The Mystery of Abu Ghraib

George W. Bush and his media minions told us that we must battle “the terrorists” in Baghdad and Najaf so we won’t have to fight them in New York and Baltimore. But should the news that the Iraq war has been transformed into something resembling a gay S&M movie make us feel any safer?

The next time someone rams an airliner into an American skyscraper, we won’t have to ask ‘Why oh why do they hate us?’ Here’s why. And here, here, and also here.

Colin Powell says that only “a few” soldiers were responsible for the Abu Ghraib outrages, and that this is “an isolated incident. Unfortunately, his remarks were reported just as news of a widening investigation broke. Powell also ignored the import of Major General Antonio M. Taguba‘s internal report, leaked to The New Yorker. Here is the “money quote” from Seymour Hersh’s important piece:

“General Taguba saved his harshest words for the military-intelligence officers and private contractors. He recommended that Colonel Thomas Pappas, the commander of one of the M.I. brigades, be reprimanded and receive non-judicial punishment, and that Lieutenant Colonel Steven Jordan, the former director of the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center, be relieved of duty and reprimanded. He further urged that a civilian contractor, Steven Stephanowicz, of CACI International, be fired from his Army job, reprimanded, and denied his security clearances for lying to the investigating team and allowing or ordering military policemen ‘who were not trained in interrogation techniques to facilitate interrogations by ‘setting conditions’ which were neither authorized’ nor in accordance with Army regulations. ‘He clearly knew his instructions equated to physical abuse,’ Taguba wrote. He also recommended disciplinary action against a second CACI employee, John Israel. (A spokeswoman for CACI said that the company had ‘received no formal communication’ from the Army about the matter.)

“‘I suspect,’ Taguba concluded, that Pappas, Jordan, Stephanowicz, and Israel ‘were either directly or indirectly responsible for the abuse at Abu Ghraib,’ and strongly recommended immediate disciplinary action.”

A third private contractor, Adel L. Nakhla, a civilian translator employed by the San Diego-based Titan Corp., is also identified as a “suspect.” According to a senior Defense Department official interviewed by the Los Angeles Times,

“One of the issues that people are dealing with is who can investigate them. It’s not clear in the legal framework that we have how to deal with this.”

The issue of how to prosecute these crimes remains “unsettled,” in spite of an edict issued by CPA head honcho Paul L. Bremer clearly giving jurisdiction to the home countries of foreign nationals who commit crimes in occupied Iraq. A law passed by Congress in the wake of the Bosnia prostitution scandal involving DynCorp also provides a legal framework for going after private military contractors operating overseas. So why the bureaucratic foot-dragging? Both CACI and Titan say they have yet to be informed of any legal proceedings against their employees: instead, we are told, 6 soldiers have been charged and face court martial, and an additional 7 have been given stern “reprimands.”

They’re reprimanding the officers, and prosecuting the grunts – while the “private” contractors are getting off scot-free, at least so far. Yet the lawyers for the accused soldiers maintain that their clients were “only following orders,” and this is backed up by the former commander of military police stationed at detention facilities in Iraq, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who said MPs were following instructions given to them by military intelligence officers. Karpinski told CNN:

“I don’t know how they allowed these activities to get so far out of control, but I do know with absolute confidence that they didn’t just wake up one day and decide to do this.”

Guy Womack, lawyer for Charles Graner, one of the accused MPs, said the Abu Ghraib photos “were obviously staged” by U.S. intelligence officials:

“They were part of the psychological manipulation of the prisoners being interrogated. It was being controlled and devised by the military intelligence community and other governmental agencies, including the CIA.”

The soldiers, avers Womack, were simply “following orders.”

I was only following orders” is a defense with a very bad history, but Womack raises an important point: to what degree are Graner and the other grunts scapegoats for crimes committed by their superiors? Martha Frederick, wife of Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick – who stands accused of indecent acts, assault, and other crimes – put it well:

“Those who are responsible are standing behind the curtain and watching him take the fall for it. It’s almost like being a pawn in a chess game.”

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! I am the Great and Powerful Oz, says the U.S. government, and these are the acts of just “a few” soldiers, as Colin Powell puts it. It’s “un-American,” adds Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and the President vows to punish the offenders. But how far up the ladder will the prosecutions go?

It is clear, from the testimony of the soldiers involved, some of whom recorded doubts about their orders to relatives in emails, that what happened at Abu Ghraib was the product of a deliberate policy rather than a few isolated instances. Far from being “out of control,” their behavior was very much controlled by their immediate superiors in military intelligence, who were, in turn, carrying out a policy of subjugating the Iraqi people by “breaking” the captured cadre of the resistance and using the intelligence gleaned from violent interrogation to round up their leaders.

If the attorneys for the accused MPs are being quite vocal, the defenders of the policy are now speaking out. Victor Davis Hanson, the classicist and gentleman farmer whose warlike screeds for National Review have made him the Herodotus – nay, the Homer! – of the War Party, writes in the Wall Street Journal that “the alleged crimes” of “a few miscreants” are “indeed serious stuff,” but we mustn’t get too carried away:

“Without minimizing the seriousness of these apparent transgressions, we need to take a breath, get a grip, and put the sordid incident in some perspective beyond its initial 24-hour news cycle. First, investigations are not yet completed. Lurid pictures, hearsay and leaked accounts to the New Yorker magazine are not yet proof of torture, either systematic, brutal, or habitual.”

But what else could possibly constitute proof, in this case, if not lurid pictures? The testimony of witnesses is construed by Hanson as “hearsay,” but the evidence is based on statements made by the participants. This hardly constitutes “hearsay.” The “leaked accounts” Hanson disdains consist of a report written by a U.S. Army General. As for the brutality of what happened at Abu Ghraib and other facilities in Iraq, the CIA is currently investigating at least 25 deaths of detainees in U.S. custody: one wonders if that is brutal enough for Hanson’s taste. Systematic and habitual – these words describe deliberation, i.e. a policy designed to “break” prisoners, and that is precisely what the lawyers for the accused MPs claim was in operation at Abu Ghraib.

The U.S. government can plausibly claim that it has clean hands, because, you see, the onerous tasks of interrogation and intelligence-gathering in Iraq have been “privatized.” The details of this dirty war were handed over to the likes of CACI International, created to “help America’s intelligence community collect, analyze and share global information in the war on terrorism,” and Titan Corp., which describes itself as “a leading provider of comprehensive information and communications products, solutions and services for national security.”

In a grotesquely neoconnish twist on the venerable libertarian principle that privatization is always good, the War Party has now denationalized torture. Abu Ghraib ought to remind us that some practices and institutions usually limited to government, instead of being “privatized,” must be forbidden. Hanson tells us not to worry, however, since:

“Already the self-correcting mechanisms of the U.S. government and the American free press are in full throttle. Responsible parties, from Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt to President Bush himself, have condemned the accused guards and promised swift punishment when and if they are found guilty. The number of accused is apparently small. Six soldiers are facing court-martial.”

Not so fast, buster. The scandal is fast burgeoning, and, as evidence of widespread abuses arises beyond the blood-flecked walls of Abu Ghraib, the number of accused is bound to increase. What’s more, the investigation will likely widen to answer the question of where the responsibility lies. At that point, the exact role of the “private” contractors in carrying out a policy of organized sadism will be subjected to close examination.

The Abu Ghraib outrages conjure a sense of déjà vu: where have we seen these kinds of methods employed before? The Palestinians have had to endure much the same thing. The interrogation techniques employed by the Abu Ghraib gang bear a striking resemblance to those employed by Israel, according to Amnesty International:

“Israel allows the use of ‘moderate physical pressure’ – which is defined in detail in secret guidelines – during interrogations. This includes sleep deprivation for prolonged periods while being tied in painful positions, hooding with filthy sacks, being forced to squat like a frog for hours and violent shaking (which has caused the death of one detainee).”

CACI’s links to Israel are well-documented. CACI CEO J.P. “Jack” London was awarded the Albert Einstein Technology Award by the Jerusalem Fund of Aish HaTorah, presented by Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz this January. CACI’s website crowed:

“CACI was honored as a provider of information technologies for helping to fight the war on terrorism and transform the Middle East from a source of global instability into a peaceful, stable region.”

According to the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, CACI is the recipient of grants allocated by the Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation (BIRD), a joint U.S.-Israeli government program supposedly engaged in promoting “non-defense” research and development. London visited Israel earlier this year with a delegation of corporate executives, politicians and government officials for a homeland security conference.

As Seymour Hersh has pointed out, the U.S.-Israeli alliance has been taking covert shape in the course of this war:

“Israeli commandos and intelligence units have been working closely with their American counterparts at the Special Forces training base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and in Israel to help them prepare for operations in Iraq. Israeli commandos are expected to serve as ad-hoc advisers – again, in secret – when full-field operations begin.”

The Guardian confirms and expands on Hersh’s account, citing “two sources” that “Israeli military ‘consultants’ have also visited Iraq.” “Israel Trains Assassination Squads in Iraq” averred the headline, and the story, published last December, cited “a former senior U.S. intelligence official” who predicted disaster:

“‘This is basically an assassination program. That is what is being conceptualized here. This is a hunter-killer team,’ said a former senior U.S. intelligence official, who added that he feared the new tactics and enhanced cooperation with Israel would only inflame a volatile situation in the Middle East. ‘It is bonkers, insane. Here we are – we’re already being compared to Sharon in the Arab world, and we’ve just confirmed it by bringing in the Israelis and setting up assassination teams.'”

The Guardian also quoted “a well-informed intelligence source in Washington,” who said:

“They are being trained by Israelis in Fort Bragg. Some Israelis went to Iraq as well, not to do training, but for providing consultations.”

What better cover for Israeli “consultants” than as employees of a “private” contractor such as CACI? Although this is something of an odd arrangement, considering that the company was cited in 1997 for anti-Jewish hiring practices. Maybe this is their way of making up for CACI’s past sins.

The leaked Taguba report, while it details the horrors of Abu Ghraib, is essentially a thick coat of whitewash. General Taguba writes:

“Due to the nature and scope of this investigation, I acquired the assistance of Col. Henry Nelson, a U.S. Air Force psychiatrist, to analyze the investigation materials…. He determined that there was evidence that the horrific abuses suffered by the detainees at Abu Ghraib were wanton acts of select soldiers in an unsupervised and dangerous setting….”

While the perverted festivities were certainly “wanton,” how can Nelson be so sure they were “unsupervised” – especially when the testimony of several participants directly contradicts his conclusion?

There is a pattern to the recent series of disasters that have overtaken this administration, one that is just beginning to become apparent in this latest P.R. catastrophe. Like the propaganda campaign that was launched in the run-up to war, and the intelligence-gathering process that amassed so many lies in the service of the War Party, what happened at Abu Ghraib seems to have been yet another free-lance operation that bypassed the usual chain of command. With private contractors of dubious provenance in charge of interrogating prisoners, a rogue element – perhaps with some help from Israeli “advisors” – would find it all too easy to formulate and implement its own policy of systematic sadism in the service of “liberation.”

Which raises the question: who in this administration knew about what was going on at Abu Ghraib, and when did they know it?

The President and his generals all deny any knowledge of such goings on, but the accused MPs aver, through their lawyers, that all sorts of U.S. intelligence officials were swarming over the prison. Ivan Frederick, the former Virginia prison guard turned MP, told CBS News:

“We had military intelligence, we had all kinds of other government agencies, FBI, CIA … All those that I didn’t even know or recognize.”

The idea that the sadistic orgy going on behind the walls of Abu Ghraib was a deep dark secret known only to a few deranged lower-level individuals is just too fantastic to believe, given all the evidence to the contrary. There is much more here than meets the eye – and we are only just beginning to uncover it.


Gee, you never know what you’re going to find on the Internet. Check out what might be called the Diary of a Torturer – it’s the daily journal of one of the interrogators at Abu Ghraib, Joe Ryan, a habitual caller at station KSTP, a Minneapolis talk radio station in Minneapolis. KSTP was posting his diary on their web site, but recently deleted it. However, thanks to Google, the cache is preserved (so far), and several people have already archived it in their hard drives.

“Work is continuing to be brutally time consuming,” writes Ryan.

Yeah, I’ll just bet….

Here’s an interesting tidbit from Ryan’s account of his training:

"I went through the DOD Strategic Debriefer Course, Israeli Interrogation Course, and the SCAN Course."

The Israeli Interrogation Course, eh? One wonders if the horrific scenes photographed at Abu Ghraib were the equivalent of Ryan’s SATs. Looks to me like he passed – with flying colors….

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].