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Fallout from Alleged Prisoner Abuse in Iraq

May 3, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Newspapers in Baghdad today carried photographs of prisoners being abused by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib Prison, about 20 miles west of the capital. Iraqis expressed outrage.

HUSSEIN AL-SHAMARI (Translated): America, which says it’s a democracy, it is doing horrible acts of torment against Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

RAY SUAREZ: Photos depicting the abuse were shown around the world last week after being broadcast first by CBS’ “60 Minutes II.” The images led Arabic newscasts on Friday. The photos also accompanied an article in this week’s “New Yorker” Magazine. In it, writer Seymour Hersh provided details of an internal army report by Major General Antonio Taguba, citing “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses,” at the prison.

Among the images were a hooded and wired prisoner being threatened with electrocution; two soldiers posing over a pyramid of naked detainees; a female soldier pointing to naked prisoners; and the body of a dead Iraqi packed in ice. Among the specific abuses listed in Taguba’s report: pouring phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle; threatening rape; sodomizing detainees; and having dogs bite one.

President Bush condemned the abuse on Friday. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, appearing on the Sunday talk shows yesterday said he hadn’t read the Taguba report, but was appalled by the abuse.

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: We’ve got to take swift action in those cases, so I think that’s what we owe the Iraqi people, that’s what we owe the American people. I would say, on the other hand, there are a lot of Iraqis that have daily contact with our forces, and they get to know the character and the compassion of our forces. And so they probably understand this is an aberration — not that it won’t be used against the United States of America; certainly it will — but I think people that know us, that deal with us day in and day out, know that’s an aberration.

RAY SUAREZ: The commander at the prison, army reserve Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, has been reprimanded, and is now back home in South Carolina. She told ABC News this morning she knew nothing of the abuse at the time.

BRIG. GEN. JANIS KARPINSKI: When I saw the photos, I was sickened by them. I just found it unbelievable. They were despicable.

RAY SUAREZ: Karpinski said military intelligence officers, not military police, were in charge of questioning the prisoners.

BRIG. GEN. JANIS KARPINSKI: The cell blocks were actually in operation for the interrogation and isolation under the military intelligence control. It was part of Abu Ghraib Prison operation, but those cell blocks, cell block 1A and 1B, and the prison was actually under the control of the military intelligence command at that time.

RAY SUAREZ: Today family members and friends of thousands now held at Abu Ghraib gathered outside the gates waiting for information about their loved ones. During Saddam Hussein’s regime, tens of thousands of political prisoners were held and reportedly tortured there.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on this, we get three views. Seymour Hersh is a longtime investigative reporter and author, and is a staff writer at the “New Yorker.” Lt. Col. Gary Solis served in the Marine Corps from 1963 to 1989. He served two tours in Vietnam, and then became a lawyer. He’s now an adjunct professor at the Georgetown Law School, where he teaches the law of war. And Hisham Melhem is the Washington correspondent for the Beirut newspaper “As-Safir.” He also hosts a weekly program on the Arab news channel al-Arabiya.

Seymour Hersh, how long ago was the report from General Taguba finished?

SEYMOUR HERSH: It was filed in February.

RAY SUAREZ: So it floated around for a while before it broke in the news? Where has it been all this time?

SEYMOUR HERSH: It still hasn’t been officially released. And it certainly didn’t make to it the higher echelon of the Pentagon, not only the chairman as you heard, General Myers, but also Don Rumsfeld said he didn’t know much about it.

RAY SUAREZ: So was it the surfacing of the pictures that sort of pulled it into the spotlight?


RAY SUAREZ: So the high impact of those images finally had people digging into what was going on?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, one of the things that Major General Taguba said was that the problems in the prison go back to the previous fall. His report also made clear that there had been two prior investigations by the high command in Iraq, beginning in late summer. So now you have three separate reports being done about problems in a prison, and you have the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff saying on television the other day we’re going to deal with this problem. It seems clear to me that if there hadn’t been photographs, Janis Karpinski would still be running that prison and there wouldn’t be any investigations.

RAY SUAREZ: For the insurance that they were going to do something to deal with it, have they?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, they brought in a couple more generals to take a look at it, they’re having a special investigation done by an outside general and they brought in a new general from Guantanamo who ran the prisons there, and there is now talk about making sure the Geneva Convention works, et cetera, et cetera. But these are very hard times for our armed forces. I’m not sure how much energy they can devote to cleaning up that prison right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Solis, what are the rules? Here we had a prison operated by the United States military, arresting civilians when the United States was the force in charge of a country it’s occupying.

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS (Ret.): Well, the Geneva Conventions continue to apply during periods of occupation, so first you have the Geneva Conventions which prohibit mistreatment of protected persons, as these individuals were; in addition the uniform military code of justice, which prohibits virtually all the things we’ve seen in the photographs. So we have at least two systems which should have prohibited this mistreatment. And in addition, you have the inherent military system of hierarchy of rank, where were the lieutenants, captains and majors that one might have expected to see in these prisons? Where do we hear what their part was in this activity? Why was there not somebody there to stop it?

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk a little about what they were trying to do in that section of the prison. There was apparently a long-standing effort to extract information from the people they were bringing to that part of the prison. Where is the line, and who says so, when you’re trying to get somebody to tell you things that they may not want to tell you?

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS (Ret.): Well, that’s a very good question. Where is the line? There is no good definition of torture, but one would think that certainly what went on in this prison would constitute torture. Who makes the rules is whoever is in charge, and those who were in charge are entrusted with the responsibility to maintain order and discipline, but they’re also entrusted with the responsibility to do it in an intelligent and a humanitarian way, and clearly that was not done in this case.

RAY SUAREZ: But it’s situational, you make up a case to fit what the situation you’re in at any given time, are or are there rules, you can do this but you can’t that?

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS (Ret.): There are certainly rules in the sense that you can’t go beyond certain lines, there are humanitarian rules, but there aren’t specifics that say you may do this and may not do that. Common sense, good judgment and one’s basic humanity should be your guides as to what you can and cannot do. Once you cross that line, once you begin to torture people, once you begin to pose them in photographs like this, then you have committed offenses not only under the Geneva Convention but the uniform code of military justice and humanitarian treaties as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Hisham, the photos had a few days to soak down into the various information channels in the Arab world, descriptions of what was going on at Abu Ghraib. What’s been the reaction?

HISHAM MELHEM: People were shocked, they were stunned that these abuses were occurring and that the Americans were the perpetrators now. Those who came supposedly to Iraq as the liberators ended up as the tormentors of those people. The irony that these abuses were taking place in Abu Ghraib, the most notorious prison during Saddam’s regime, a facility that should have been razed to the ground and in its place built a shrine or memorial to its many victims. These abuses were taking place in that most notorious jail.

Also the irony, now that the issue or the excuse of weapons of mass destruction no longer holds, we have a president who is telling the rest of the world, wrapped himself with a moral cloak, telling the world that we came to Iraq to liberate the Iraqis, to build a new Iraq with freedom, human rights will flourish.

If you wanted to write a script or a scenario as to how you undermine the credibility of the United States in the Middle East today, you couldn’t have done a better job. I thought last month with the incredible violence in Iraq, with President Bush’s embrace of Ariel Sharon that America’s credibility in the nation reached it’s nadir. I think I’m mistaken, I think now. I think one could argue if you have any illusions about winning hearts and mind in Iraq and the Arab world for that matter, you should forget that. I think what happens –.

RAY SUAREZ: Forget it — you mean like game over?

HISHAM MELHEM: Yeah, I think so. I think this is qualitatively a severe setback for America and either many allies in the Middle East and Iraqi allies. People wonder how come there was no strong explicit condemnation from Jerry Bremer or from the president of the United States. The president said he felt disgusted and I believe him that he felt, that he didn’t like it one bit. But that’s not strong enough.

I mean, I would have expected a strong denunciation of what happened, this is not what America stands for, this is not why we came to Iraq, those people will be punished, those who are responsible for them will be punished and there will be Iraqi judges watching the procedures. None of this. None of this. How come the president did not take to the air, how come Bremer did not take to the air, and say these things to the Iraqis first and foremost. Today the Iraqis for the first time saw it an their own media, they saw it on Arabia, by the way, after CBS and al-Jazeera and others. Sometimes I wonder the people in Washington have no clue as to what their policies are doing in the Arab and Muslim world.

RAY SUAREZ: Sy Hersh, is the reaction that Hisham Melhem looking for eventually going to come, is it a question of machinery slowly grinding into place and things rolling out in the way that they do eventually?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Is that a serious question?


SEYMOUR HERSH: No. I mean, this is such a deep problem. One of the things the major general said in his report is you have a systemic problem. And I would venture to say, based, what his report is saying is that essentially, folks, what you saw was unusual in that it was photographed, but what’s going on, that’s what’s going on, that’s what’s happening in our prisons. It started, he also makes note of this, that the problems began in Afghanistan, this kind of abuse, and so what you’re seeing is the result of a decision made somewhere up high up in the line that we’re going to turn our prisons essentially into all of them in the Guantanamos, they’re all going to become factories for eliciting intelligence, and one of the things that has been made here earlier that Mr. Solis said, there’s no…these are detainees, these are civilians.

The other thing that this major general said and it’s quite brilliant, it’s to the credit of the U.S. Army that we have people like that with that kind of intelligence and wisdom to write as toughly as he did, there’s no means of differentiating between the people, the population, over 60 percent of the people in the prison were just swept up in random road side checks, there was no differentiation, if you were a male and you were assumed to be the worst, there was no rationale to the process.

So therefore, and I’m again relying on Taguba, what you had was an institutionalized system where the military’s needs and requirements drove the process, and don’t forget, a major component of the intelligence process were civilian contract employees who had been hired by the American government, who are not responsible under the uniform code of military justice since they’re not members of the military, and they can’t be reached by any American laws since they’re not in America. So they’re the, you know, if you want to whack they’re the whackers.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me go then to Professor Solis. Bring in those civilian contractors that are in the prison along with different units that have different specialties. Does this dilute responsibility and does it make it legally a much more complicated situation?

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS (Ret.): It does dilute responsibility and it muddies the picture but it doesn’t change the basic issues. Anyone who was aware of that misconduct, who condoned that misconduct or anyone who should have known of that misconduct is equally responsible for what happened as if they had been there and done it themselves. When you have different organizations giving different directions, there is of course the possibility that there would be confusion among the lower ranks. But no confusion should allow for the kind of conduct that we see in those photographs. It doesn’t matter how unschooled you are, it doesn’t take a college graduate to know that even if these directions came from a civilian contractor or a military intelligence officer, they should not be carried out.

RAY SUAREZ: But the stories that the enlisted men involved in these activities are telling point fingers at the military intelligence units that were in the prison, saying that they weren’t doing this on their own, they were told to give people a rough night, make sure they didn’t sleep. They were being reinforced by intelligence officers, in their stories, who say, ‘Now they’re really starting to break and tell us good stuff. Stick with it.’

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS (Ret.): Indeed. That is not however negate the culpability of the soldiers, it merely points the additional finger of culpability at others who gave them the direction. Soldiers should not have obeyed illegal orders; the illegal orders should not have been given.

RAY SUAREZ: Sy Hersh, go ahead.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Mr. Solis, I just wanted to say as an ex-marine, you know, in loco parentis, one of the things every marine officer is told, those children fighting for you are your children, and you are responsible for them. You have a bunch of kids from rural Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia in a reserve unit and I don’t mean to demean them, they’re just good kids, they’re not bad kids, of course they’re good kids, and you have all these officers standing around watching this go on as they take pictures and mug.

Clearly there was a total failure of anybody to protect the children that they we bring into the armed services, that’s what’s enrage going it. And to have all the generals say they’re a bunch of bad seeds — there was no anywhere in the chain of command – even the general on TV all day saying it wasn’t me, I didn’t know — nobody is standing up and saying what fact that we didn’t protect the kids we brought in to fight for us. That’s really very offensive. And you actually have a chairman of the joint chiefs joining in this same sort of, ‘Me, I didn’t read it, what do I know?’

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS (Ret.): Well, I think that’s a point. But I’m not as willing as you are, Mr. Hersh, to allow the kids as you put it to escape responsibilities. There was after all an EPW specialized unit, that is a unit that was supposed to be particularly trained in the treatment of enemy prisoners of war. Obviously their training was deficient.

SEYMOUR HERSH: They were not an EPW unit, they were not specialized, they were basically traffic cops, no, sir, none of them had any training in handling enemy prisoners of war – EPWs.

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS (Ret.): I don’t doubt they had no training in doing so, but their unit designation, that is the 800th military police brigade, was specified as an EPW unit.

SEYMOUR HERSH: One of the things the major general found — there was absolutely no training given to anyone, common sense will tell you they’re responsibility for what they did and they deserve some punishment. But it’s the notion that the high command, the president, the chairman of the joint chiefs, General Kimmitt in Iraq put out to the American people, ‘bad seed, these are bad kids’, that’s what I find offensive.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Solis, quick response?

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS (Ret.): I don’t mean to say that the higher command of authority is without blame by any means, but I think we have to go not only to the higher command, we also have to look at those who actually perpetrated the offenses.

RAY SUAREZ: If there is a serious house cleaning, Hisham, will that allay some of the problems in the Arab world?

HISHAM MELHEM: Probably not, really, because what you have is really a skeptical public opinion in the rest of the world actually because of the conduct of the war, the way the war was prosecuted. And it’s going to take a great deal of effort on the part of the United States, a great deal of transparency and radical changes in the course that the United States has been pursuing in Iraq, to allay the concerns of the Iraqis and the Arabs and the rest of the people in the region.

I really don’t see it coming, short of a radical change on the part of the policy makers, getting the United Nations, those people who did these horrendous things get their comeuppance, I mean, anything sort of a serious change in course is not going to do anything.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you all.