National Security Network

The Tragic Legacy of Abu Ghraib

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Report 24 April 2009

Terrorism & National Security Terrorism & National Security Abu Ghraib Bush administration Guantanamo Bay Obama Administration Torture


“One basic difference between democracies and dictatorships is that free countries confront such abuses openly and directly.” – President George W. Bush, May 10, 2004

"I've said to the people that we don't torture, and we don't." – President George W. Bush, September 6th, 2006

“The commander in chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture.” – Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who led the investigation of Abu Ghraib, June 2008

“Those tough policies that we had… they did work.” –Vice President Richard Cheney, April 20, 2009

Five years ago, Dan Rather of CBS News reported systemic abuse of prisoners under U.S. control at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The shocking photos not only brought shame to the United States but served as a tremendous recruiting tool for Al Qaeda and Iraqi insurgents. Violence against American troops in Iraq surged after the revelation and helped fuel the insurgency, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Americans in Iraq. No one of any prominence even attempted to argue that the abuses at Abu Ghraib made us safer. At the time, the Bush administration claimed that the abuse at Abu Ghraib was an isolated incident perpetrated by a few bad apples. But investigations by the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Washington Post, among others, have established conclusively that the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib was an integrated part of the Bush administration’s eagerness to use interrogation techniques that crossed the line into torture.  Practices that were condemned at Abu Ghraib had been approved by Secretary Rumsfeld in 2002 and used at Guantanamo Bay prior to the revelations in Iraq.

 When their use in Iraq was revealed, Americans across the political spectrum rejected them as “terrible” and “horrifying.” But the response to documentation of the same techniques – nudity, stress positions, animals – in the “torture memos” released earlier this month has been far different.  The same prominent conservatives and former Bush administration officials who condemned the Abu Ghraib abuses now defend the same techniques as “a source of pride.”  This shift represents a dismaying betrayal of American values and indifference to the toll the torture scandals has taken in lives of American servicemen and women.

The interrogation techniques used at Abu Ghraib hurt American prestige and interests, even cost American lives.  A recently declassified Senate Armed Services Committee report finds that “Foreign reaction to the Abu Ghraib scandal and Guantanamo Bay has had a terrible impact on America’s international image, particularly in the Muslim World.”  Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora explains that these practices lead directly to American’s deaths: “Serving U.S. flag-rank officers... maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq – as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat – are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.”  A similar observation was made by Matthew Alexander, an Air Force Major and detainee interrogator, who told Harper’s Magazine, “I listened time and time again to foreign fighters, and Sunni Iraqis, state that the number one reason they had decided to pick up arms and join Al Qaeda was the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the authorized torture and abuse at Guantanamo Bay. My team of interrogators knew that we would become Al Qaeda's best recruiters if we resorted to torture... The number-one reason foreign fighters gave for coming to Iraq to fight is the torture and abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. The majority of suicide bombings are carried out by foreign fighters who volunteered and came to Iraq with this motivation. Consequently it is clear that at least hundreds but more likely thousands of American lives (not to count Iraqi civilian deaths) are linked directly to the policy decision to introduce the torture and abuse of prisoners as accepted tactics.” [Senate Armed Services Committee, 12/08. Alberto Mora 6/17/08. Harper’s Magazine, 12/18/08]

The abuses at Abu Ghraib were the result of policy decisions at the top – the same policies detailed in the OLC memos and used at Guantanamo and elsewhere – and not just a few bad apples in Iraq.  A recently-declassified Senate Armed Services Committee report finds that the abuses at Abu Ghraib cannot be separated from the policies the Bush Administration put in place at Guantanamo and elsewhere.  The committee’s report says that “The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of ‘a few bad apples’ acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.”  The report draws a specific link between abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay: “The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at GTMO. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody.”  Additionally, “Major General Fay said that removal of clothing, while not included in CJTF-7’s SOP, was ‘imported’ to Abu Ghraib, could be ‘traced through Afghanistan and GTMO,’ and contributed to an environment at Abu Ghraib that appeared ‘to condone depravity and degradation rather than humane treatment of detainees.’ Major General Fay said that the policy approved by the Secretary of Defense on December 2, 2002 contributed to the use of aggressive interrogation techniques at Abu Ghraib in late 2003.” Washington Post reported on the link between Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay in 2005: “Interrogators at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, forced a stubborn detainee to wear women's underwear on his head, confronted him with snarling military working dogs and attached a leash to his chains, according to a newly released military investigation that shows the tactics were employed there months before military police used them on detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.” [Senate Armed Services Committee, 11/20/08.  Washington Post, 7/14/05]

In 2004, conservatives condemned the practice of torture at Abu Ghraib – now, after the release of the torture memos, they defend it.  After the revelations of torture and abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, conservatives went on the attack, condemning the behavior and those involved.  Days after the abuses were made public, Bill Kristol wrote: “It's terrible and it's made life difficult for awhile.  But if it becomes clear that this is the exception and [the troops involved] are held accountable, it could end up being an impressive demonstration to countries where torture is routine.”  But, as the recently released torture memos make clear, the practice was far from the exception.  Now, instead of decrying the practice wholesale, Kristol reversed himself, suggesting that torture was useful for combating terrorism: “And it would be an amazing tribute to the preceding administration's efforts in the war on terror--efforts that Democrats have been saying for years were making us less safe. Apparently, the old policies worked.”  Conservative commentator and editor of the National Review, Rich Lowry mimicked Kristol’s hypocrisy, condemning torture at Abu Ghraib in 2004, but then equivocating after the release of the torture memos in 2009.  In 2004, Lowry wrote: “[I]n Abu Ghraib and its aftermath we see some of the seamy undercurrents of America magnified in a horrifying fashion—in particular, the celebration of cruelty, the ubiquity of pornography, and a cult of victimhood...”  This week, Lowry took a different stance, writing about the OLC memos and the abuse legitimized by them, “Rightly considered, the memos should be a source of pride,” and later saying that “[i]f any of these methods was used against domestic criminal suspects, it would shock the conscience. They were instead deployed against terrorists with information about their network and perhaps ongoing plots.”  As this commentary demonstrates, conservatives have moved from condemning torture, or denying its pervasiveness within the Bush administration, to essentially defending the practice.  [Bill Kristol, 5/07/04. Bill Kristol, 4/17/09. Rich Lowry, 5/11/04. Rich Lowry, 4/21/09]

What We’re Reading

Following a FOIA lawsuit filed by the ACLU, the Obama administration will release photographs of alleged abuse in U.S. prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Washington Post looks at the decision-making behind the release of the torture memos.

Problems have arisen in efforts to move a large group of Guantanamo Bay detainees to Yemen, where Obama administration officials are skeptical of rehabilitation and security efforts.

Ford Motors reported a smaller-than-expected $1.4 billion loss for the first three months of this year.

Two days of bombings in Iraq have killed more than 135.

Taliban militants leave the Buner district in northwest Pakistan the day after Pakistani politicians and American officials “question the government’s willingness to deal with insurgents.”

Following the Obama administration’s loosened restrictions on Cuba, many Cuban-Americans debate what happens next.

Head of the United Nations nuclear agency Mohamed El Baradei announced that North Korea is a “fully fledged nuclear power.” Meanwhile, North Korea will try American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee for allegedly entering the country illegally and committing “hostile acts.”

After government riots, Thailand Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva lifts the state of emergency.

International donors in Brussels pledge more than $250 million to Somalia to help with “law enforcement, humanitarian aid and possibly a coast guard,” as Kenya emerges as a possible location for a piracy criminal court.

The British recession deepens in the first three months of the year.

The Sri Lankan army said there will be “no more breaks in fighting against the Tamil Tigers in the north of the country, as it closes in on the rebels.”

Work will soon begin in Rome on a new nuclear weapons treaty between the U.S. and Russia.

After receiving partial results from South Africa’s general election, the African National Congress is taking a strong lead.

China revealed that it had “built up its gold reserves by three quarters since 2003.”

US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice will serve as the keynote speaker for an international summit on malaria, to take place on the eve of World Malaria Day, committing the US to becoming “a global leader in ending deaths from malaria by 2015.”

Civil liberties organizations are calling for the Obama administration to change screening at border posts, limiting questions about Americans' political and religious practices.


Commentary of the Day

The NY Times explains why hysteria over Obama’s handshake is unwarranted and how his engagement is helping US policy in Latin America.

Phillip Zelikow outlines the drawbacks of using torture as an interrogation method.

Paul Krugman give his take on why the torture debate is about much more than national security policy.

The Washington Post discussed the trade offs of prosecuting crimes versus maintaining a tradition of not recriminating previous presidential administration’s policies.

The Financial Times explains why the memos justifying torture gave a victory to terrorists and how President Obama ought to fix the situation.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim explains why the US should engage with the UN more in order to prevent dictatorships from distorting the human rights apparatuses.

William McGurn discusses detainee policy in Bagram.

Gabriel Schoenfeld and Andrew Grotto discuss different strategies to promote nonproliferation.