more than just threaten. There were women and girls imprisoned in Abu Ghraib, held as bargaining chips in a bid to induce wanted insurgents to surrender. Jailing wives, daughters and mothers was, like so much of the other abuse at Abu Ghraib and throughout the War on Terror, a clear violation of US and international law, but US officials openly admitted to doing it.
These women risked being murdered by their “dishonored” families after their release, but apparently that did not matter to their American captors. There were credible reports that some females had indeed been victims of “honor killings” after being raped, and in some cases impregnated, by their American captors.
The innocent women were also brutalized in other ways. One was dragged around by her hair. Another was urinated on and forced to eat from a dirty toilet. And elderly woman was ridden around like a donkey while being verbally abused. Yet another was thrown into a cell with the the bloody corpse of her murdered son, one of at least 34 detainees who died in US custody at the prison. Nearly half the deaths were officially listed as homicides.
Detainees also died as a result of medical negligence. A young man in diabetic shock was left in the hot sun to perish. He spoke fluent English and begged for insulin but Sgt. Duffy, who tried to help him, was told point-blank that he was a “hajji” and his death meant nothing. After the detainee died, Duffy was congratulated for a “good job.” Duffy’s last order before leaving the prison was to burn all of its medical records.
Thanks to Sgt. Joe Darby, who leaked the infamous Abu Ghraib torture photos, and to Gen. Taguba’s report, we now know the extent of the nightmarish torture endured by Iraqi detainees, most of them innocent, at the Baghdad prison. But aside from low-ranking soldiers stationed at the prison, nobody has been held accountable for the horrific abuses that occurred at Abu Ghraib.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld lied about his knowledge of the torture. Gen. Taguba met with him and other Pentagon officials just before the defense secretary testified before the Senate regarding the scandal. Taguba, who had seen thousands of Abu Ghraib abuse photos, was asked by Rumsfeld if what was happening in the prison amounted to abuse or torture.
“I described a naked detainee lying on the wet floor, handcuffed, with an interrogator shoving things up his rectum and said, ‘that’s not abuse, it’s torture,'” the general said. “There was quiet.”
Yet Rumsfeld testified before the Senate that nobody at the Pentagon had seen the Abu Ghraib torture photos.
A bipartisan Senate investigation found that “Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s authorization of interrogation techniques… was a direct cause of detainee abuse.” The senators asserted it was “unconscionable and false” to blame “a few bad apples” in the military for the abuse in order to avoid accountability, and that “senior officials in the United States government… redefined the law to create the appearance of legality” of torture to further their agenda.
Indeed, top Bush officials were directly responsible for making torture possible.
Justice Department lawyer John Yoo argued the President had unlimited wartime powers, including the power to massacre an entire village of civilians, and that the Geneva Conventions weren’t applicable in the war on terror. He was the main legal architect of the Bush torture regime, infamously writing that abuse only crossed the line into torture if the pain inflicted was equal to “organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”
Yoo was aided by Justice Department, Pentagon and CIA lawyers like Jay Bybee, John Rizzo and Jim Haynes, as well as by retired military psychologist James Mitchell, who personally oversaw the torture of terror suspects. CIA Director George Tenet signed off on the abuse and ordered agents to torture alleged 9/11 planner Abu Zubaydah even after the prisoner was cooperative. The green light to torture him was relayed by then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Rumsfeld deputy Stephen Cambone was tasked with circumventing the Geneva Conventions and oversaw Gen. Geoffrey Miller’s transfer from Guantánamo Bay to Abu Ghraib, where he ordered US troops and contractors to “soften up” detainees for CIA interrogation.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales made a mockery of the laws he was sworn to uphold. He dismissed the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit all detainee abuse, on the telling grounds that if the US didn’t opt out of them, American officials could be prosecuted for war crimes. But there is no “opting out” of the law– torture, and any abuse, is explicitly forbidden under domestic and international law, including the War Crimes Act of 1996, Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991, Federal Anti-Torture Statute, United Nations Convention Against Torture and Geneva Conventions.
Vice President Dick Cheney worked tirelessly to expand the power of the executive branch with his personal counsel, David Addington, who reasoned with Nixonesque logic that the president, as Commander-in-Chief, was above the law. Cheney and Addington possessed copies of US Army and CIA manuals that were used to teach US-trained officials throughout Latin America how to kidnap, torture, assassinate and terrorize civilian populations into submission. Cheney even allegedly ordered the continued torture of a cooperative detainee in a desperate gamble to link Saddam Hussein to 9/11in order to justify the administration’s desired invasion of Iraq.
Gen. Taguba’s report ultimately blames President George W. Bush for Abu Ghraib. “The Commander-in-Chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture,” the general reported. A bipartisan task force headed by Bush-era Homeland Security undersecretary Asa Hutchinson also concluded it was “indisputable” that the US engaged in torture and that “the nation’s most senior officials” were responsible.
While Bush may not have directly authorized torture, he certainly lied to the world when he repeatedly insisted “enhanced interrogation” techniques were safe and legal, even while justifying the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein was a “torturer and murderer.” The exact same thing could be said of Bush, or at least of high-ranking administration officials.
“The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account,” Gen. Taguba wondered. They were not, not a single one of them. There was the teasingly fleeting possibility of accountability under a new administration, with candidate Barack Obama promising to investigate if “crimes have been committed.” Crimes were certainly committed, but the perpetrators have never been to brought to justice, save for a handful of low-ranking soldiers in the prison. After his election, Obama changed his tune, saying he was “more interested in looking forwards… than backwards.”
Obama then went out of his way to protect Bush administration, CIA and high-ranking military officials from prosecution, arguing that they were “relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Justice Department.
Only one CIA official was prosecuted and imprisoned for torture-related crimes. But John Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months in prison not for torturing detainees, but rather for blowing the whistle on torture. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers revealing decades of government lies and abuses during the Vietnam War, blasted the Obama administration for “criminalizing the revelation of illegality [while] decriminalizing the illegality– the torture.” Under domestic and international law, Obama is obligated to prosecute all cases in which credible evidence of torture has been found. In his failure to do so, he too is considered a war criminal under the law.
A decade after Abu Ghraib, one of the most heinous episodes in America’s history, not a single Bush administration official has been brought to justice. The American people have largely forgotten Abu Ghraib. Tens of millions of Americans support torture, with many– including most corporate mainstream media outlets– still refusing to even call what happened there torture.
But to victims of American torture, who are still seeking justice and may be doing so for the rest of their lives, Abu Ghraib will never be forgotten. America may still have to deal with blowback from its embrace of torture in Iraq and elsewhere– too many innocent lives were destroyed, too many wounds remain unhealed and too much anger, resentment and desire for revenge was created by the actions of young American men and women who were “just following orders.”