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American Exceptionalism at Its Worst |  The horrors of American torture at Abu Ghraib are revealed. By Eric Stover, Victor Peskin, and Alexa Koenig.

The recently published book Hiding in Plain Sight: The Pursuit of War Criminals from Nuremberg to the War on Terror (University of California Press) tells the story of efforts to capture the world's most wanted fugitives—mass murderers like Adolf Eichmann, Ratko Mladic, Osama bin Laden, and the elusive Joseph Kony. The story weaves through history and reccurring challenges for international justice, including judicial and political obstruction, backroom deal-making, and broken laws. This excerpt from Hiding in Plain Sight shares a tale of American exceptionalism: How the United States—a proponent of international justice in the post-World War II period—stepped outside the rule of law following 9/11, to use torture, black sites, and extreme detention during the War on Terror.
—Andrea Lampros, Communications Manager, Human Rights Center, UC Berkeley School of Law

House of Horrors

Around the time that Saddam Hussein was being pulled from his "spider hole" in Tikrit, a twenty-four-year-old Army Reservist by the name of Joe Darby was in his office at a sprawling complex some twenty miles west of Baghdad. The day before, a buddy, Corporal Charles Graner, also a member of the 372nd Military Police Company, had given him a CD holding hundreds of images and video clips that he and other guards had taken of their colleagues and the surrounding countryside. Scrolling through the CD, Darby laughed when he came across a picture of a pyramid of naked men. Then he arrived at a photograph of a young woman, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, giving a thumbs-up sign and pointing at the genitals of a young Iraqi detainee, who was naked except for a green plastic bag over his eyes. And then there were others: a video of a uniformed American soldier sodomizing a female detainee; an image of a corpse, its face battered and bruised, bundled in a cocoon of ice.

The more Darby looked, the more horrified he became. "It didn't sit right with me," he recalled. "I know, in the heat of the moment, in a war, things happen. You do things you regret . . . but this crossed the line to me.

By that time, Darby had served as a military policeman at Abu Ghraib for several months. Built by British contractors in the 1960s, the 280-acre complex of cell blocks and guard towers first served as an insane asylum for severely disturbed inmates in the pre-Thorazine era. After Saddam took over the prison, the Western media dubbed it Saddam's Torture Central, because it was where he arranged for the torture and murder of dissidents in twice-weekly public executions overseen by his son, Uday. When ropes failed to kill the prisoners, Uday would have them gassed. Uday was especially fond of the women's prison: He would select a female prisoner to be brought into his office at Iraq's Olympics headquarters, rape her, then order her shot or hung from a nearby tree. "If Iraq under Saddam Hussein was hell," one American commander recalled, "then Abu Ghraib was the furnace. . . . Of all the ghosts in Baghdad, none wailed louder than those at Abu Ghraib."

When Saddam's regime collapsed, the prisoners at Abu Ghraib had looted whatever could be stolen—doors, wiring, iron bars, plumbing, light fixtures. Bob Bauer, a former CIA chief, visited the prison two days after it closed. "It was the most awful sight I've ever seen," he told CBS's 60 Minutes. "If there's . . . a reason to get rid of Saddam Hussein, it's because of Abu Ghraib. There were bodies that were eaten by dogs, torture. You know, electrodes coming out of the walls. It was an awful place."

Senior U.K. officials recommended that the prison be demolished. However, after touring the facility, Lieutenant Paul Bremer III, the chief American administrator in Iraq—desperate for somewhere to hold the military's rapidly growing population of criminals, suspected insurgents, and other detainees—instead decided to rebuild it as quickly as possible. In late June, Janis Karpinski, an officer in the Army Reserve, was placed in charge of eight battalions of U.S. soldiers and more than twenty jails throughout Iraq, including Abu Ghraib. Karpinski was the first female general ever assigned to command troops in a war zone and had no previous experience running a prison system. To make matters worse, her boss, General Ricardo Sanchez, wasn't pleased that a woman had been assigned to be the senior military officer in his theater. Recalled Karpinski: "The message I got was: Over my dead body is this female going to be in charge of all the police operations in this country."

In her autobiography, One Woman's Army, Karpinski describes how Abu Ghraib became the dumping ground for suspected insurgents during the first six months of the war: "The rule around Iraq seemed to be, if in doubt, send 'em out to Abu Ghraib." By late summer 2003, Abu Ghraib was packed with nearly 3,000 prisoners. Many of the detainees were Iraqi civilians who had been picked up in random military sweeps or at checkpoints for "suspicious activities." Most were men, but there were also women, adolescents, and even children as young as ten, the majority of whom were deemed not a threat to society but who were not immediately released due to orders from above.

The prison's sewage system consisted of holes in the ground and portapotties that over-flowed and, in the extreme summer heat, caused a horrible stench. Water was rationed, and electricity regularly went down, cloaking the prison in an eerie darkness. Shelling of the prison was so frequent that the guards, huddling against walls, would make wagers on the size of an incoming round—was it a 60, an 80, or the one they dreaded most, the 120 mm—and where it might explode.

Three agencies interrogated prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The first was the CIA-directed Iraqi Survey Group, which had been set up to find weapons of mass destruction and to interrogate "high-value detainees" suspected of having links to international terrorist organizations. Then there was a Special Operations covert fusion group—Task Force 121—that included the CIA, Army Delta Force, and Navy SEALs. Task Force 121 was a hybrid of Special Forces that had tried unsuccessfully to capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and was later deployed to pursue Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The Iraqi Survey Group and Task Force 121, which operated in the prison's secret dark site, kept the names of their detainees off the books to hide them from the International Committee of the Red Cross and thus international oversight. Finally, there was the military's own intelligence unit.

In late August 2003, General Geoffrey Miller—previously commander at Guantánamo—visited Iraq to consider ways of improving "the quality of intelligence [being] extracted from detainees" so as to gain the upper hand on the insurgents. A two-star general from Texas with an "air of supreme confidence," Miller, with the help of psychologists, had made intelligence gathering the organizing principle at Guantánamo. During his tenure there he had developed specialized interrogation teams that integrated military intelligence personnel with military police, blurring a previously impermeable line.

During his visit, Miller commanded military interrogators to, in Karpinski's words, "treat these prisoners like dogs." He reportedly declared, "if they ever get the idea that they're anything more than that, you've lost control of your interrogation." Miller brought with him a CD and a manual on the "advanced interrogation techniques" that military and CIA interrogators had developed at Guantánamo. Before leaving, he gave them to General Sanchez, thus extending the global migration of these techniques to Iraq.

Days after Miller's departure, General Sanchez authorized a new interrogation plan, which included procedures that had been banned as too harsh, just months earlier, in Guantánamo. The new regime allowed military police, reservists like Joe Darby and Charles Graner, to "set conditions" to soften up prisoners for interrogation by Military Intelligence and the CIA.

On the night of November 4, 2003, Navy SEALs brought a wanted man—Manadel al-Jamadi—to Abu Ghraib and turned him over to the CIA. Al-Jamadi was a former Iraqi military officer suspected of involvement in an earlier bomb attack that had destroyed the Red Cross headquarters in Baghdad. The following morning, he died of asphyxiation while hooded and subjected to a form of torture known as Palestinian hanging. The technique, first practiced during the Spanish Inquisition, involves hanging the victim by his arms from the wall. As the victim hunches forward, his breathing restricts, which can cause severe stress and panic.

It was later revealed that CIA officials tried to cover up al-Jamadi's death by packing his body in ice and binding it in plastic to retard decomposition. The next morning the corpse was taken out of the prison with a fake IV rig attached and driven to an undisclosed location. Military pathologists later ruled the death a homicide caused by "blunt force trauma to the torso complicated by compromised respiration."

A "ghost prisoner," al-Jamadi's detention had taken place off the books. Nevertheless, his case would become the first publicly known homicide at CIA hands in the post-9/11 era.

Incomplete Justice

After weeks of soul-searching, Joe Darby placed a copy of Graner's CD and an anonymous note in a manila envelope and slipped it under the door of the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Division, where soldiers can report anything from sexual harassment to theft. Darby later admitted to a division special agent that he was the one who had delivered the package. The agent assured the young reservist that his name would be kept confidential. But it wasn't.

Four weeks later, Darby was sitting in a mess hall with the other guys in his unit. CNN was on, and a clip appeared of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reporting on Iraqi prisoner abuse to a congressional committee. Suddenly, Rumsfeld said he wanted to thank and extend his appreciation to Joe Darby "for his courage and his values" in alerting the world to the abuses. Darby dropped his fork mid-bite. "I was like, 'Oh, my God!' And the guys at the table just stopped eating and looked at me. . . . I got up and got the hell out of there."

Rumsfeld's "outing" turned Darby's world upside down. When he returned to the United States, his wife was already in hiding due to threats. Some of Darby's family members called him a traitor; his brother stopped talking to him; and Darby, fearing recriminations from his former high school classmates and neighbors, kept away from his hometown of Cumberland, Maryland.

Several investigations followed Darby's whistle-blowing on Abu Ghraib's "little shop of horrors." Of these, Major General Antonio M. Taguba's fifty-three-page report detailing the Army's failure to uphold the Geneva Conventions at Abu Ghraib was the most devastating. Taguba lamented to Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker that his investigation was limited to the military police at Abu Ghraib and did not include those above them in the chain of command. "These M.P. troops were not that creative," he told Hersh. "Somebody was giving them guidance, but I was legally prevented from further investigation into higher authority. I was limited to a box." Still, Taguba's inquiry, which revealed extensive evidence of wrongdoing, angered high-ranking officials in the Department of Defense. In January 2006, the two-star general received a telephone call from General Richard Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, telling him he was to retire within a year. "They always shoot the messenger," Taguba recalled. "I was being ostracized for doing what I was asked to do."

In his report, Taguba concluded that the 372nd Military Police Company had committed "sadistic, blatant, and wanton" criminal acts that included keeping detainees naked for days at time, threatening them with weapons and dogs, and forcing them to perform sexual acts on one another. He also found that Military Intelligence interrogators and those from "other government agencies" (OGA, a military euphemism for the CIA) "set . . . physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses." Another investigation, this one led by Major General George Fay, concluded that "CIA detention and interrogation practices led to a loss of accountability, abuse, reduced interagency cooperation, and an unhealthy mystique that further poisoned the atmosphere at Abu Ghraib."

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other high-level U.S. officials maintained that what happened at Abu Ghraib was abuse, not torture. Conveniently overlooking the [Assistant Attorney General Jay S.] Bybee and [Deputy Assistant Attorney General John] Yoo memo of August 2002 justifying certain forms of torture for interrogation purposes, Rumsfeld claimed that the abuses at the prison were at odds with what the president wanted. "The president from the beginning had a policy of humane treatment and torture was not allowed," said Rumsfeld. "We had a policy that reflected the president's policy." Such protestations belied the fact that the International Committee of the Red Cross had written the administration as early as November 2003 about various forms of ill-treatment at the prison. According to the Red Cross, detainees "under supervision of Military Intelligence were at high risk of being subjected to a variety of harsh treatments ranging from insults, threats and humiliations to both physical and psychological coercion, which in some cases was tantamount to torture, in order to force cooperation with their interrogators."

In the end, few people were sanctioned for the cruelties at Abu Ghraib. Among them were seventeen Army Reservists. Karpinski received a court-martial, becoming the highest-level official to receive formal sanctions. She was demoted from general to colonel for "dereliction of duty," misleading investigators, and, oddly, shoplifting, the last a purported misunderstanding that had taken place years before. Six other soldiers from the 800th were also sanctioned, with several doing prison time. Specialist Charles Graner, "the night-shift ringleader [infamously] photographed grinning beside piles of naked detainees," was sentenced to ten years via court-martial. Staff sergeant and night-shift leader Ivan Frederick received eight years, while three others received a year or less. Perhaps the most publicized reservist, Lynndie England—widely recognized as the woman holding a leash tethered to a detainee and hotly criticized for having an affair and a child with Graner—received three years and a dishonorable discharge.

While the arrests of these particular individuals weren't difficult to effectuate, those at the highest levels of command remained shockingly immune from legal scrutiny. Although the reservists clearly committed crimes and deserved recrimination, as Karpinski notes in her memoirs, "Officers like me . . . do not make policies. We implement them." Her higher-ups, by contrast, were rewarded for their time in Iraq. By the time of Karpinski's writing, General Sanchez—holder of the top military position in Iraq during the scandal—was awaiting a fourth star, and General Barbara Fast—the most senior military intelligence officer in Iraq—had been promoted to commanding general of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center at Fort Huachuca in Arizona.

Also evading punishment for any role they may have played in either explicitly or implicitly condoning the abuse were the Bush Six: the six U.S. officials who authored the legal framework that had enabled torture. They include David Addington, former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney; Jay Bybee, a prominent lawyer who served as head of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice from 2001 through March 2003; Douglas Feith, Bush's former undersecretary of defense for policy; Alberto Gonzales, who served as both White House Counsel and U.S. Attorney General; William Haynes II, chief counsel for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former Department of Defense general counsel; and John Yoo, a deputy in the Office of Legal Counsel from 2001 to 2003.

Soon after his forced retirement from the Army, Antonio Taguba wrote in a preface to a human rights report that U.S. detention and interrogation practices in the war on terror had damaged "America's institutions and our nation's founding values, which the military, intelligence services, and our justice system are duty-bound to defend." He added: "After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt whether the [Bush] administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account."

Hiding in Plain Sight: The Pursuit of War Criminals from Nuremburg to the War on Crime by Erick Stover, Victor Peskin, and Alexa Koenig (University of California Press, 2016, $32.95, 504 pp.) Eric Stover is faculty director of the Human Rights Center and adjunct professor of law and public health at UC Berkeley. Victor Peskin is associate professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University and a research fellow at the Human Rights Center, UC Berkeley School of Law. Alexa Koenig is executive director of the Human Rights Center and lecturer in residence at the UC Berkeley School of Law. The Human Rights Center at the UC Berkeley School of Law is an independent research and training center that applies innovative technologies and scientific methods to investigate war crimes and other serious violations of human rights. The Human Rights Center received the 2015 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.



Hiding In Plain Sight authors (from top) Alexa Koenig, Victor Peskin, and Eric Stover. Photos Courtesy Human Rights Center, UC Berkeley School of Law.