US Bracing for New Prisoner Abuse Photos

Today, April 28, marks five years since the world got its first look at the sickening photographs from Abu Ghraib on the U.S. television program 60 Minutes.

And a month from now, on May 28, the Department of Justice, acting under a court order, will release several thousand never-before-seen-in-public photographs of U.S. prisoner abuse from Afghanistan and from elsewhere in Iraq.

The recent "torture memos" – which will inform public reaction to these new photos in a way not possible at the time of the Abu Ghraib scandal – were also released as the result of what President Barack Obama called an unwinnable lawsuit by the same plaintiff, the American Civil Liberties Union, and under the same law, the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.

While the content of the new images is not known, some members of Congress, who viewed them in a classified setting, have said they are far worse than the Abu Ghraib images.

Following the public release of the Abu Ghraib photos on television in 2004, the Pentagon commissioned more than a dozen separate investigations of what took place and why. Some 26 military personnel, mostly low-ranking enlisted soldiers, were convicted or reprimanded.

An Army intelligence colonel received immunity for his testimony. The commander of the Abu Ghraib detention center, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinsky, was demoted to colonel. She continues to insist that she was a scapegoat.

None of the investigations pinpointed responsibility for the abuses to any higher-ranking George W. Bush administration or military or civilian Pentagon leader.

The investigation reports contain sentences such as, "Clearly abuses occurred at the prison at Abu Ghraib. There is no single, simple explanation for why this abuse at Abu Ghraib happened. The primary causes are misconduct [ranging from inhumane to sadistic] by a small group of morally corrupt soldiers and civilians, a lack of discipline on the part of the leaders and soldiers … and a failure or lack of leadership…."

One of the other investigations was headed by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger. He reported, "The events of October through December 2003 on the night shift of Tier 1 at Abu Ghraib prison were acts of brutality and purposeless sadism. We now know these abuses occurred at the hands of both military police and military intelligence personnel."

"The pictured abuses, unacceptable even in wartime, were not part of authorized interrogations nor were they even directed at intelligence targets. They represent deviant behavior and a failure of military leadership and discipline. Department of Defense reform efforts are underway and the Panel commends these efforts."

President Bush described the perpetrators in the Abu Ghraib photos as "a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values." He meant low-ranking soldiers like Pfc. Lynndie England and Sgt. Charles Graner, who were among those who received prison terms for their role in the scandal.

The scope of each of the investigative assignments was determined – and limited – by the Pentagon. Thus, the officer heading up the first investigation was ordered to find out what happened only within the 800th Military Police (MP) Brigade in U.S. military prisons in Iraq, and only in Iraq.

The leader of that investigation, Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, concluded that "The 800th MP Brigade was not adequately trained for a mission that included operating a prison or penal institution at Abu Ghraib Prison Complex."

He said, "Units of the 800th MP Brigade did not receive corrections-specific training during their mobilization period. MP units did not receive pinpoint assignments prior to mobilization and during the post mobilization training, and thus could not train for specific missions. The training that was accomplished at the mobilization sites were developed and implemented at the company level with little or no direction or supervision at the Battalion and Brigade levels, and consisted primarily of common tasks and law enforcement training."

Nevertheless, Gen. Taguba concluded that the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib went far beyond the actions of a few sadistic military police officers. His report said 27 military intelligence soldiers and civilian contractors committed criminal offenses, and that military officials hid prisoners from the Red Cross.

Gen. Taguba was forced into retirement by civilian Pentagon officials because he had been ”overzealous.” ”They always shoot the messenger,” Taguba said. He has recently accused former President Bush of war crimes.

It was an ordinary soldier who was troubled enough by what he saw at Abu Ghraib to photograph it and put it on a CD that he turned over to his superiors. And it was the military itself that announced, in 2003, that an investigation by the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Command was underway into alleged prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.

Few journalists paid much attention to this investigation. Some have since pointed out that at that time the Iraq war had just begun and the war’s public spokesperson, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was something of a rock star with the press.

Due to the recent release of memoranda prepared by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, the public has learned that by the time the Abu Ghraib photos were released in 2003, the Bush administration’s "enhanced interrogation" policy was already in place and being implemented.

Regarding the photos to be released on May 28, ACLU attorney Amrit Singh said, "These photographs provide visual proof that prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel was not aberrational but widespread, reaching far beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib."

She says, "Their disclosure is critical for helping the public understand the scope and scale of prisoner abuse as well as for holding senior officials accountable for authorizing or permitting such abuse."

Since the ACLU’s FOIA request in 2003, the Bush administration had refused to disclose these images, the ACLU said. The administration claimed that disclosure of such evidence would generate outrage and would violate U.S. obligations toward detainees under the Geneva Conventions.

But, in September 2008, a U.S. Appeals Court ruled that disclosure of the photos was required, thus rejecting the Bush administration’s position. The court ruled that there was significant public interest in disclosure of the photographs. The Bush administration’s appeal to the full appeals court was denied on March 11 of this year.

"The disclosure of these photographs serves as a further reminder that abuse of prisoners in U.S.-administered detention centers was systemic," said Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU National Security Project.

He told IPS, "Some of the abuse occurred because senior civilian and military officials created a culture of impunity in which abuse was tolerated, and some of the abuse was expressly authorized. It’s imperative that senior officials who condoned or authorized abuse now be held accountable for their actions."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.