Ex-Soldier Recalls Horrors of Abu Ghraib

Saturday marked the third anniversary of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. On April 28, 2004, CBS broadcast the first graphic photos of torture inside of the U.S.-run prison in Iraq on its 60 Minutes II program.

"Americans did this to an Iraqi prisoner," news anchor Dan Rather said as a slide show of disturbing torture photos flashed across the screen. "The man was told to stand on a box with his head covered, with wires attached to his hands. He was told if he fell off the box, he would be electrocuted."

More photos followed. U.S. soldiers posed with naked Iraqi prisoners, including one with detainees stacked in a pyramid. In most of the photos, the soldiers were smiling. At the time, the Pentagon, represented by Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, said only a few "bad apples" engaged in torture.

"What would I tell the people of Iraq?" he said. "This is wrong. This is reprehensible, but this is not representative of the 150,000 soldiers that are over here. I would say the same thing to the American people. Don’t judge your Army based on the actions of a few."

The soldiers in the photos were prosecuted and many received prison sentences, but no high-ranking officers or George W. Bush administration officials were put on trial. That didn’t sit well with U.S. Army interrogator Tony Lagouranis. He came forward to say that torture was common practice in Iraq and that he had himself tortured prisoners while stationed in Mosul in 2004.

"We would bring in dogs," he told IPS. "They would be muzzled dogs, but the prisoner would be blindfolded so he wouldn’t realize the dog was muzzled. We would try to terrify them and induce pain, put them in stress positions, sleep deprivation, all of these together to break down the prisoner."

Subsequent reports indicated that each of those interrogation policies was approved by then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Lagouranis says his immediate superiors orchestrated the torture he meted out.

"My superiors organized the dogs," he said. "They had organized the shipping container that we would use to maintain these prisoners in this state, and they just told us, ‘This is what we’re going to do for this guy’ or ‘We’ve targeted this person for this and that’s what you’re going to do’ and we followed orders."

After the photos were published, however, the military command structure changed its tactics. Joshua Casteel is a former U.S. Army interrogator at Abu Ghraib. He arrived at the prison in June 2004, a few months after the scandal broke.

"By the time I arrived at Abu Ghraib, every camera in the world was pointed at us," he said. "So things had changed radically. We were not allowed to touch people except in acts of reassurance – like if we wanted to calm someone down, we might be able to touch their hand. We were also being watched by cameras and audio recording equipment and by visiting dignitaries on occasion. So [interrogations] were more structured around just talking in a room."

The main problem, Casteel says, was that over 90 percent of the people he interrogated were innocent – simply caught up in large-scale military raids. Because the U.S. military rarely releases detainees, Casteel says he was forced to interrogate innocent prisoners again and again.

"I was constantly being asked, ‘Why am I being held here? I want answers!’" Casteel said. "But that was my job. We were supposed to be finding answers to our questions, but we kept being put into situations that were incredibly puzzling because talking to people was like trying to get blood from a turnip. They were the ones that had a greater justification for the need to have answers."

The Washington Post reported this month that the U.S. military now holds 18,000 security detainees in Iraq – almost double the number of Iraqis incarcerated when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke three years ago. The newspaper reports that this number will soon pass 20,000, with more and more Iraqis apprehended in sweeps as part of Bush’s "surge." Most of those detainees will be held indefinitely, will never be charged with any crime, and will not be allowed to see a lawyer.

Meantime, Joshua Casteel left the military in 2005 after requesting and receiving a discharge as a conscientious objector. He’s now a graduate student at the University of Iowa studying play-writing and nonfiction writing.

Ironically, he said, it was an interrogation of a self-described jihadist that caused him to leave the service.

"I had an interrogation with a 22-year-old Saudi Arabian who was very straightforward that he had come to Iraq to conduct jihad," Casteel said. "We started having a conversation about religion and ethics, and he told me that I was a very strange man who was a Christian but didn’t follow the teachings of Jesus to love my enemy and pray for the persecuted. My nickname in my unit was ‘priest’ because I spent a lot of time in the chapel."

"So I had this moment with a man who was a jihadi and he was giving me a lesson on the Sermon on the Mount," Casteel said. "That was about five months into my time in Iraq, and I had already had about 100 interrogations and I was so weary of the whole process. I told him that I thought he was right and that there was a massive contradiction involved with me doing my job and being a Christian."

"I wanted to have a conversation with him about ethics and the cycle of vengeance and how idiotic it was that his people said it was okay for him to come and kill me and my people told me it was okay to kill him," Casteel said. "Why is it that we can’t find a different path together?"

(Inter Press Service)