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Exposed: The Anatomy of a Torture Scandal

Where does the buck stop when it comes to torture?
 
 
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Not long before Lynndie England ever stepped foot in Iraq, long before she became the poster-child for torture, she was a whistleblower at Pilgrim's Pride chicken factory in Moorefield, W.Va. -- a notion that doesn't quite fit with her current image.

In the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, Americans were offered two kinds of analysis. We were given a choice regarding the horrendous abuse of those detained in Abu Ghraib (70 percent to 90 percent of which, according to the Red Cross, were arrested by mistake or had no intelligence value): Was it just a few bad apples -- a crazed night shift of sadists that raped, sodomized, beat and electrocuted prisoners (including women and children) -- or was it systemic, based on orders that came straight from the top?

Tara McKelvey's new book Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War offers a more nuanced and in-depth exploration of how and why incidents of abuse and torture like Abu Ghraib happened (and continue to happen) in the war on terror. Namely, that it took both lower-level bad apples, and high-level hypocrites to produce such violence. Confronting the fact that both choice and command played a part in Abu Ghraib forces us to face a more complex and unsavory truth. But anything less simply doesn't make sense. If it were only a few bad apples, why haven't all of those few been prosecuted? In the famous prisoner pyramid photograph, there are 32 boots visible. Yet, only seven soldiers were charged, with Charles Graner and Lynndie England effectively serving as the poster couple for the abuses. Furthermore, how could it possibly be just a few bad apples when even the Army's own investigations have called the torture systemic and illegal. Similarly, to claim that those participating in the abuse were only following orders doesn't mesh with the fact that there are, as McKelvey states in the book, those who refused to take part in abusive practices and faced no reprimand.

A bad idea ... normalized

While Abu Ghraib was made world-famous by U.S. abuses, the prison had a famed and longstanding opening act as Saddam's notorious site of torture and executions. Despite the obvious negative associations, a military report stated that Abu Ghraib was "the largest and most suitable prison site for dangerous and long-term criminals within the country of Iraq." Apart from calls from human rights organizations to find another facility, even a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) officer argued against it in no uncertain terms: "It was no different than going into Dachau and saying, 'We're going to use this as a prison facility.'" (One of the camps of Abu Ghraib, Camp Ganci, was named after a firefighter killed in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The more conflated associations with horrendous violence, apparently, the merrier.)

McKelvey shows how this same kind of willful ignorance led Geoffrey Miller (of Gitmo fame) and Ricardo Sanchez (commander of coalition forces in Iraq 2003-2004) to declare Abu Ghraib the "headquarters" for Iraqi intelligence collection. Sam Provance, an Abu Ghraib whistleblower, tells McKelvey, "Computers started coming in, and they just never stopped coming. Brand-new, state-of-the-art desktops, laptops." Provance might have appreciated the technology if not for a few other supplies they needed: "... there were still no lights in the guardhouse. It was crazy. It was like, 'Oh, my God. What do you expect from us?'" A fair question given the fact that the reported ratio of prisoners to guards in 2004 was 75:1, not to mention that previously cited statistic of up to 90 percent of prisoners possessing no intelligence.

McKelvey writes convincingly of the pressures that ensued from such an impossible situation: The sense of frustration and anger, as well as grief over lost comrades, was palpable among the soldiers at Abu Ghraib. Their requests for backup support and resources were often ignored. They faced hundreds of malnourished, frustrated detainees on the prison compound every day. At the same time, they were threatened by an enemy that moved in darkness beyond the prison walls.

After the prison was declared the headquarters for intelligence collection, intelligence analysts were expected to arrive at the prison. Instead, soldiers showed up. These soldiers were then given two-day crash courses with Powerpoint presentations on how to interrogate prisoners. Among the slides is an illustration of interrogators with a sock puppet. The caption read, "I realize this sounds rather cliché, but we have ways of making you talk."

Incidentally, any soldier, MP or intelligence officer stationed at detainment facilities around the world could expect a number of creative PowerPoint presentations. "It was explained to us in a PowerPoint presentation that the Geneva Conventions don't apply -- which we already knew," said Erik Saar, a former military linguist stationed at Guantanamo, in a 2005 interview. "They told us, 'Just so you're aware, these individuals are not POWs, they're detainees or enemy combatants ... But it was left unclear as to what that meant on a day-to-day basis.'"

The day-to-day basis for guards and interrogators at Abu Ghraib was furnished in part by Geoffrey Miller's "Gitmo-ization" process. McKelvey writes that Charles Graner received training in the use of stress positions from a Gitmo interrogator and was also familiar with Palestinian hangings. Further furnishing the details were civilian contractor interrogators, some of whom are described in Monstering as employing distinctly strident and violent methods. Working for the private sector, the civilian contractors are not subject to the same legal standards as U.S. military personnel. This was arguably part of the reason that civilian contractors were intentionally hired; though intentional or not, it certainly makes prosecution of torture offenses difficult.

Blowing off some steam

The stresses of an ongoing threat of attack, short-staffing, insufficiently trained soldiers and creative techniques straight from Guantanamo led to a situation in which abuses were rampant. So much so that a Human Rights Watch report stated, simply, "The torture of detainees reportedly was so widespread and accepted that it became a means of stress relief for soldiers." The situation was one in which amateur interrogators were encouraged to dismiss any law that might hinder what they deemed their intelligence gathering. A category that clearly was broadened to include violent stress relief. If you are at all confused about how violence could be construed as stress relief in a military prison setting like Abu Ghraib, McKelvey's book is unmatched in its exposure of the social life there (admittedly of the more violent, sadomasochistic strain). MPs on cheap highs ("robo-tripping") take turns repeatedly stabbing a dummy detainee. The heads of a cat and a goat are shuffled around. On top of soda cans. With cigarette and weapon accoutrements.

While dismembered cats were hardly the stuff of torture memos, Sam Provance explained to McKelvey how games likewise extended to prisoners. And when it came to taking photographs of naked prisoners in a pyramid, naked prisoners on leashes, or naked prisoners being forced to simulate masturbation, the behavior was not only acceptable, but encouraged. Says Provance, "Those MPs thought what they were doing was acceptable. So acceptable that they would use them as wallpaper for their laptops."

Better than you think, worse than you think

One of the most famous lines from Preston Sturges' 1941 screwball comedy The Lady Eve is delivered by the struck-by-love swindler Jean Harrington: "The best ones aren't as good as you think they are, and the bad ones aren't as bad." Critical to McKelvey's depiction of the setting of the Abu Ghraib violence is the stark realization that even those who spoke out about the abuses still shared in the mentality that led to the abuses. In conversation with McKelvey, Provance confesses that many MPs would "talk about their experience when the detainees were being humiliated and abused. It was always a joke story. It was like, 'Ha, ha. It was hilarious. You had to be there.' It would be funny if it were in a movie -- in a spoof like Naked Gun Two and a Half ... You see these Iraqi people. It's hard to imagine they're human. They're just the stock detainee. Like a movie prop."

In a similarly unexpected vein, McKelvey spends time with Lynndie England's family and learns that, working in a chicken plant, England spoke up about improper conduct. The young lady who is, in the imagination of Primetime-watching Americans everywhere, the twisted soldier suckered into abuse by her older boyfriend, Graner, was actually something of a whistleblower in her own town.

Meanwhile McKelvey visits the hometown of a quiet Egyptian-American named Adel Nakhla and hears from a former employer that Nakhla was "one of the nicest guys who's ever worked here ... Just a lovable bear kind of a guy." Yet Nakhla stands accused of forcing naked prisoners to touch each other sexually, hitting a prisoner so hard that his ear had to be stitched up and raping a young boy. While the criminal investigation wing of the Army (CID) did conduct an investigation, because of legal jurisdiction issues Nakhla is not being held liable for damages.

Hypocrisy at the top

What many Americans may not know is that there are many more photographs from Abu Ghraib that have not been released. It wasn't just roughing up and pyramids. Indeed, in a 12-day period in 2003, five men died of heart attacks. While all were classified as natural deaths, the heart failure was a result of massive stress and abuse. The torture and abuse that were perpetrated by the lower rank and file MPs and interrogators at Abu Ghraib are certainly reprehensible, shock the conscience, and deserve a much more than a cursory investigation and prosecution. But there is a far more revolting double-speak on torture at the highest levels of the Bush administration that does more than shock the conscience; it actively eviscerates it.

The armchair torturers at the top created a clear abusive detainment environment by jettisoning the Geneva Conventions, redefining the word "torture" and implementing new techniques. Former administration officials like John Yoo, David Addington, Donald Rumsfeld and current Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, were so preoccupied with the expansion of executive power, with what the president was authorized to do to people, they effectively render meaningless the notion of what was not legally allowed. McKelvey makes good use of former Bush legal advisor John Yoo's legal screed War by Other Means: An Insider's Account of the War on Terror by citing his observation of how little has changed about the administration's stance on torture. While the famous Torture Memo of 2002 was withdrawn and rewritten in 2004, Yoo notes that, since the legal conclusions in the new memo were basically the same, this exercise in political image making may have seemed worth it simply to ease Gonzalez's confirmation. The 2002 memo was, in effect, rewritten in 2004 to take out language about what torture was or wasn't, to placate the sensibilities of those who didn't like seeing the law of torture and harsh interrogation even discussed. Nothing of substance about the law had changed.

Yoo, clearly in no need of the placating reserved for those with more fragile sensibilities, insists that "the conflict is with the terrorists." Somehow, the critical question of how it is decided, whether or not someone is a terrorist, is missing from the equation. And while some officials like Yoo's White House colleague Timothy Flanigan, expressed to McKelvey his regret that techniques intended for use on members of al Qaeda were used on innocent Iraqi women and children, it was never clear to anyone, it seems, except for Flanigan that this was the case.

Rumsfeld's May 4, 2004, response to journalists in the wake of the Abu Ghraib photos was to explain that the Geneva Conventions "did not apply precisely" in Iraq. He referred to them, rather, as "basic rules." As if that weren't mealy mouthed enough, his May 14 visit to soldiers at Abu Ghraib muddied (or, in another sense, clarified) the sentiment even further: "Geneva doesn't say what you do when you get up in the morning."

Accountability

The plethora of contradiction seems, unfortunately, to be unexploited by many formal investigations. McKelvey recounts one soldier's experience being questioned by George Fay for the Army's Fay-Jones investigation. Fay would allegedly start off an interview by saying, "If anyone saw anything and failed to intervene, they can be charged with a crime. Did anyone see anything and fail to intervene?" While clearly inadequate, the Fay-Jones report affirmed that there was torture at Abu Ghraib. The other major investigation and report conducted by Antonio Taguba offered a more damning conclusion: Not only was there torture going on, it was the fault of leadership. In a recent New Yorker article, Taguba tells Seymour Hersh that he was ordered to limit any investigation to the low-ranking soldiers who were photographed and legally prevented from extending the investigation beyond those parameters. Taguba also states that top commanders were well aware of the migration of techniques from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib.

Taguba was forced to retire earlier this year by Gen. Richard Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, who told him, "I need you to retire by January of 2007."

We also know from Taguba that there are more unreleased photographs, many involving the abuse of female prisoners. Taguba says he saw footage of a male American soldier sodomizing a female detainee. Many former prisoners of Abu Ghraib met with McKelvey when she traveled to Amman, Jordan, to conduct interviews. The stories recounted in Monstering are a testament to the importance of journalists at a time when government officials are not being held accountable for criminal behavior.

Perhaps the most poignant component of McKelvey's book is her presence in the work. She is face to face with those who come to her with the bracelets they wore when they were held at Abu Ghraib. Some show her scars. Others, especially the women, close up entirely when asked about sexual abuse. In an agonizing interview with a father of three whose two young sons were killed in a U.S. military campaign, we learn that his repeated attempts to file for compensation under the U.S. Foreign Claims Act were finally denied compensation "based on a lack of evidence showing negligence of U.S. personnel." After spending hours with McKelvey, explaining in detail what he'd endured, McKelvey finds herself desperately wishing she could give him something to acknowledge his loss: I felt a bit thrown off balance by my own feelings of sadness and regret. I find myself grabbing a Polaroid picture of my boyfriend's cat -- an orange tom called Bruno -- that I keep on my bedside table and giving it to him. I do it without thinking ... In retrospect it seems embarrassing, but it was a response, however inadequate, to the tragedy of his story."

At other times, talking to less savory characters whose motivations McKelvey questions, her fear is tangible. Rightfully so. Three of the people on the list of former detainees that McKelvey had access to were murdered while she worked on the book. It is unlikely that their deaths will be investigated.

Tortured language

McKelvey's conclusion includes a brief explanation in which he says that "torture, as well as beatings, assault, and random arrests, can be effective." She cites John Pike of Globalsecurity.org's explanation of Saddam Hussein, who was "tracked down by unraveling a 'social network' of friends, relatives and acquaintances." What doesn't seem to add up is this brief torture success story in a book packed with examples of its failures. Furthermore, roughing up those in Saddam's social network to find his location seemed a far cry from the kind of open-ended detainment and low to no intelligence value available in Abu Ghraib. When I asked about this, McKelvey reiterated that there is "overwhelming evidence that says torture does not produce reliable information." The point she is trying to make, she says, is that "it doesn't matter. I don't think we should torture people, or use abusive techniques, because it is wrong to do that -- not because we don't get good information.

The point is well taken, and it's an interesting debate as to whether we should engage in the argument of whether or not torture is effective rather than simply stating its immorality. In the end, I believe we have to argue both -- necessarily in the same breath. A well-known new report showed that two out of three Americans justify torture under certain circumstances. There are too many 24-indoctrinated Americans who believe that torture is justified because they think it works. Perhaps even more disturbingly, as Jane Mayer of the New Yorker reports, it's not just Americans sitting on couches who think it works. The dean of West Point flew to California to meet with the creators of 24 to warn them that their show is "adversely affecting the training and performance of real American soldiers."

But McKelvey's book demonstrates this. In the end, the reader is left humbled at her exhaustive reporting. It is both heartening and heart-breaking to think that journalists are picking up this much government slack.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer. A former assistant editor at AlterNet, she has also written for MotherJones.com, Women's e-News , and PopMatters.

 
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