In mid-August, a FRONTLINE documentary crew made the perilous journey to the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Entering the 280-acre compound in the middle of the night, escorted by helicopters and a convoy of armed Humvees, the crew was following 50 detainees fresh from the battlefield. As they were ordered to kneel in formation on the concrete floor, one detainee nervously asked the FRONTLINE cameraman, "Is this Abu Ghraib?" The answer brought a shudder.
Abu Ghraib has always been a terrifying place to Iraqis -- Saddam Hussein used it as his primary torture chamber -- but in 2004, when graphic photographs of American soldiers abusing prisoners surfaced, Abu Ghraib took on deeper meaning.
"The details of what happened in those cellblocks between the American soldiers and Iraqi detainees are well known," says producer/director Michael Kirk, "but how and why it happened is what took us into the heart of Abu Ghraib that night."
In "The Torture Question", FRONTLINE traces the history of how decisions made in Washington in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 -- including an internal administration battle over the Geneva Conventions -- led to a robust interrogation policy that laid the groundwork for prisoner abuse in Afghanistan; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and Iraq.
The political firestorm ignited by the Abu Ghraib photos and the shocking revelations that followed resulted in 12 Department of Defense investigations. One of them, a commission of ex-defense secretaries, found that there were lapses in oversight in the Pentagon, but that the practices had not been condoned. So far there have been arrests and convictions of some low-level soldiers and reprimands for the colonel in charge of Abu Ghraib, Thomas Pappas, as well as for Army Reserve Gen. Janis Karpinski.
"They can do whatever they want; they could make it appear any way they want. I will not be silenced," Karpinski tells FRONTLINE. "I will continue to ask how they can continue to blame seven rogue soldiers on the nightshift when there is a preponderance of information right now, hard information from a variety of sources, that says otherwise."
"The Torture Question" traces the aggressive development of the administration's interrogation policy in the aftermath of 9/11, where the push for "actionable intelligence" led to authorization for interrogators to strip detainees, degrade prisoners with sexual humiliation techniques and use dogs for intimidation.
Former White House and Justice Department legal advisers who were involved in drafting many of the administration's boldest proposals agreed to talk to FRONTLINE. "There was a powerful set of shared assumptions we had in the wake of 9/11, and one of the most powerful was the assumption that we would never be forgiven if we failed to do something that was within the power of our government lawfully to protect the public from a further attack," says Associate White House Counsel Bradford Berenson.
The legal framework developed by administration lawyers like Berenson, Alberto Gonzales and John Yoo provided the impetus for unprecedented rules for interrogating detainees, rules authorized by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- rules officials insist never condoned torture.
FRONTLINE follows the implementation of the Rumsfeld rules from the battlefields of Afghanistan to the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, where eventually the FBI began to document a trail of abuses by interrogators.
In one e-mail, an agent reports on conditions in an interrogation room: "[T]he A/C had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room probably well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out throughout the night."
In this report, American soldiers give first-hand accounts of their involvement in the harsh treatment of prisoners. Moreover, one former Army interrogator and member of a special intelligence team insists that the use of torture was happening all over Iraq. Other military sources, some of whom had to be disguised, confirm that prisoner abuse is a more widespread problem than previously reported.
"The Torture Question" provides the context for understanding how the rules were confused, how lines of authority were blurred, and what happens when the authorization of "coercive interrogation" makes it way into the battle zone.