Military Prison Abuse Review Offers Mixed Conclusions

Abuse Review Exonerates Policy (WaPo A16)

The Pentagon’s widest-ranging examination of prisoner abuse at U.S. detention facilities has concluded that there was no deliberate high-level policy that led to numerous cases of mistreatment, and instead blames inept leadership at low levels and confusion over changing interrogation rules, according to government and defense officials who have read the report. Vice Adm. Albert T. Church III’s inquiry, which included reviews of several earlier military investigations, found there is “no single overarching explanation” for the abuse and that many of them occurred when soldiers came in contact with detainees on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than in U.S. detention facilities. It also found that interrogators, for the most part, followed U.S. and international standards for treating detainees humanely and that “there is no link between approved interrogation techniques and detainee abuse.”

While the review largely summarizes previous military reports about Defense Department detention operations, it specifically points out that aggressive efforts to increase the quality of human intelligence after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks might have led Pentagon officials to approve the use of interrogation techniques that were on the borderline of acceptable treatment. As previously disclosed, the report says military lawyers initially debated the use of 39 sometimes controversial techniques — such as water boarding, a tactic that mimics drowning — but pared that list to 35. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld approved 24 techniques.

The report, to be presented on Capitol Hill this morning, says Rumsfeld twice approved questionable techniques for use against “resistant” detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, according to a defense official who quoted parts of the document’s executive summary yesterday. “These interrogations were sufficiently aggressive that they highlighted the difficult question of precisely defining the boundaries of humane treatment of detainees,” Church’s report says.

New Interrogation Rules Set For Detainees In Iraq (NYT p. 1 rss)

[…] The report finds that early warning signs of serious abuses did not receive enough high-level attention as the abuses unfolded, and that unit commanders did not get clear instructions that might have halted the abuses. The findings of this review, the latest in a series of military inquiries conducted in the past year, come as the top American military commander in Iraq has ordered the first major changes to interrogation procedures there in nearly a year, narrowing the set of authorized techniques and adding new safeguards to prevent abuse of Iraqi prisoners, officials said.

The new procedures approved by the officer, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., on Jan. 27, have not been publicly disclosed, but are described in the Church report, a wide-ranging investigation into interrogation techniques used at military detention centers in Cuba, Afghanistan and Iraq. “This policy approves a more limited set of techniques for use in Iraq, and also provides additional safeguards and prohibitions, rectifies ambiguities and, significantly, requires commanders to conduct training on and verify implementation of the policy, and report compliance to the commander,” according to a summary of the inquiry’s classified report.

Three senior defense officials said Wednesday that the new procedures clarified the prohibition against the use of muzzled dogs in interrogations, gave specific guidance to field units as to how long they could hold prisoners before releasing them or sending them to higher headquarters for detention, and made clear command responsibilities for detainee operations. They did not describe the particulars of the changes, which are likely to be a main focus of a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing set for Thursday to review the Church report’s findings. It will be the first Congressional hearing into the prisoner abuse scandal since last September, when senior Army investigators presented their findings.

An interesting balance. Indeed, the fact that WaPo found the report rather benign while the NYT focused on the negative demonstrates how complicated the findings are. On the one hand, as I’ve always believed, there was no systematic policy calling for routine abuse of prisoners, including those presumed to have especially valuable intelligence. On the other hand, it’s been clear for a while that the pressure to gain actionable intelligence was, quite reasonably, strong but that the boundaries were not well specified.

Kevin McCullough believes this report will silence the likes of Ted Kennedy. I’m pretty sure that won’t happen. Nothing yet from Phil Carter; he’s likely working something up.

In related news…

Guantanamo Prison Hailed As A Success (Miami Herald)

The Pentagon’s chief of Latin American operations cast the Guantánamo Bay prison for terrorism suspects as a success Wednesday, downplaying abuse allegations and emphasizing the gains of intelligence gathering. The 550 or so captives at the Navy base in Cuba include ”highly trained, dangerous members of al Qaeda, its related terrorist networks and the foreign Taliban regime,” Army Gen. Bantz Craddock said in written testimony for the House Armed Services Committee.

About 4,000 reports from Guantánamo detainees have provided an ”unprecedented body of information” on al Qaeda and other terror groups, the general in charge of the Miami-Dade-based Southern Command said — including their leadership, recruiting, funding, training and “plans for attacking the United States and other countries.”

This is the fly in the ointment. It’s not as if tough interrogation doesn’t produce results.

Update (0951): AP weighs in:
Probe: Pressure on interrogators not excessive (CNN)
Probe: Leaders Didn’t Order Prison Abuse (ABC)

Top commanders in Iraq put intense pressure on interrogators to extract useful intelligence information from prisoners, yet that does not explain the sexual humiliation and other abuse of prisoners under U.S. control, an investigation has concluded. The report by Navy Vice Adm. Albert T. Church said the pressure was not excessive. The investigation could find no “single, overarching reason” why prisoners under U.S. control were abused at the Abu Ghraib prison complex in fall 2003 and elsewhere in Iraq and Afghanistan. Command pressure for more intelligence was to be expected in a battlefield setting, Church wrote. “We found no evidence, however, that interrogators in Iraq believed that any pressure for intelligence subverted their obligation to treat detainees humanely,” he wrote in a summary of his findings.

Sounds about right.

Reuters, too: Pentagon clears staff over abuses

The Pentagon said its policies and top officials did not cause the mistreatment of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, but in a report cited a series of missed opportunities to correct lapses that led to the abuses. The latest and most wide-ranging abuse report on Thursday, by Navy inspector general Vice Admiral Albert Church, largely tracks the Pentagon’s previous contention that its leaders were not directly responsible for sexual and physical mistreatment of prisoners.

A 21-page unclassified summary of the report was to be released at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. The full 368-page report is classified.

Update (1005): What Really Happened has the most amusing headline on this: “US leaders clear themselves of any wrongdoing in torture scandal.”

Update (1029): Ed Morrissey observes that, “the Gray Lady chose to highlight one case of failure as its lead and wait until the eleventh paragraph to cover in the most superficial way the actual results of the inquiry.” There is that. Given the prevalence of the anecedote-as-lede, it must be J-School 101 to write articles that way. Given that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” this practice is as misleading as it is annoying.

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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. Peter says:

    Most of the cases of prisoner abuse and humiliation actially has a fairly simple explanation, the need to establish absolute dominance of the guards over the guarded.
    We could see, if we really looked, much of the same sort of things in jails and prisons right here. It’s a routine thing to see one guard in a kitchen full of all kinds of things usable as weapons and forty inmates cooking and cleaning. This is only possible because of the hundreds of ways that the guards show absolute dominance over the inmates. Many of these ways are, at best, extra-legal, some downright illegal. We, as citizens, turn a blind eye to these methods because we are not willing to pay the huge costs of maintaining our jails and prisons without the use of such methods.
    Note that the ringleaders of the Abby Grabby scandals were reservists who, in civilian life, were prison guards.
    It’s easy to run an expose about what goes on in a prison, any prison. It’s fun for the media and political types to express shock and outrage and get lots of face time on the six o’clock news and the Sunday talking heads shows.
    Then it comes time to pay for a jail and prison system that can maintain order and control without any abuse and humiliation. Suddenly the Pols and media are nowhere to be found.
    The pols would rather spend the taxpayer’s money on projects that will buy votes. The media would rather have a ready made source of gee-whiz, ain’t it awful scandals handy for a slow news day. The third leg of the stool is that the taxpayer would like a little something left in the pay envelope after taxes.
    So, nothing really changes and guards will do anything, legal or not, to convince the prisoner that they have absolute and total dominance, even outnumbered by a hundred to one.

  2. Carlos says:

    Once, just once, I’d like to see a report, an investigation, a probe, whatever, mark the distinction between “abuse” and “humane treatment”. I have yet to see where the rules applied to disciplining a six-year-old and questioning hardened terrorists are differentiated.