Abu Ghraib

Abu Ghraib prison was originally built in the 1960s by Western contractors but achieved notoriety during Saddam Hussein’s rule as a repository for up to fifteen thousand of his political enemies. More recently, it has become infamous as the site of torture of Iraqi detainees at the hands of American soldiers.

Abu Ghraib came into American possession following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Selected by Ambassador Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority that governed the country, the prison was originally to be used as a temporary facility for criminal detainees until the new Iraqi government could establish a permanent prison at another site. Rather than limiting the number of prisoners, Abu Ghraib was also designated as a detention facility for high-value security detainees. These were individuals suspected of playing a role in the growing insurgency in Iraq, who were prime targets for interrogation. Of the seventeen detention facilities in Iraq in October 2003 Abu Ghraib was the largest, holding seven thousand prisoners with a guard force of approximately ninety Americans.

The release of the infamous photographs of prisoner abuse of Iraqi detainees by U.S. soldiers in April 2004 revealed for the first time to the world that something had gone badly wrong at Abu Ghraib. From the commencement of hostilities in Afghanistan and Iraq through 2004, the United States had apprehended fifty thousand people. Three hundred allegations of abuse resulted, leading to the determination that, in sixty-six cases, prisoners under U.S. control were abused. Fifty-five of those were later found to have occurred in Iraq. The seriousness of the allegations and the horrifying scenes depicted in the pictures prompted numerous investigations. The U.S. Army dispatched Maj Gen. Antonio Taguba to report on abuse at Abu Ghraib; the Pentagon later appointed an ‘‘independent panel’’ to review Department of Defense detention operations and provide recommendations. These, along with reports by organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (‘‘the Red Cross’’) confirmed that multiple violations of international humanitarian law and the Uniform Code of Military Justice had occurred. The Taguba report cited instances of beating, terrorizing, and sodomizing detainees committed by military intelligence units and the 372nd Military Police Company.

Revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib did lasting damage to American credibility and cast doubt on the United States’ respect for international law and human rights. The U.S. military responded by calling court martials for soldiers directly implicated in the abuse. However, as the Independent Panel Report makes clear, the sadistic tendencies of half-a-dozen enlisted soldiers are not alone to be blamed. Although the vast majority of detentions and prisoner interviews took place within the bounds of the law, the report points to larger systemic problems at the prison that also contributed to creating the conditions wherein such abuse was allowed to take place.

As the size and ferocity of the Iraqi insurgency grew, the inadequacies of American postwar planning became increasingly evident. Command and control structures broke down, and training of military police and interrogators proved insufficient in the face of a mounting prisoner population. A lack of understanding as to which interrogation procedures were acceptable was the result. Techniques deemed acceptable for Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners, who were found not to be entitled to protections guaranteed under the Geneva Convention of 1949, were in some cases used when questioning Iraqi detainees, who were entitled to those protections. Moreover, the presence of military intelligence operatives and the CIA, which ostensibly operated independently and had reportedly hidden ‘‘ghost detainees’’ during Red Cross inspections, created further confusion.

Along with an analysis of which specific decisions gave rise to conditions of lawlessness at Abu Ghraib prison, the legal community also debated the extent to which Bush administration policies with respect to domestic laws and international treaties forbidding torture played a role. Recognizing that the United States was now in a struggle against nonstate actors— terrorists who refused to abide by the laws of war— Bush administration lawyers set about providing a basis for expansive executive power in prosecuting what the President termed the Global War on Terror, or ‘‘GWOT.’’ The lack of human intelligence on terrorist organizations gave rise to a need to extract information through interrogation. Indeed, this need proved all the more pressing at Abu Ghraib, considering that existing interrogation techniques had yielded little actionable intelligence regarding the insurgency.

A legal memorandum from Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee on August 1, 2002, for example, advised Counsel to the President Alberto Gonzales that physical pain amounting to torture must be ‘‘equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death.’’ These and other memoranda sought to expand the range of acceptable interrogation techniques and to immunize those implementing interrogation procedures from the Convention on Torture and from U.S. law.

ANDREW FINKELMAN

References and Further Reading

  • Greenberg, Karen, and Joshua Dratel, eds. The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 
  • Independent Panel to Review DoD Detention Operations (James Schlesinger, Chairman). Final Report of the Independent Panel to Review DoD Detention Operations. Buffalo, NY: William Hein, 2005.

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