Politics & Policy

Post-Saddam Crimes At Abu Ghraib

Punish and learn.

Saddam’s regime made the Abu Ghraib prison complex a place where torture and murder were commonplace. When the Iraqi regime fell, so did most of Abu Ghraib. Now partly rebuilt, it is the prison where hundreds of Iraqi detainees, foreign insurgents, and prisoners of war are kept under the custody of one battalion of the Army’s 800th Military Police Brigade. Last year, some military police and intelligence personnel abused a number of prisoners, in violation of the Geneva Conventions and common decency. The report of an army investigation documents both the crimes and lapses in the intelligence system that is supposed to capture and pass along information obtained in interrogations.

The Third Geneva Convention of 1949 states, in part, that, “Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated. Any unlawful act or omission by the Detaining Power causing death or seriously endangering the health of a prisoner of war in its custody is prohibited, and will be regarded as a serious breach of the present Convention…prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.” Dated February 26, 2004, the 50-odd-page investigation report, which I have obtained, states that a pattern of prisoner abuse existed for several months. The details are sickening.

Among the abuses found by the Army investigators are those the press has splashed all over the world. Soldiers are alleged to have engaged in, “punching, slapping, and kicking detainees…forcibly arranging detainees in various sexually explicit positions for photographing…forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate themselves while being photographed and videotaped…[and] placing a dog chain or strap around a naked detainee’s neck and having a female soldier pose for a picture….” The investigators, “…reviewed numerous photos and videos of actual detainee abuse taken by detention facility personnel….” The handful of soldiers who took those videos must have wanted photographic proof of how tough they were on their captives. Instead, they produced evidence that should land them in Leavenworth for decades to come. There, they will have plenty of time to think about what they did.

The investigating officer, Major General Antonio Taguba, found that, “…between October and December 2003, numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees…by several members of the military police guard force.” As a result of the investigation, the commanding general of the prison, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, has been suspended from duty. The report recommends that she be relieved of command for cause. Several suspects are named in the report, including one civilian translator who works for Titan Corporation. The Army Criminal Investigation Division is investigating further, and has already recommended courts martial against some of the perpetrators. Several have confessed, and others have asserted their Fifth Amendment rights. At this writing, six soldiers have been charged with crimes and will be court martialed.

We have to handle this right. The courts martial should be open to any media that want to attend–even al-Jazeera–and the perpetrators’ names dragged through the mud. Those who are guilty should be imprisoned for as long as the law allows. No plea bargains, no deals–just the max. As a result of their actions, these few have dishonored their country and every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine who now serve. And they have created a firestorm of anger at the American presence in Iraq that reaches all through that country and the whole region. The damage they have done will reverberate throughout the process of forming the new Iraqi government. By trying the perps publicly and quickly, and imposing the harshest sentences possible, we can begin to repair the damage.

Karpinski is defending herself by passing the blame to others. She told the New York Times that, “…she knew nothing about the abuse until weeks after it occurred and that she was “sickened” by the pictures. She said the prison cellblock where the abuse occurred was under the tight control of Army military intelligence officers who may have encouraged the abuse.” Though Karpinski is clearly culpable, she shouldn’t shoulder all the blame. Others clearly should–and will–share it.

Taguba’s report recommends that Col. Tom Pappas, the military intelligence chief at Abu Graib, receive a General Officer’s Memorandum of Reprimand, and be investigated for possible criminal prosecution. Taguba’s report strongly recommends that Pappas, and his subordinate, Lt. Col. Steve Jordan, be subjected to disciplinary action. Two civilians working with them–Steven Stephanowicz and John Israel, both employees of the CACI firm–are also recommended for possible prosecution.

As serious as the prisoner abuse was, we must remember that these crimes were the acts of a few, and have no relationship to the conduct of the tens of thousands of Americans who have fought in this war. There will be those who–like John Kerry 30 years ago–say that war crimes by Americans are the norm, not the exception. It was false then, and it is just as false now. Let the Noam Chomskys of the world say whatever echoes in their own empty heads: The record of the American soldier in every war beginning with the Revolution has been one of defending humanity while defending freedom.

Lost in the media frenzy over the abuses is one critical conclusion of the Army investigation: The Taguba report reveals a systemic problem with military intelligence. Solving that will, in the long run, be more important to winning the war than dealing with the few dirt bags who beat the prisoners.

The Taguba report quotes an earlier Army investigation into the problems at Abu Ghraib, which was not about the abuse of prisoners. The earlier investigation, by Major General Geoffrey Miller, briefly assessed the effectiveness of the military intelligence unit, Coalition Joint Task Force 7, in obtaining useful information from the detainees. Miller’s report found that, “…CJTF-7 did not have authorities and procedures in place to affect (sic) a unified strategy to detain, interrogate, and report information from detainees/internees in Iraq.” The fact that there was not such a strategy from the beginning proves only one thing: The commanders responsible for creating CJTF-7 didn’t do their job. Why bother to interrogate prisoners at all if we don’t have a mechanism in place to gather, evaluate, integrate, and make best use of what they tell us? Time after time after time, our intelligence apparatus fails us. Whether it’s the CIA or the military intelligence people interrogating prisoners in Iraq, they all seem to have one thing in common: The inability to fuse the intelligence we get from many sources, and use the information to help us both defend our nation and take the fight to the enemy.

If, as Taguba says, the mechanism to do that was not in place in Abu Ghraib, how can we be sure it is in Guantanamo Bay, in Afghanistan, or anywhere else terrorists and prisoners of war are held? Right now, we can’t.

Jed Babbin, an NRO contributor, is author of the forthcoming book, Inside the Asylum: Why the U.N. and Old Europe are Worse than You Think.

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