The Secret of Abu Ghraib

Thank the gods for Seymour Hersh, that’s all I can say. Without him, the truth about what went on at Abu Ghraib prison – and the dark forces behind it – would probably still be locked away in a safe somewhere deep in the bowels of the Pentagon. His latest piece in the New Yorker follows up on his earlier exposé, and shows how and why the problem wasn’t just “a few bad apples” because the top bananas knew about it all along.

Oh, they didn’t bother with the specifics: that would be vulgar. But the genesis of the American-run torture chambers at Abu Ghraib, we now learn, was in a “black ops” program personally approved by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and implemented by his subordinates, chiefly undersecretary for intelligence Stephen A. Cambone, who also appeared on Capitol Hill last week and basically said “We didn’t know!” As it turns out, they did know:

“The roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists but in a decision, approved last year by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to expand a highly secret operation, which had been focussed on the hunt for Al Qaeda, to the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq. Rumsfeld’s decision embittered the American intelligence community, damaged the effectiveness of élite combat units, and hurt America’s prospects in the war on terror.”

Springing leaks from “several past and present American intelligence officials,” Hersh shows that the people who sat in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee and swore up and down that they didn’t know jack-sh*t about the abuses taking place were lying through their teeth. As Hersh relates in his fascinating piece:

“A senior CIA official, asked about Rumsfeld’s testimony and that of Stephen Cambone, his Under-Secretary for Intelligence, said, ‘Some people think you can bullsh*t anyone.'”

The neocons who run U.S. foreign policy in this administration have always been philosophical elitists: from Lenin to Leo Strauss is not that far to travel. But with this latest exposure of their ignoble devotion to the “noble lie,” and their boundless contempt for the American public, they seem to have surpassed their old teachers.

In the wake of 9/11, a special Pentagon operation was set up by Rumsfeld – code-named “Copper Green” – that was in effect a secret army, complete with its own air force. Rumsfeld commanded into existence an elite unit of “black” operatives who would ostensibly be used to go after Osama bin Laden and the Taliban during the Afghan phase of the war. What is termed a “special-access program” allows officials to get around such cumbersome obstacles as constitutional government and the rule of law, and was a staple of the Cold War era, as Hersh points out. After 9/11, however, the concept took on new meaning and dimensions, providing Rumsfeld and his neocon advisors with a gigantic loophole through which they eagerly leaped – straight into the muck of the Abu Ghraib horror show.

“The rules are ‘Grab whom you must. Do what you want.'”

That’s how one insider described the methodology of Operation Copper Green to Hersh, and that pretty much sums up the neocons’ entire philosophy of government – or, indeed, any variety of state-worship – to a tee.

In any case, a network of torture camps was set up worldwide, run by the progenitors of “Operation Copper Green” – adding an international dimension to the Abu Ghraib scandal that remains to be explored further – initially devoted to snatching and interrogating Al Qaeda operatives. The program was soon diverted, however, from the pursuit of Bin Laden to the prosecution of the Iraq war.

Hersh names Cambone as the de facto commander of the Pentagon’s secret army, “deeply involved in the program,” and cites a former intelligence officer who relates how Rumsfeld’s deputy set the wheels of the torture machine to turning:

“‘They weren’t getting anything substantive from the detainees in Iraq. No names. Nothing that they could hang their hat on. Cambone says, I’ve got to crack this thing and I’m tired of working through the normal chain of command. I’ve got this apparatus set up – the black special-access program – and I’m going in hot. So he pulls the switch, and the electricity begins flowing last summer. And it’s working. We’re getting a picture of the insurgency in Iraq and the intelligence is flowing into the white world. We’re getting good stuff. But we’ve got more targets’ – prisoners in Iraqi jails – ‘than people who can handle them.'”

Cambone then brought in intelligence officers from the Army, put them in charge of Abu Ghraib prison, told them all rules had been repealed, and set them loose on the prisoners:

“The military-police prison guards, the former official said, included ‘recycled hillbillies from Cumberland, Maryland.’ He was referring to members of the 372nd Military Police Company. Seven members of the company are now facing charges for their role in the abuse at Abu Ghraib. ‘How are these guys from Cumberland going to know anything? The Army Reserve doesn’t know what it’s doing.'”

Those “recycled hillbillies” are now being railroaded through the military justice system, taking the rap for Cambone and Rumsfeld. Not a very edifying sight.’s editorial position has from the beginning been that this was much bigger than seven reservists from Maryland. As I wrote in my May 7 column:

“What is undoubtedly a black mark on the reputation of the American military, and on this administration’s ability to know and control what’s occurring on the ground in Iraq, looks to me very much like a black propaganda campaign designed to demoralize not only Iraqis but the entire Arab world. One major neoconservative talking point in the run-up to war was that the Arabs only understand the language of power: you can’t negotiate or reason with them, you have to conquer them – and, once conquered, they have to be kept down.”

Now Hersh reveals that the sexual humiliation angle, a key element of the interrogation program, was ostensibly designed to create “an army of informants.” The plan was, supposedly, that by threatening to distribute the photos to family and friends we could get the prisoners to cooperate with us once they were released. How well this worked can be seen in the growth and development of the insurgency, which has now spread to southern Iraq and become even more aggressive. Yet the torture continued, and was based, as Hersh relates, on neocon notions of how to deal with Arabs:

“The notion that Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation became a talking point among pro-war Washington conservatives in the months before the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq. One book that was frequently cited was The Arab Mind, a study of Arab culture and psychology, first published in 1973, by Raphael Patai, a cultural anthropologist who taught at, among other universities, Columbia and Princeton, and who died in 1996. The book includes a twenty-five-page chapter on Arabs and sex, depicting sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression. ‘The segregation of the sexes, the veiling of the women . . . and all the other minute rules that govern and restrict contact between men and women, have the effect of making sex a prime mental preoccupation in the Arab world,’ Patai wrote. Homosexual activity, ‘or any indication of homosexual leanings, as with all other expressions of sexuality, is never given any publicity. These are private affairs and remain in private.’ The Patai book, an academic told me, was ‘the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior.’ In their discussions, he said, two themes emerged – ‘one, that Arabs only understand force and, two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation.'”

Okay, so I was wrong about the academic references: David Leo Gutmann, whom I cited, apparently derives his Arabo-phobic theories from Patai, popularizing and updating the theme of an allegedly Arabic tendency to be easily manipulated by a feeling of shame and awed by displays of power. Other than that, however, the main point remains: the neocons had their fingerprints all over this chamber of horrors from the beginning. You didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to see that what happened at Abu Ghraib was born of sheer hatred for all things Arabic – an emotion that emanates from neoconservative circles, as it does from the extreme right wing of Israel’s ruling Likud party and its far-right coalition allies (some of whom advocate expulsion of all Palestinians into Jordan).

As an intelligence-gathering tool, the mass rape of suspected insurgents – “between 70 percent and 90 percent” of whom were arrested “by mistake” – seemed to have the opposite of its intended effect. But no matter. The main goal wasn’t blackmailing the prisoners. The logistics problem alone makes this unlikely: would the blackmailers simply drop the photos in the mail, or would a U.S. soldier show up one day with a special delivery package? Photos are easily faked, and the Arab propensity for conspiracy theories would grant them a skeptical reception: many in the Arab world may have rejected modernity, and prefer to live in the 12th century, but, believe me, they know about Photoshop.

We are brought, in the end, to the core mystery of Abu Ghraib: why oh why did the accused MPs take these obviously staged photographs, recording their crimes for posterity? Amid the shocked silence of the distinguished members of Congress, who sat and watched 1800 slides and a few videos over a course of some three hours, that question must have occurred to even the densest: yes, even to the utterly clueless Senator James Inhofe. For what they were subjected to was a veritable loop of pornoganda – pornography with a political/ideological edge – of the sort that, if it is ever released to the general public, seems calculated to produce two effects rather immediately:

1) A wave of anger directed at the U.S. that would escalate the “clash of civilizations” and, once and for all, drive the entire Arab world – even our ostensible allies – away from Washington, increasing the level of violence not only in Iraq but throughout the Middle East.

2) Looked at from the perspective of someone who believes that Patai and Gutmann are right, then, simultaneously with this spurt of anger, a sense of secret shame would engulf and demoralize the Arab world, with the American will to power evoking, in them, a previously repressed desire to submit, which the theorists associate with homosexuality. The message being beamed at the Arab world is: your men are faggots, and your women are whores. Submit, submit, submit….

I have a question: how is it that so many photographs were taken? I’ve heard estimates that range between 1600 and 1800 (including videos). Now, I can understand – if this was done as a prank – taking a few photos here and there: perhaps as many as a few dozen. But 1800?

This is an operation that was just waiting to be discovered: they couldn’t have been very confident that some of these photos wouldn’t fall into the “wrong” hands. So, either we are dealing with people so stupid that not even the prospect of leaving behind such a massive amount of evidence caused them to have second thoughts, or that was the intention all along.

Before anyone dismisses out of hand the possibility that these photos were meant to be made public, consider what their release might accomplish. The upsurge of Arab anger would provoke, in very short order, an American military reaction of the sort the wilder hawks have been pushing for since the insurgency began to rear its head. We need more troops (as John McCain keeps emphasizing), more force, more “will” to smash the “enemy” – and, most of all, we need to escalate the war beyond its present borders, taking the fight to Syria and beyond. Outwardly angry, but secretly demoralized by the sense of shame conjured by the photos, the Arabs would rise, fight – and lose. Rather than face the prospect of conducting a protracted struggle against an indigenous resistance movement – and losing support on the home front – the War Party would provoke a crisis, and the whole process would be radically telescoped, with a (relatively) quick victory achieved by the full mobilization of our vast military resources.

As long as the blame could be contained to the S&M Seven, and the military intelligence officers who took over direct command of the Abu Ghraib prison from Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the real authors of this plan would be safe, along with the entire “black ops” team. A former top official told Hersh:

“‘The black guys’ – those in the Pentagon’s secret program – ‘say we’ve got to accept the prosecution. They’re vaccinated from the reality.’ … The program was protected by the fact that no one on the outside was allowed to know of its existence. ‘If you even give a hint that you’re aware of a black program that you’re not read into, you lose your clearances,’ the former official said. ‘Nobody will talk. So the only people left to prosecute are those who are undefended – the poor kids at the end of the food chain.’ The most vulnerable senior official is Cambone. ‘The Pentagon is trying now to protect Cambone, and doesn’t know how to do it,’ the former intelligence official said.”

Nobody will talk, and the kids at the bottom of the food chain are to be devoured in the arena of public opprobrium, while the real culprits watch from the wings, waiting for their cue – another outrage committed by Iraqi “terrorists,” a border incident with Syria, another 9/11. Whatever. Then the real fun begins….

On the other hand, this could be a case of such monumental asininity that it confirms my Bizarro World thesis: that the 9/11 attacks caused a rip in the space-time continuum, and, as a result, we’re living in a Bizarro World in which up is down and we’re fighting a war … in order to lose it.

I might add, here, that the Hersh revelations seem to confirm my thesis in other respects, especially concerning the key role played by Steven Stefanowicz, a “private” interrogator, and the elusive “John Israel,” another private contractor at Abu Ghraib whose job description is “interpreter.”

“Hard-core special operatives, some of them with aliases, were working in the prison. The military police assigned to guard the prisoners wore uniforms, but many others – military intelligence officers, contract interpreters, C.I.A. officers, and the men from the special-access program – wore civilian clothes. It was not clear who was who, even to Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, then the commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade, and the officer ostensibly in charge. ‘I thought most of the civilians there were interpreters, but there were some civilians that I didn’t know,’ Karpinski told me. ‘I called them the disappearing ghosts.'”

Mr. Israel has already disappeared to parts unknown, and Stefanowicz is “on leave,” and yet to be charged with anything. Yet these two men, along with Colonel. Thomas M. Pappas, commander of the military intelligence unit in control of Abu Ghraib prison, in effect constituted key elements of a covert military unit engaged in state-sponsored terrorism.

Another angle on this case remains to be explored, and that is the possibility of other nations being involved. Indications of British involvement are strong, but considerably murked up by the fortuitous publication of fake “abuse” photos by the tabloid Mirror. (Note: never published any of those photos, and for good reason: they looked fake to us, and just didn’t pass the smell test. Just as the phony photos published by the Boston Globe also failed to impress us.)

But there is one country that seems the logical place to go for “expertise” in the “art” of torturing Arabs, and that is Israel. Those hoods the prisoners were made to wear, befouled by excrement (and probably pig fat), are an Israeli innovation, so to speak. Furthermore, tales of sexual humiliation are rife among Palestinians who fall into the hands of the Israeli police authorities. The news that the Israelis have been “advising” the Americans on the ins and outs of managing an occupation surprised no one, and the leaked report of General Antonio Taguba mentioned the presence of “third country nationals” at Abu Ghraib. If this was a program run amok, then wouldn’t the hatred of Israeli “interpreters” for their Arab victims figure as a factor in all this?

Another possible foreign connection is the role of our Arab allies. Saudi Arabia has been cooperative, lately, and is well-known as the world capital of torture. Such methods are routine in Saudi prisons, and it makes sense that the “black ops” boys would want to “outsource” this kind of work. Plausible deniability and all that.

The point is that if American soldiers are going to be scapegoated, held up as symbols of pure evil, and made the objects of a massive wave of hatred directed at the U.S. , any other countries that are involved should not be allowed to slither out of their responsibility as collaborators, enablers, and teachers. There’s enough blame here so that we can afford to spread it around.

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].