aka Abu Ghurayb, Abu GrhaibThe White House really wants you to know all about the atrocities that happened at Abu Ghraib... all of the ones that happened before 2003.
The White House's Web site features a charming little page called Tales of Saddam's Brutality. Posted in September 2003, the idea behind the page was simple: Overwhelm people with visceral stories of evil Saddam Hussein, in order to prop up an increasingly unpopular invasion of Iraq that was originally based on the idea that Saddam was hoarding weapons of mass destruction.
By fall 2003, it was starting to look like those weapons were never going to show up, so the Bush administration began unsubtly revising history to reflect the fact that the U.S. went into Iraq to get rid of "a bad man."
After all, no one in George Bush's America would dare suggest that the Iraqi people weren't better off with Saddam out of the way. And Saddam and Sons were indeed pretty atrocious, in the strictly literal sense of authoring atrocities.
Indeed, the evidence was all there, in the Tales. Perhaps they finally learned their lesson about taking information from the CIA, because the Tales were all were carefully culled from newspaper and media reports:
"We visited the notorious Abu Gehb (sic) Prison outside Baghdad and found written records of prisoners being executed by being put through mincing machines."
The last entry is particularly piquant in light of the picture (right) showing U.S. soldiers doing exactly the same thing to an Iraqi prisoner.
Abu Ghraib (pronounced "grayb") is a sprawling 280-acre gulag, complete with sniper towers and razor wire, dungeons and the stench of human fear.
According to U.S. State Department propaganda released in April 2003 to justify the march toward war, Saddam killed 4,000 prisoners at the institution in 1984, and executed fewer 50 political prisoners there between 2000 and 2001. You'd think that this represented progress, but to the U.S. it was a reason to invade (retroactively).
Based on all this copious evidence of brutality at Abu Ghraib, the moral case for getting rid of Saddam seemed like a "slam dunk," as George Tenet might say. What could possibly go wrong?
"No one can argue that the Iraqi people would be better off with the thugs and murderers back in the palaces," Bush said as recently as March 2004, by which time he should have known better. Because two months earlier, the other shoe had dropped.
When the U.S. came storming into the country in spring of 2003, Abu Ghraib was left a smoldering ruin, looted by the local populace as the Saddam regime disintegrated. The Americans came in and thought to themselves, "Hey, wouldn't it be great if we used this ghoulish house of horrors for our own prison?" You can almost imagine them thinking to themselves, "Gee, then people will see how much better we are than those lousy Baathists!"
Actually, you need not imagine it. When the prison made its debut as an American institution, Gen. Janis Karpinski came right out and said it. "Living conditions (for the prisoners) now are better in prison than at home. At one point we were concerned that they wouldn't want to leave,” the general boasted.
Let that be a lesson to you all: Never boast.
The prison had held a peak population of around 15,000 under Saddam. The Americans humanely reduced that number to about 5,000. And in place of Saddam's humiliation and torture, the Americans humanely substituted... Well, more humiliation and torture. According to a "for internal use only" army report, from October to December 2003, U.S. soldiers performed a laundry list of degrading abuses on prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The report offers up the most hardcore details in a U.S. government document since the Starr Report, only much, much uglier. It's hard to actually appreciate the severity of what happened from the sound bites on the evening news (although the pictures get it across pretty well). For a sense of scale, however, try reading the complete list. And remember, this is just what the military could confirm as having happened:
a. (S) Punching, slapping, and kicking detainees; jumping on their naked feet;According to the report, which is a summary of the military's internal investigation of the abuses, soldiers testified that they had been ordered to abuse the prisoners, to prepare them for interrogation.
These orders allegedly came from both military intelligence officers and civilian consultants -- members of that class of Iraq warrior ever-so-euphemistically referred to as "private contractors," which is Pentagon-speak for paid mercenaries and "security" experts.
Perhaps needless to say, whatever orders the servicemen and women received with respect to "softening up" the prisoners for interrogation, it's highly unlikely that anyone ordered them to take the garish, jackal-grinning snapshots that have earned them a permanent place in the archives of disturbing illustration.
Needless to say, this uniquely American problem required a uniquely American response. The first impulse, as always, was to cover it up. So the military commissioned a report on the abuses, secretly reassigned and charged several enlisted people who had allegedly taken part in the abovementioned sadistic acts. The commanders were discreetly reprimanded and reassigned. The contractors... Well, nothing was done to the contractors, who may actually escape without any punishment, since it's possible there isn't a law with jurisdiction over their activities. Isn't that convenient?
Unfortunately, there was the little matter of the report. And the pictures. Especially the pictures. During one of their epic rounds of sexual abuse, a group of male and female soldiers came up with the bright idea to take some photos, souvenirs for their friends and loved ones back home.
It's really, really hard to imagine how someone could think it was a good idea to document this activity, but then it's pretty clear from the pictures that we aren't exactly dealing with the intellectual elite of the Iraqi prison system. (Among other clues, they misspelled "rapist" at least two different ways when they were scrawling it on the bodies of their victims with magic marker.)
In the snapshots, smirking soldiers gawk and point at the genitalia of naked Iraqi men. In some pictures, the prisoners are forced to simulate sex with each other. In others, they're just piled on top of each other. In almost all the pictures released to date, they're naked. According to news media reports, there are probably more pictures which have yet to surface.
The report itself was pretty newsworthy, but the pictures ensured that the story would go large. Despite what would seem like an obvious concern, the Army sat on the report and did nothing about it for months -- not even after they knew the media was preparing to publish the photos.
For two weeks, 60 Minutes II even held off running the story at the request of General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. What did Myers do during those two weeks? On the surface, it appears he did nothing at all to prepare for the coming PR crisis... But then, maybe he was making the other, really bad photos that no one knows about disappear.
We leave it to the reader to judge what kind of news organization holds off on publishing an expose of the Army at the Army's request, but CBS agreed to delay its broadcast for two weeks. The New Yorker rang in hard on the heels of the CBS report with an incredibly detailed and damaging story that featured extensive excerpts from the report quoted above.
It's still too early to know where the buck is going to stop on this story, but the odds are very good that the scandal has only just begun. Since the story came out, a slew of new stories have broken with claims that U.S. captors have murdered at least two prisoners. (That's not an editorial opinion; the army characterizes the deaths as "homicides.") And a Senate inquiry panel is already in the works, which means lots of big, fat, ugly, televised hearings.
Almost a week after the 60 Minutes report broke, Donald Rumsfeld incredibly told reporters that he hadn't even read the Army's own report on the incident, which should tell you exactly how pathetic this is going to get before it's all over. Also among those who were claiming they hadn't read the report during the first week of the public crisis are President Bush, the commander of the Army in Iraq and General Myers, the same guy who begged 60 Minutes II not to run the photos a month ago. Hell, it's possible Dick Cheney still hasn't even heard about the story around the water cooler yet!
UPDATE: On Friday, May 7, 2004, Rumsfeld told a Senate panel that videotapes of the abuse at Abu Ghraib also exist. According to the New Yorker's Sy Hersh, the tapes include footage of male minor prisoners being raped. Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters after the session that additional allegations of "rape and murder" are forthcoming. You might want to settle in for a long, election-cycle scandal, the likes of which this nation has never seen...