FBI Glossed Over Abu Ghraib Abuses

An FBI memorandum released Oct. 15 demonstrates a lack of consistency regarding agents’ knowledge of permitted interrogation techniques used at Abu Ghraib prison. Several Bureau special agents and translators told inspectors during an internal inquiry in May that, while visiting the infamous facility between October and December 2003, they saw detainees hooded or naked and learned of allegations of other mistreatment.

None of the agents reportedly believed such actions "rose to the level of misconduct or mistreatment," according to the report.

The document further notes that none of the 14 FBI personnel interviewed was aware of the activities at Unit 1A or 1B of the prison, where the military acknowledges detainees were harmed, and of which photographs leaked to the media have appeared.

The memorandum, entitled "Inquiry Regarding Activities of FBI Personnel at Abu Ghurayb [sic] Prison," [.pdf] is just one of numerous documents the American Civil Liberties Union received this month after filing Freedom of Information Act requests with various government agencies for documents related to the United States’ use of torture. The FBI’s report, like many of the released documents, is heavily redacted; the names of FBI employees questioned during the inquiry, military personnel, detainees, and even the memorandum’s authors have been blanked out by censors.

Examples of questionable treatment agents witnessed while working at Abu Ghraib include numerous acts now known to have been relatively commonplace. For instance, a special agent witnessed the subjection of a detainee to sleep deprivation and "handcuffed to a waste-high railing," his head covered with a "green nylon sandbag" and "draped in a shower curtain."

In another example, an agent witnessed a detainee found unattended "either naked or wearing boxer shorts, lying prone on the wet floor," reads the May 19 document.

Each of the cases listed in the report includes explanations for the employees’ conclusions and at least implies excuses for inaction on the part of FBI personnel who neither intervened in or reported the acts.

In one instance, an agent watched "military personnel restraining a detainee who was ‘spread eagle’ on a mattress on the floor yelling and flailing." The document does not clarify how many people comprise "military personnel" in these cases, nor are they identified as guards, interrogators, interpreters, clerks, or by nationality. In this case, the "military personnel" assured the FBI special agent that the prisoner suffered from mental illness; the report notes the agent’s own observation of the incident as "consistent with the military personnel attempting to assist a mentally ill person." The memorandum does not explain how the special agent drew such a conclusion.

Regarding instances of prolonged nudity, an agent’s report that he saw detainees ordered to remove their clothes before being put into isolation is tempered with his statement to inspectors that "the stripping was no different from the searching procedures he had observed used by guards in U.S. jails." The report’s retelling, however, neither indicates that the stripping was followed by a search of the detainee, nor suggests that the detainee’s clothes were returned to him.

Despite the report’s conclusion that agents saw nothing they deemed out of the ordinary, FBI personnel interviewed gave different responses regarding their knowledge of accepted interrogation techniques. According to the report, several agents confirmed that they signed a Department of Defense form specifying permitted methods and those requiring specific approval. Only one stated correctly that "sleep deprivation was not on the list of permissible interview activities, but [that it] required a specific request."

Another special agent reported that "he was not aware of [Department of Defense] techniques as they were not relevant to his interviews." Still another told inspectors that he was aware that the military used sleep deprivation and isolation, but he witnessed neither. One agent said he learned of the techniques through Military Intelligence personnel and understood they were permissible for limited periods.

The actual legality of such techniques is difficult to determine, in no small part due to the Bush administration’s hostility toward international law as it pertains to prisoners in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a May 28 letter [.pdf] to Attorney General John Ashcroft, Representative Patrick J. Leahy (D, Vt.), a ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, asked for further explanation regarding the Justice Department’s role in advising the White House on issues of detention and torture. He asked for clarifications on the Justice Department’s policies relative to the capture and treatment of so-called "enemy combatants" and others.

In a June 6 response [.pdf], Assistant Attorney General William E. Moschella rejected Leahy’s suggestion that "the Department of Justice may have assisted the Pentagon and the intelligence community in circumventing the law." Moschella wrote that Iraqi military prisoners "are generally entitled" to protections provided in the Third Geneva Convention, and that the Fourth Geneva Convention protects Iraqi civilians.

However, Moschella selectively cites protections "against ‘grave breaches’ including ‘willful killing,’ ‘torture or inhuman treatment’ or ‘willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or heath,’" completely ignoring that Geneva Convention III relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War also demands that prisoners be "at all times humanly treated," and "are entitled in all circumstances to respect for their persons and their honor."

Cases expressly prohibited under international law include occasions when a prisoner undergoes disciplinary confinement. Article 98 states that such prisoners "shall continue to enjoy the benefits of the provisions of this Convention except in so far as these are necessarily rendered inapplicable by the mere fact that he is confined." Further, the Fourth Convention, which protects civilians in wartime, prohibits "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment."

FBI personnel did tell inspectors that there were three known instances of abuse, but each occurred before the victims were brought to Abu Ghraib.

"Examples of the reported abuse included being kicked in the stomach, electric shock, threats to harm family members, and one burn victim," reads the report, which further notes that FBI employees’ interviews with detainees last year "determined those acts of abuse occurred during arrests by military personnel further described as ‘non-American.’"

The report says that only one prisoner agents interviewed at Abu Ghraib in 2003 found his treatment unacceptable. A special agent told inspectors that he had received complaints from a detainee who was "kept naked and subject to sleep deprivation." He also alleged being "roughed up" by American personnel, but the agent said there was no physical evidence to confirm this. The detainee also told the agent that he heard "commotion and screaming at night," but this allegation was dismissed as "posturing."