Ithaca College Quarterly 2005/1
South Hill Today


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I'm going to do a chronology for you. Let me take you to Abu Ghraib. I know this is one huge downer, and I promise I'm not secretly peddling uppers in the corner [laughter]. There's some hopeful things we can talk about, maybe -- but not the Democrats [laughter]. (I sometimes think they're supine, and sometimes I think they're prone. But in either case, they're down, and staying down. And with a huge, shocking, frightening incapacity to lead. That's increasingly terrifying, and these other guys show a great capacity to lead -- and mislead.)

Okay. So we go to the war. We go and we bang in, bam bam bam. We win the great victory. Baghdad's taken without any sweat. We don't really notice something, but I'll tell you the NSA -- National Security Agency -- is worried about it. On the night of April 7th and 8th -- we entered Baghdad the 9th, the Third Marine Division, I think or the Third Army Unit came in -- and they entered Baghdad and just took the city and the statue fell, all that. We now know that was all propaganda, but that's okay. The statue did fall; it was a good television story. By propaganda, I mean there was a park that could hold 10,000, and there were 300 people there, most of them from Chalabi. Many of them were Pakastanis, paid by Chalabi to go there, and the marines took it down and then they got some kids to pose.

The feeling was good, anyway, when Saddam went. Everybody said, Okay, he did it. But they [Saddam Hussein's troops and federal workers] left the city. The intelligence guys said they lost anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 people -- they disappeared overnight. And they included not just the guys that were going to do the door-to-door fighting for Saddam, his special guards. He has something called the SSO, the special security, and then there were the Special Republican Guards; he had thousands of those. But all of the top bureaucratic guys who ran the post office, the hospitals, the power system, the water system, everything that makes the city work, disappeared.

More than that. The looting that seemed to be so casual and random -- remember all that looting, Rumsfeld made jokes about "people breaking vases, who cares?" -- well, it wasn't so random and casual. Almost every major government office -- and not just the ones with documents about state secrets, but all the offices that included things like marriage records, property records, legal cases, files that were relevant to the city, everything that makes a city workable and a government workable -- were gone: shredded, burned. This was systematic.

We figured out much later that one reason that the electric power was crippled so quickly and that we had so much trouble with water and so much trouble constantly with the oil is that there are people in the resistance -- Saddam's resistance -- who went to fight in the boonies. The people in the resistance knew how to hit what where. They figured that out much earlier than the government figured it out, and the intelligence people knew that way earlier than they told us, and they're beginning to talk more and more about it.

That was known in 2003: We've got problems.

So they go along. We won the war. There is some problem about the fact that there was nobody to fight us, but the embedded reporters did well. And you don't blame them. Everybody knows about the Stockholm Syndrome . . . if you're an embedded reporter and the guys you're with every day do something dumb, which soldiers do all the time -- there's nothing dumber than a 20-year-old kid with a gun in a war zone -- you're not going to talk about it. Because you want to stay with those guys. It was an absolutely brilliant stroke by some of the PR people who work for the Bush administration, who are, if not anything else, very competent.

And so we thought we won. By spring, summer, May, June, [there's] increasing activity against our boys, and not only that, [it's] increasingly sophisticated -- traps, our guys are getting hit. There are operations being run where somebody's hit there and then their escape route is already known in advance. It's clear there's some penetration even in what we're doing, how we operate. They're watching us. Somebody's learning about how the American troops react when they come under fire. Because they'll be under fire and react in a certain way. That brings them into another trap.

This was happening throughout the major provinces near Baghdad. June, July, August, if you remember, of 2003 was really scary. The UN got blown up, a terrible casualty. A car bomb hit the Jordanian Embassy, which inside Washington was scary because that's the embassy we use for all the down and dirty Intel stuff. When the Israelis want to do something, that's an embassy they would work through.

The public could see the troubles with the UN and the embassy, but you couldn't see the systematic attacks on water works and oil that was going on. The right places were hit at the right time. There were real dislocations, panic in the White House. Karl Rove's involved: We gotta do something. What do we have to do? Well, for one thing, what we don't have is any intelligence. We know these guys are operating in groups of three, little cells. What we know -- they even knew then -- is that Saddam had an opposition group called the Da'wa. The Da'wa is a Shiite group out of Iran primarily. That was the only group that would take runs at Saddam and his family when his son Uday was shot up, it was Da'wa. They would make attempts on serious leadership. They were always being hunted down, and you could never break them. What I'm telling you now is empirically known in our intelligence community from documents we've captured and other stuff made available after the war. He set up three or four levels of covert action, and we couldn't break it. We couldn't find him. So what are we going to do? We've got 10,000, 20,000 prisoners in Iraq, let's start squeezing them. We're not getting much out of them, let's get more out of them. Abu Ghraib was one of the prisons.

So, the idea is we start "educating," start escalating the tactics against the prisoners.


It was either Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International that later estimated that at the time at least 90 percent of the people who were captive had nothing to do with anything. Many of the captives had been picked up at roadside blocks. The other thing we would do is if a car bomb went off and an American was killed, we'd either shoot at or arrest every male we could find in the area, and just grab him and they were automatically bound, trussed up, and sent to Abu Ghraib for interrogation.

And so, those infamous photographs that we saw, the 372nd military police unit that was involved in all the hijinks at night at Abu Ghraib -- you know, the stacking of bodies and that horrible, iconic photograph? Well, this was a rural unit mostly from West Virginia. I'm sure some of the people were as bright as anybody, but they were very uneducated and very primitive. Lynndie England -- the one who was [photographed with] thumbs up and thumbs down -- she or one of the other women in the photographs worked as a night manager for a pizza shop. So [for her] the army reserves was a chance to get a little money; it was a step up. So, they're in the reserve. And they were MPs -- military police, "traffic cops." They had been trained to be traffic cops. They went to Baghdad to be traffic cops. At some point, they're pulled off the line and told, "You're gonna now be prison guards." They got some very rudimentary training, got sent to a prison.

It just so happens that in Arab culture, shame is very big, and it's against the Qur'an for a man to be seen by other men. Nudity is just absolutely a no-no. And homosexuality is a taboo in the Qur'an. Of course it's practiced, but it's really a taboo in the society, at least in the religious aspects of it. And so the idea that you're suddenly going to take Arab men, strip them, have them simulate homosexual acts, photograph them with an American woman in the picture -- that idea, that it was generated from that unit, is preposterous. Because it's a very sophisticated [use of torture]. In fact the use of sexual humiliation has been taught down at Fort Bragg; it's in some of the textbooks there. It's a technique to break people.

And there's another motive for it. This is something I've written about, but one of these days we'll find it out. One of the motives, of course, was [that] we couldn't get anyone in the community [to give us information], and once you have a photograph of an Arab man, naked, simulating homosexual activity, he's a dead man. He's gone in his community, he's shamed forever. You could take that picture to his community and he can't go back, so you can therefore take the picture to him and say, Sonny boy, we want to send you home. Go home, join the resistance. Get active and start talking to us or else we're going to layer these picture all over.

That was another one of the intellectual drives. Of course it was mangled and butchered, but that was one of the thoughts they had in setting up that crazy program.


I was telling a group earlier here that when I first learned about Abu Ghraib it was long before it became public. The idea of writing a story before the photographs appeared, and saying Americans are mistreating somebody, was just impossible. That's how badly things were stacked against truth. The machine would grind you up. Not only the machine of the government, but your own peers. I was in Damascus in December 2003, about nine months after the war. You have to know: The borders are always open. Even in the most repressed place, you can't stop border traffic. In any case, one of the officers I talked with, an Iraqi, a one-star general, told me then how bad Abu Ghraib was. He said that the women in the jail, mostly young, would send messages home to their families saying, Please come kill me, I've been defiled.

And if you're an unmarried woman, just the fact that an American soldier -- and I'm not talking about rape, but even fondling -- [touched] you or took photographs of you or did something torrid, which young boys will do if they're unsupervised, was enough to say that their life was over: Please come kill me.

So they begin squeezing the prisoners, hijinks. What I'm telling you now is empirical. We know from the various investigations -- there have been 10 since the first investigation. The first investigation [report] that I published in the New Yorker in May or April of last year was written by a young Filipino man who had joined the army and worked his way up to be a major general. Antonio Taguba was really stunned by what he saw, and he wrote a report that was never meant to be public. All the other reports had that one disadvantage, they were always going to be published. This guy nailed them. [His was] the best report yet.

But of course time moves on. By September, the games are on -- [they're] photographing, parading people around. October, November, December. Meanwhile, who's going through the jail? Everybody: three-star generals, two-star generals. They get a letter at one point in the early spring from Condoleezza Rice -- I'm not kidding -- praising them for their good work. It doesn't mean she knew anything, it just means that everybody knew that was a hot spot. And the game's on. How many people saw what was going on, knew what was going on? Are we talking hundreds, thousands? There was a constant flow of visitors because it was the biggest prison and most important prison [in Iraq], and they really wanted to stop the insurgency, and they still were having trouble. The insurgency is growing; the resistance is growing. And they can't find it anywhere.

So in early January, a kid named Darby -- there's always a kid named Darby in everything -- takes a videotape. The kids are passing the photographs, no sense of any wrongdoing, no sense of shame. They're just photographing and e-mailing this stuff. He takes a CD-ROM to the army cops, who start a criminal investigation. The army cops are upset; they're honorable guys in the criminal investigation division. They love to get officers, and so they start an investigation. The chronology of what I'm telling you now is empirically known from the very Senate investigations and testimony by Rumsfeld and others.

On the 16th, Rumsfeld is told there's a problem. He tells the president two or three days later -- by the 20th, let's say. He says: I never saw the pictures that were made public, but I knew there were pictures. I knew they were bad, I have no reason to doubt them. He's a very clever answerer. You know, he's always restating questions that he doesn't want to answer.

So the president knows about it.

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Photo by Thomas Hoebble

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