A Few Bad Apples?

At the conclusion of the independent investigation into prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger declared: "We believe that there is institutional and personal responsibility right up the chain of command as far as Washington is concerned." Yet some people still cling to the rationalization that the scandal was the result of "a few bad apples" -- and that it didn't reflect official policy or reflect on the honor of the American military.

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who was in command at the time of Abu Ghraib, is among those who subscribe to the "bad apples" theory. And in his autobiography, he makes a point of distancing the influence of interrogation policy. He writes on pages 276-278:

Unfortunately, some scandalous abuses occurred at Abu Ghraib that would forever obscure our hard-fought efforts to fix the intel and detention systems in Iraq. These events happened below the radar while experts in the Army were assessing Abu Ghraib. Unfortunately, we would not know about the extent of the abuses for another couple of months -- and only then, because one brave MP had the courage to bring them forward.

Over the course of two nights, October 18 and 19, 2003, four enlisted military policemen of the 372nd MP Company and three intel specialists of the 325th MI Battalion pulled about a dozen Iraqi prisoners out of their cells at Abu Ghraib and abused them. The event was spurred by a small prison riot in which a few prisoners got into a scuffle with their guards. One of the prisoners, who had a pistol smuggled in by an Iraqi guard, tried to shoot SSG Ivan Frederick, an MP. Frederick and Specialist (SPC) Charles Graner (also an MP) then decided to retaliate. They, along with the other MPs and MI specialists, ordered the detainees to strip naked, tied them up in cells, piled them into pyramids, humiliated them sexually, and threatened them with unmuzzled guard dogs. As several of the offenders later admitted, they were "playing a game," "screwing around," and otherwise just doing it "for the fun of it." There were no interrogations involved during this "party." In fact, none of those involved were ever interrogated. Unquestionably, the abuses constituted criminal behavior by soldiers in my chain of command, and clearly violated the Geneva Conventions and CJTF-7 policies prohibiting such behavior.

It is important to note that the nation's experts in detention and interrogation operations -- the GTMO Tiger Teams and MG Ryder's team [from the Army MP school] -- were conducting their assessments at Abu Ghraib when these abuses occurred. However, there is no evidence to suggest that they were involved in any way. As a matter of fact, the Tiger Teams were not working with the MPs at all, but only with the MI interrogators. In addition, the fact that the abuses were not interrogation-related (except for the "Ice Man" incident) precludes them from having had any direct participation.

However, it is entirely possible -- and even likely -- that members of the Tiger Teams discussed with MPs and interrogators some of the harsher GTMO interrogation techniques that might have indirectly influenced the abuses. Furthermore, Special Forces did, at times, conduct interrogations across the country with the support of CJTF-7 interrogators, whom we provided at their request. Looking back, I have little doubt that the techniques employed by Special Forces influenced the CJTF-7 interrogators. At one point, I had received at least one credible allegation of abuse at the hands of a Special Forces unit. But because we did not have the authority to investigate the incident, we sent it to CENTCOM for referral to Special Operations Command, in accordance with the chain of command. I never received word of an outcome in that particular case.

Although no one in the highest levels of military leadership in Iraq (Karpinski, Fast or I) knew of the abuses at Abu Ghraib when they occurred, we all became aware when they were reported to the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) in mid-January 2004. Within 24 hours, the entire echelon of American senior leadership was made aware of the situation, all the way up to the Secretary of Defense. And three months later, in April 2004, the Abu Ghraib abuses would explode across the world, driven by an international media that fed on the fact that the young people who had perpetrated the abuses were brazen enough to have taken pictures -- lots of pictures.

Later, in February 2004, Sanchez met with Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba to discuss his investigation into Abu Ghraib. It was then that Sanchez says he learned the abuses involved more than just a few soldiers acting out their aggressions against detainees:

It was around this time that I first saw the abuse photographs contained on the CD, and they made me sick. I just couldn't understand how our young soldiers could have done such things to the prisoners. Although Taguba's investigation was concerned only with the military police aspect of the incident, one of the first things he told me was that some military intelligence personnel were clearly involved in the abuses. In fact, he found that, contrary to MG Ryder's previous effort, MI interrogators had requested the MP guards set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogations. Because of regulations governing the conduct of military intelligence personnel, I immediately requested a new and separate investigation from CENTCOM. The Army subsequently assigned MG George Fay to lead the effort.

Overall, the substance of the Taguba report was quite damning. "Numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees at Abu Ghraib prison," he wrote. In listing the specific abuses that were perpetrated by the MPs, he basically confirmed everything I had already been told, but the details seemed much more horrific in some cases -- especially when it involved beatings, use of unmuzzled dogs, and sexually deviant behavior. I was extremely disappointed that American soldiers had displayed such a lack of discipline and cmopletely disregarded the dignity of other human beings.

Even as the scope of the Abu Ghraib disaster became apparent, after the 60 Minutes II broadcast and subsequent strategic reverberations, Sanchez continued to cling to his "bad apples" theory of what went wrong. On page 376, he describes a meeting with Ezzedine Salim, president of the Iraqi Governing Council, and quotes him at length: "But why isn't the American press talking about the tortures of Saddam Hussein and his regime? These abuses took place at Abu Ghraib prison, the site of Saddam's worst crimes. In this case, the prisoners were just being humiliated. It is not significant. It does not compare to what happened to us. Why don't you get on to somthing important? When will you show the world the evidence of Saddam's tortures? This is what you should be doing."

Later, on page 384, Sanchez recalls that he asked his staff to see how the Abu Ghraib scandal might be impacting the mission. Their conclusion, which Sanchez reproduces: "there were no noticeable adverse reactions from Iraqi citizens relating to Abu Ghraib."

Uh huh. They must have brewed some strong Kool-Aid in your headquarters in Baghdad, General.

By Phillip Carter |  May 24, 2008; 8:00 AM ET  | Category:  Wiser in Battle
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

"Uh huh. They must have brewed some strong Kool-Aid in your headquarters in Baghdad, General."

It's self-evident the Abu Ghraib scandal has had damaging impact. But I can understand that the people - from GEN Sanchez to his MP and MI troops - who were held accountable by both their chain of command and the Iraqi people for stopping far far worse daily happenings in Iraq than the Abu Ghraib scandal may hold a different perspective on the situation.

Posted by: Eric Chen | May 24, 2008 11:10 AM

Better than Sadaam? We all do recall that we snapped Sadaams head off with a piece of looped leather for his atrocities, right? I wonder when "not as bad as Sadaam" became a torturers excuse?
Thanks for the research Phil, I wouldn't have thought Sanchez was going to try to honestly asses his mistakes or the damage they caused in what he hopes is going to become the official account of our early Iraqi adventure. It's another case of the "mistakes were made, just not by me" argument.

Posted by: dijetlo | May 27, 2008 8:05 AM

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