Tuesday’s acquittal of Lt. Col. Steven Jordan on charges related to the Abu Ghraib prison abuses means that no officers have been found criminally responsible for the mistreatment of prisoners at the Iraqi prison near Baghdad.
During Jordan’s week-long court-martial hearing at Fort Meade, Md., his lawyers argued that he was not directly responsible for training and supervising the soldiers who abused detainees at Abu Ghraib prison from mid-September to late December 2004.
Two generals who investigated the abuses found that Jordan offered "tacit approval" for abuses committed by military police under his supervision in November 2003, which was "the causative factor that set the stage for the abuses that followed for days afterward."
However, the jury of nine military officers was not convinced by prosecutors or the generals’ investigation and sided with Jordan’s attorneys, who argued that their client was nothing more than a manager at the prison and that interrogation techniques were the responsibility of Col. Thomas Pappas, the highest ranking officer at the prison, and Capt. Carolyn Wood, leader of the Interrogation Command Element unit.
Jordan was found innocent of charges that he was responsible for training and supervising soldiers who had been convicted of abusing prisoners, as well as charges that he was personally involved in supervising the use of forced nudity and the use of dogs to intimidate detainees during interrogations.
He was, however, found guilty of a separate charge of disobeying an order not to speak with third parties about the investigation of abuses at Abu Ghraib. Prosecutors have recommended that he be reprimanded and fined one month’s pay.
"The message they are trying to send is that [the abuse] all stopped at the lowest level in the chain of command and that it didn’t have anything to do with command," said Georgetown law and philosophy professor David J. Luban. "I think that there’s maybe a second message there as well. It’s a little odd that the one thing Jordan’s been convicted of is talking about the investigation. He refused to go along with a cover-up."
A June 2007 Seymour Hersh article in the New Yorker contained interviews with Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba who admitted that he had suspicions that Jordan and his subordinates were receiving directions in interrogation techniques from sources higher up in the chain of command.
Taguba, who wrote the initial 2004 report on abuses at Abu Ghraib, was reassigned and retired earlier this year.
The verdict means that no officers will be held criminally responsible for the abuses in 2003, leaving most of the blame to fall on 11 low-ranking soldiers who appeared in a series of digital photos that showed detainees being intimidated by dogs, wearing hoods, being forced to pose naked in pyramids, and being forced to participate in sexual acts.
"This leaves a curious record in prosecutions coming out of Abu Ghraib," wrote human rights advocate and Harper’s magazine blogger Scott Horton. "Accountability, it seems, is something which applies to enlisted personnel and noncommissioned officers who make the mistake of being caught in photographs. The officers who were supposedly in charge of the facility and giving them guidance escape without serious punishment."
This trend, Horton argues, goes all the way to the top. "After the Abu Ghraib scandal, a commission composed of close friends of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and headed by former Secretary of Defense [James] Schlesinger issued a report which exculpated Rumsfeld without ever interviewing him or examining any evidence of his involvement, or that of others in the office of secretary of defense, in the affair."
Indeed, reports of similar interrogation techniques at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba does suggest that higher ranking officers or Defense Department officials may have authorized some, if not all, of the techniques used on prisoners.
"I’ve talked to interrogators who said, ‘Don’t think Abu Ghraib was an aberration,’" said Luban.
Military police at Abu Ghraib’s tier 1A, where detainees of high intelligence value were held, have stated that they were instructed on what techniques to employ on detainees by higher-ranking interrogators and civilian contractors.
A U.S. Justice Department investigation has not yet produced any charges against civilian contractors who were present at Abu Ghraib or instructing soldiers who guarded detainees.
"What the jurors said is that this guy was not in the chain of command so maybe command responsibility cannot be used against him. But the fact that he’s the only officer who’s been charged I would say this is largely a whitewash," said Luban. "It’s all part of this myth that what we’re doing in the interrogation of detainees is careful and humane and if bad stuff happens it’s bad apples at the bottom of the barrel."
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