Best Defense

The U.S. military, mythology, and Abu Ghraib: An intelligence officer’s view

By Lt. Col. Douglas A. Pryer, U.S. Army Best Defense guest columnist We U.S. servicemembers tend to construct and preach false mythologies about ourselves, perhaps even more so than the members of other large organizations. This stands to reason. Our core business is, in service to our nation, managing violence and this violence’s effects. Being ...


By Lt. Col. Douglas A. Pryer, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist

We U.S. servicemembers tend to construct and preach false mythologies about ourselves, perhaps even more so than the members of other large organizations. This stands to reason. Our core business is, in service to our nation, managing violence and this violence’s effects. Being human beings and not machines, we want to believe that when we kill, maim, or injure other human beings, it is to good purpose. Deep down, we know sometimes it isn’t. But this doesn’t stop us from always wishing that our violent actions, and those of our comrades, serve a higher good.

So, in war, we try to convince ourselves that the leaders and foot soldiers we are fighting are the worst people on the planet, while our own leaders and comrades are the very best. And when U.S. troops commit crimes, we work hard to believe that these crimes were the work of a few “bad apples,” of criminals who can never be completely screened from an organization the size of ours. By thus disassociating ourselves, our military, and our nation from these criminals, we hope to make ourselves feel less “tainted” by their actions.

However, this very human, very understandable tendency contains a profound danger: If we fail to see ourselves truly, if we wish away some of the causes of some of our comrades’ worst actions, we can cripple our ability to reduce the chance of such misdeeds happening again.

One prominent example of potentially dangerous myth-building can be found in this summer’s issue of Parameters. George R. Mastroianni’s “Looking Back: Understanding Abu Ghraib” sets out to revise current narratives about the Abu Ghraib scandal.

Mastroianni, a psychology professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy, says there are two competing narratives about Abu Ghraib, the “bad apples” and “bad barrel” narratives. The “bad apples” narrative places the blame for the scandal’s crimes on Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick, Specialist Charles Graner, and the others convicted of crimes. He claims that the “bad barrel” interpretation, which places the blame for these crimes on higher-ups and turns the criminals into victims, is the dominant narrative. This is thanks to “sensational” stories provided by journalists such as Seymour Hersh, lawyers such as Gary Myers, and academics such as Phillip Zimbardo. He then offers a version that falls between these two narratives.

This sounds reasonable, unless one believes that the dominant narrative already places blame on both “bad apples” and a “bad barrel.” When seen in this light, Mastroianni’s real motive becomes clear: He desires to do away with the idea that the Bush administration and certain senior military leaders were even indirectly responsible for the Abu Ghraib scandal.

According to Mastroianni, the crimes at Abu Ghraib had nothing to do with so-called “enhanced” interrogation techniques (EITs). He says that the facts of the cases that were prosecuted “do not comport with the interpretation of Abu Ghraib as an example of the pernicious consequences of American ‘torture’ policy, or as evidence of the migration of enhanced interrogation techniques from Guantanamo to Iraq.” He argues that, yes, superiors were to some degree to blame for abuses at Abu Ghraib, but only inasmuch as they produced “chaotic and confusing policy changes” and failed to adequately supervise soldiers.

This thesis is more than misleading. It is wrong. It ignores the fact that EITs undeniably migrated from Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo) and Afghanistan to Abu Ghraib. It ignores documented cases of abuse at Abu Ghraib that, while unprosecuted, definitely involved EITs and intelligence collection processes. And it assumes away any link between the widespread use of degrading, dehumanizing tactics at Abu Ghraib and the photographed crimes that occurred at the same time.

Here is a fraction of what we know about the migration of EITs to Abu Ghraib and “the pernicious consequences” of this migration:

  • On December 2, 2002, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld approved for use at Gitmo such EITs as “Removal of clothing,” “The use of stress positions (like standing) for up to four hours,” and “Using detainee individual phobias (such as fear of dogs).” He rescinded this policy on January 15, 2003, when some service lawyers protested.
  • In August 2002, Company A, 519th Military Intelligence Battalion, began running interrogation operations at Bagram, Afghanistan. Their officer-in-charge of interrogations, Captain (CPT) Carolyn Wood, received a faxed list of EITs from Gitmo in December 2002. In January 2003, her interrogators were authorized by Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) 180 command policy to implement such EITs as “Removal of Clothing,” “Stress Positions,” and “Exploiting Fear of Dogs.”
  • A few months later, CPT Wood deployed with her company to Abu Ghraib. On her own authority, CPT Wood told her interrogators that they could employ “Sleep Deprivation” and “Stress Positions.” She later testified: “Because we had used the techniques in Afghanistan, and I perceived the Iraq experience to be evolving into the same operational environment as Afghanistan, I used my best judgment and concluded they would be effective tools for interrogation operations at AG.” A number of soldiers testified that her interrogators also continued to direct guards to remove prisoners’ clothing.
  • CPT Wood submitted a draft interrogation policy to CJTF-7, the highest military command in Iraq. According to Wood, she had plagiarized this draft policy from that used by the elite Special Mission Unit (SMU) task force in Iraq. This SMU’s policy, in turn, was derived from the interrogation policy of the SMU in Afghanistan. Wood’s draft policy and Gitmo’s April 2003 interrogation policy heavily influenced CJTF-7’s September 14, 2003, interrogation policy, which included nine EITs that could be used with the approval of the CJTF-7 commanding general, Lieutenant General (LTG) Ricardo Sanchez.
  • The revised CJTF-7 interrogation policy of October 12, 2003, continued to require interrogators to request EITs from LTG Sanchez. Sanchez approved the EIT of “Isolation” on at least 25 occasions. Additionally, Colonel (COL) Thomas Pappas, the 205th MI Brigade commander, testified that he believed (wrongly, according to Sanchez) that Sanchez had delegated to him the authority to approve “The Use of Military Working Dogs” as part of interrogation plans, which Pappas then did.
  • This October policy stated that interrogators needed to control “all aspects of the interrogation, to include the lighting, heating and configuration of the interrogation room, as well as the food, clothing and shelter given to the security internee.” This led some interrogators to believe they could employ such EITs as “Removal of Clothing” on their own authority.
  • CIA operatives employed EITs during interrogations at Abu Ghraib. On November 4, 2003, a detainee died during an abusive CIA interrogation. The Fay Report, the summary of the Army investigation into intelligence activities at Abu Ghraib, said: “CIA detention and interrogation practices led to a loss of accountability, abuse, reduced interagency cooperation, and an unhealthy mystique that further poisoned the atmosphere.” Shortly after taking office, President Barack Obama declassified three legal memoranda (the “Torture Memos”) listing EITs and justifying their use by CIA personnel.
  • According to multiple soldier testimonies, COL Pappas and Lieutenant Colonel Steve Jordan, the officer-in-charge of all intelligence operations at Abu Ghraib, saw naked detainees at the prison’s hard site and didn’t stop the practice. The Fay Report confirms that the use of nudity to support interrogations was a technique imported to Iraq from Afghanistan and Gitmo. It adds: “The use of clothing as an incentive (nudity) is significant in that it likely contributed to an escalating ‘de-humanization’ of the detainees and set the stage for additional and more severe abuses to occur.”
  • Most of the convicted crimes and other abuses occurred in the hard site’s Tier 1A, where interrogation subjects were held. Of the 44 abusive incidents that were reported at the hard site, the Fay Report catalogs more than half of these as involving interrogators or military intelligence processes.

It is possible that Abu Ghraib’s prosecuted crimes would have happened without “Removal of Clothing,” “Stress Positions,” “Exploiting Fear of Dogs,” and the other degrading EITs brought there from other theaters. However, that interpretation stretches the limits of credulity. A far more credible explanation is that the systematic, degrading treatment of prisoners was one of the factors that created a slippery moral slope and enabled worse crime. This is also the apparent pattern of abuse at several other detention facilities employing EITs in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time, including facilities at Bagram, al Qaim (Forward Operating Base Tiger and Blacksmith Hotel), al Assad (FOB Rifles), Mosul (Strike Brigade Holding Area), and Baghdad (Camp Nama).

Once the genie of “degrading treatment of others” is unleashed from its bottle, it is extremely difficult to put this genie back in the bottle — or to restrain increasingly atrocious conduct.

There are more minor problems of fact in Mastroianni’s essay. For instance, he reports that the suffocation of Major General Abed Mowhoush in a sleeping bag at al Qaim, Iraq, was the result of a “free-lanced” tactic. This tactic was actually a variation of the “close confinement quarters” EIT that placed subjects in small boxes or coffins to induce claustrophobia. Lewis Welshofer, the warrant officer who killed Mowhoush, had even specifically recommended this technique to CJTF-7 for inclusion in policy.

How could Mastroianni imagine that EITs didn’t play a significant part in Abu Ghraib abuse? His choice of sources is telling. He cites material from a military investigative report only once, never mentions specific interrogation memoranda, and doesn’t reference any of the hundreds of witness statements available to researchers. Instead, to support his argument, he relies largely on one second-hand account, Christopher Graveline’s and Michael Clemens’s The Secrets of Abu Ghraib Revealed.

Graveline helped prosecute all but two of the soldiers convicted of crimes at Abu Ghraib, and Clemens served as an investigator for the prosecution. Secrets of Abu Ghraib is well worth reading, though its title is a bit of a misnomer. The book actually provides few facts that weren’t previously disclosed via other sources (though it does provide some new facts). What it does most successfully is relate many of these facts as they pertain to the prosecuted cases in a highly readable narrative. It also performs a service in reinforcing the fact that the photographed crimes largely did not involve interrogation subjects and that these particular crimes were not specifically ordered by higher officials. Graveline and Clemens conclude that, on the continuum between the “bad apples” and the “bad barrel” narratives, “criminal culpability [for the crimes that occurred at Abu Ghraib] falls closer on the continuum to the enlisted soldiers working the night shift who were identified and prosecuted.”

That is a reasonable conclusion. But, “criminal culpability” is not the same thing as “moral responsibility.” Just because the moral responsibility of senior leaders for the crimes at Abu Ghraib didn’t cross the threshold of what existing law deems prosecutable, that doesn’t mean this responsibility is absent. In the case of the abuses at Abu Ghraib, it clearly is present.

It is truly easy to sympathize with Mastroianni’s wish to absolve senior leaders from any responsibility for the Abu Ghraib scandal. This scandal was an exceedingly ugly, twisted episode in our nation’s history that no one but our enemies are glad occurred. It is thus doubtful that he deliberately distorted and cherry-picked facts from mostly secondary sources to support his desired narrative. Rather, being human, he looked only as deeply as he wanted to look and so saw only what he wanted to see.

In the final analysis, Mastroianni writes very well, and his attempt to reevaluate existing narratives is laudable. No narrative should be deemed sacred. But he would have performed a greater service if he had held up a more polished mirror that clearly reflected, warts and all, the roles that senior leaders played in creating one of our nation’s greatest moral defeats. Only via acts of sometimes painful self-awareness can we see ourselves clearly and, hopefully, prevent future Abu Ghraibs.

Lieutenant Colonel Douglas A. Pryer is a counterintelligence officer who helped manage interrogation operations for Task Force1st Armored Division in Baghdad when the Abu Ghraib abuses were occurring. He is the author of the Command and General Staff College Foundation Press’s inaugural book, The Fight for the High Ground: The U.S. Army and Interrogation During Operation Iraqi Freedom, May 2003 – April 2004. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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