Abuse of Iraqi Prisoners III

Kevin Drum hopes I’m right but fears that I’m not when I say that the abuses in Iraq are isolated events rather than evidence of systemic failure. He cites a piece in the New Yorker by Seymour Hersh. I’m a bit leery of Hersh as a source, given some of the rather strange things he’s written in the past, but the article itself strikes me as credible, aside from a few factual errors that seem inevitable when someone without military experience writes about the armed forces.

Hersh cites several institutional problems that he believes contributed to the problem:

BG Janis Karpinski, an Army Reserve MP, “had never run a prison system. Now she was in charge of three large jails, eight battalions, and thirty-four hundred Army reservists, most of whom, like her, had no training in handling prisoners. ” She was soon relieved and an investigation launched.

A fifty-three-page report, obtained by The New Yorker, written by Major General Antonio M. Taguba and not meant for public release, was completed in late February. Its conclusions about the institutional failures of the Army prison system were devastating. Specifically, Taguba found that between October and December of 2003 there were numerous instances of “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses†at Abu Ghraib. This systematic and illegal abuse of detainees, Taguba reported, was perpetrated by soldiers of the 372nd Military Police Company, and also by members of the American intelligence community. (The 372nd was attached to the 320th M.P. Battalion, which reported to Karpinski’s brigade headquarters.)


Six suspects—Staff Sergeant Ivan L. Frederick II, known as Chip, who was the senior enlisted man; Specialist Charles A. Graner; Sergeant Javal Davis; Specialist Megan Ambuhl; Specialist Sabrina Harman; and Private Jeremy Sivits—are now facing prosecution in Iraq, on charges that include conspiracy, dereliction of duty, cruelty toward prisoners, maltreatment, assault, and indecent acts. A seventh suspect, Private Lynndie England, was reassigned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, after becoming pregnant.

Hersh or the report (it’s hard to tell the sourcing) then goes on to list a whole series of rather vile acts, including numerous instances of forcing the prisoners to engage in quasi-homosexual activity.

This is all, obviously, outrageous conduct. On the other hand, the culprits so far identified are limited to six people (out of 3400 in the command), the highest of whom is a 37-year-old staff sergeant, all of whom are Reservists. The action was discovered because a lowly E-4 MP understood that this was outrageous and reported it. At which point, assuming Hersh is right, a one-star was relieved for this failure of control at one of the three prisons she was in command of. A thorough investigation was commissioned under the auspices of a two-star general and criminal charges filed against the alleged culprits.

Perhaps more serious, in terms of finding a systemic pattern of conduct, is the allegation that this is the way military intelligence is “done” in the modern military. Unfortunately, the sourcing for this is less clear than for the first issue. Hersh cites statements by SSG Frederick, the senior defendant, and his attorney, who has a rather inauspicious history:

[Civilian attorney Gary] Myers, who was one of the military defense attorneys in the My Lai prosecutions of the nineteen-seventies, told me that his client’s defense will be that he was carrying out the orders of his superiors and, in particular, the directions of military intelligence. He said, “Do you really think a group of kids from rural Virginia decided to do this on their own? Decided that the best way to embarrass Arabs and make them talk was to have them walk around nude?â€

In letters and e-mails to family members, Frederick repeatedly noted that the military-intelligence teams, which included C.I.A. officers and linguists and interrogation specialists from private defense contractors, were the dominant force inside Abu Ghraib. In a letter written in January, he said:

I questioned some of the things that I saw . . . such things as leaving inmates in their cell with no clothes or in female underpants, handcuffing them to the door of their cell—and the answer I got was, “This is how military intelligence (MI) wants it done.†. . . . MI has also instructed us to place a prisoner in an isolation cell with little or no clothes, no toilet or running water, no ventilation or window, for as much as three days.

The military-intelligence officers have “encouraged and told us, ‘Great job,’ they were now getting positive results and information,†Frederick wrote. “CID has been present when the military working dogs were used to intimidate prisoners at MI’s request.†At one point, Frederick told his family, he pulled aside his superior officer, Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Phillabaum, the commander of the 320th M.P. Battalion, and asked about the mistreatment of prisoners. “His reply was ‘Don’t worry about it.’

Hersh admits that such statements are “self-serving” but thinks there’s circumstantial evidence to back it up, including some incidents in Afghanistan. There’s also this from the report mentioned earlier:

General Taguba saved his harshest words for the military-intelligence officers and private contractors. He recommended that Colonel Thomas Pappas, the commander of one of the M.I. brigades, be reprimanded and receive non-judicial punishment, and that Lieutenant Colonel Steven Jordan, the former director of the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center, be relieved of duty and reprimanded. He further urged that a civilian contractor, Steven Stephanowicz, of CACI International, be fired from his Army job, reprimanded, and denied his security clearances for lying to the investigating team and allowing or ordering military policemen “who were not trained in interrogation techniques to facilitate interrogations by ‘setting conditions’ which were neither authorized†nor in accordance with Army regulations. “He clearly knew his instructions equated to physical abuse,†Taguba wrote. He also recommended disciplinary action against a second CACI employee, John Israel. (A spokeswoman for CACI said that the company had “received no formal communication†from the Army about the matter.)

War criminals always blame the system and claim they were just following order. It’s difficult to assess all of this without more information. On the one hand, it’s clear that the Army is taking this situation very seriously and was doing so before it broke in the press. I also know from personal experience, unless things have changed a hell of a lot in the last twelve years, that the Army trains both its officers and enlisted personnel in military ethics and the law of land warfare. Further, while there have been abuses in every conflict we’ve fought in, American soldiers–whether regulars, reservists, or draftees–have been amazingly gentle with prisoners and non-combatants, seeingly able to turn a switch once the shooting stops. Hell, my maternal grandfather (a German enlisted conscript) was a prisoner of the Americans during WWII and, while it wasn’t a picnic, had no animosity toward his captors.

On the other hand, Peters was right and I was wrong on a key point: it’s clear that the repurcussions did extend beyond the six enlistees formally charged with crimes. Also, the use of poorly trained reservists and contractors is an even bigger problem than I’d realized. I was only tangentially aware that contractors had become in such widespread use for combat operations until very recently. And, while I’ve been arguing that we needed more active duty MPs for over a decade, I didn’t realize how poorly trained our reserve MPs are.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Iraq War, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mary Martini says:

    I have first hand knowledge of torture but not in Iraq in Saudi, I now care for a (British) victim, all the abuses must stop and all countries be responsible for their actions, it is degrading and against all international law, whether this be Britons Americans Iraq’s or Saudi’s THERE IS NO EXUSE,
    I must point out though that Saudi does it in the name of their Government, but we must not rock the boat, I think it is about time we all stood up and condemmed these practices and cut of diplomatic ties with the perpertrators…Mary Martini UK

  2. David Ross says:

    I say we never should have used that hellhole in the first place! They need to go watch “The Shining”. Some places just have too bad a history to leave standing in their current form.

  3. Ravi Nanavati says:

    What disturbs me the most is when I looked and discovered that Amnesty International has been repeatedly raising red flags about the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers for *over a year*:




    Now that there is better documentation everyone is outraged and action is being taken, but where was the investigation that claims deserved? Investigation that might have contained Abu Ghraib *before* it became a PR catastrophe?

  4. James Joyner says:


    All but one of those reports is from the past week. Hell, I “reported” this on OTB a month ago.

    Amnesty International issues reports every year equating the U.S. prison system with Stalinist gulags because we have capital punishment. It’s hard to take them very seriously. It appears they were right on this one. If they weren’t so histrionic, people would pay them more attention.

  5. Jim Rhoads says:

    I have followed this story on the ‘sphere since it broke. My reaction was much like that of Ralph Peters when I first saw it: shock, anger and disgust.

    As a Army JAG in the late 60’s with a year in Viet Nam, I have had personal experience investigating and prosecuting instances of prison brutality. Most of the instances involved US guards on US soldiers accused of crimes “in country”; but some involved US personnel on Vietnamese nationals. In my experience, the Army prosecuted offenders vigorously and offenders received appropriate punishment.

    Your reports today are the first I have seen that indicate the conduct involved occurred some months ago, was revealed by a responsible whistle blower, was immediately investigated by a high ranking officer, who did not spare other high ranking officers and recommended severe action against the perpetrators. I am not sure how more can be done without offending our notions of due process for the perpetrators.

    I hope the perspective you provided eventually makes it to the mainline press, but I am not holding my breath.

    Thank you for your good work. I for one will keep reading.


  6. Ravi Nanavati says:

    Here’s another report from June 2003 (documenting abuses in May). Note, in particular, the prisoners denied access to a toilet and food and water described at the end of the report.


    I’m not saying that this is equivalent to the recently discovered abuses, but I think this is another warning sign about the slippery slope we were on.

    And the recent reports both say that AI has been getting consistent reports of inhumane treatment for over a year. Part of me doesn’t care whether the Tooth Fairy was making these allegations… Given the impact this sort of problem could (and now, it appears, will) have there was a responsibility to take every complaint seriously, investigate it and make it clear that anything like this would not be tolerated.

  7. Elrod says:

    I’m quite certain and confident that the military will prosecute those involved to the fullest extent of the law. I’m also very confident that the vast, vast majority of American servicemen and women in Iraq are following UCMJ and Geneva Convention guidelines rigorously. But that doesn’t mean the incident was limited to a small and inconsequential group. The problems are larger, for three reasons. First, Abu Ghraib was run as an intelligence gathering site and not as a standard detention facility, according to Hersh (who I believe entirely in this case). Therefore, those who worked there received direct and indirect encouragement to use illegal means to break prisoners down for questioning. If MI is in control of this then people fairly high up in the CIA or in other branches of military intelligence were well-aware of what was going on, and approved of it. It’s not just that a Brigadier General was grossly negligent in operating the prison. It’s that people much higher up than Staff Sergeants decided this was appropriate behavior. Second, the role of contractors here is very disturbing. We first learned of the extent of their use after the Fallujah lynchings but now it’s quite clear that contractors – who operate outside ANY authority except their employers – are involved in highly sensitive activities, not just security for various CPA VIPs. What does this say for the military? Third, and most important, is the message this sends to Iraqis. It won’t matter to Iraqis that the soldiers who did this were a tiny majority of the overall US presence. The actions were so humiliating to a society with deeply conservative gender norms as to raise the question: is this the end? Have we lost the Iraqi moderates with this scandal? Will Iraqis ever trust the US again? I couldn’t think of a worse propaganda defeat for the United States.

  8. WyldBill says:

    What Elrod said.

    Additionally, this is a breakdown in the entire command structure for a command of 3000+ soldiers, yet the criminals in DC are trying to pawn it off on 6 enlisted soldiers.

  9. Ravi Nanavati says:

    TalkLeft gathers more (pre April 2004) hints and clues about prisoner abuse here:


  10. C from Colorado says:

    The interesting thing here is that one of the interrogators at that prison was a radio personality in Minneapolis and kept a blog on the radio station’s website. (that blog is gone now).

    But, it was cached on Google and soemone pulled it down to their website http://billmon.org/archives/001442.html

    The specific civilian contractor cited was still working there last week when the Iraqi Governing Council stopped by..

  11. Rose says:

    I am shocked and appalled that military personnel could stoop so low. They are trained better and know better. My son served in Bosnia and if I thought he were capable of such horrors, I’d turn him over to his victims and let them handle him any way they felt justice would be served.

    And what a shame for these educated, well trained individuals to say they didn’t know they were violating the Geneva Convention. It doesn’t take specific detailing of such filthy acts in a legal document for someone to know they were wrong. They obviously enjoyed the humiliation they were inflicting based on their demeanor in the photos.

    And let’s not blame the superiors either. If my superior were to tell me to act in such a way, I’d have to receive a court martial because I would flat out refuse. Where did these sorry excuses for humans come from? AND their sorry leaders for putting them up to it?

    Last, Government Officials, Why aren’t we including such charges as Obstruction of Justice, Manslaughter for the recent retaliation attacks, etc.? These are not slight reprimand issues. These are jail time, event capital punishment crimes in my opinion. Look at how many lives are subject to be lost due to retaliation?

    Sad. May God have mercy on your souls.

    JAX, FL

  12. Rupert says:

    I am horrified by the inhuman acts of all, but especially Lynndie England. How could her young mind and intellect be so badly perverted. She is no American. She is a monster, a pariah, and a woman who is so far beyond redemption, that for her, seclusion, depression, and neglect is the only answer for the shame she has brought to this great country.

  13. James says:

    I’ve noticed this statement a few times in the press with regard to Iraqi prisoner abuse, “Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees.”
    As intense as the photos of detainee abuse are, it might turn out that there is something less sinister happening than what is apparent. The statement about “breaking chemical lights…” sounds pretty scary, but the fluid used in chemical lights is harmless. It is well know in the Army that soldiers often paint themselves in chemlight fluid and run around glowing in the dark just for amusement.
    My point isn’t to exonerate, but rather to point out that things are being exaggerated. Having been in Iraq, I’m pretty sure that this abuse situation comes from interrogators becoming frustrated with the impotence of conventional US methods for trying to gain an interrogee’s cooperation. The Iraqis are accustomed to real torture, the kind that involves cutting instruments. So, US methods look pretty pathetic to them. They literally laugh at US interrogators. The US interrogator is desparate to get any information that might save other soldiers lives, so this humiliation abuse seems to be what they’ve come up with.
    Having been there, I think it sucks that the US Military has been put in the position of trying to win a completely unwinable war for the sake of an agenda known only to a few men in the administration.
    The war isn’t winable. The Iraqis are accustomed to a degree of brutality from those who have governed them in the past that the US cannot and will not bring to bear. They just laugh and fire another RPG.

  14. observer says:

    First let me say that these crimes must be punished. Everyone is shocked and disgusted by this psychological torture and humiliation, which will effect the victims for the rest of their lives.
    But the International Community’s reaction is riddled with hypocrisy:

    1. Bad treatment for US troops?
    It is conventional wisdom among pundits that ill-treatment by a few US troops will result in worse treatment against American POWs. Really?
    In the past, US POWS and even civilians have hardly been treated according to the Geneva Conventions. Daniel Pearl beheaded, the Fallujah four mutilated and burned, Jessica Lynch raped come to mind. Tiger cages and torture in Vietnam, forced death marches and executions during WWII. Perhaps the pundits could tell me of a conflict where American POWs were protected?
    The threat of bad treatment for POWs might have more effect if it hadn’t already happened.

    2. Torture=bad, Torture-Killing=Good?
    How did the world respond when 4 civilians were tortured, mutilated, burned, shot, executed, their bodies parts burned, stepped on, dragged and hung from bridges? In much of the press, it was hardly denounced, and actually used as more evidence of either American failure or blame was cast on the non-combatant civilian workers as being “spieds” or “mercenaries”.
    Clearly a few humiliating sexual poses would be preferable to mutilation-death-desecration. Apparently rape, torture, mutilation and execution of Americans POWs and even civilians is okay….

    3. Demand for apologies
    Here’s the game:
    -If you only apologize, Iraqis will forgive you
    -Bush and others apologize
    -Declare these apologies invalid for some reason — they were too indirect, they were personal statements, etc.
    -The apology provokes no forgiveness, only shrill denunciations about trying to sneak out of responsibility. A Saudi paper screamed “Killers should apologize!”

    4. War=Bad, Terror=Good?
    This is a part of a larger pattern of hypocrisy: War is “evil”, terror is good. War by nations against nations is wrong. Civil war and insurgency are “heroic”. Thus, nations which fight wars must be harangued for real and imagined war-crimes, while their insurgent, terrorist counterparts can extermination civilians, rape, torture and mutilate with impunity—after all, they are not governments, so how can they be held responsible.

    Thus, the rape of Jessica Lynch and female soldiers in the first Gulf War are laughed off. Thus, executions of American civilians like Daniel Pearl and an elderly wheel-chair bound Achille Lauro passenger is never called a war crime–the terrorists act with impunity. Only wars are protested; Terrorist atrocities and war crimes are laughed off, ignored, or worse, secretly sympathized and justified.

    5. Get ready for more hypocrisy
    Some Iraqis despite official apologies and even compensation ,and despite experts from the Arab media who claimed that “if only Bush would apologize” the Iraqis will forgive you, radicals in Iraq and elsewhere will no doubt seek to get “Revenge”. When American POWS are tortured and executed what can we expect? Loud, shrill denunciations by the world’s press?? I doubt it. More likely are apologetics, excuse-making, justifications, and even glee. Such is the craven nature of the “World Community”.