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The Logic of Torture


We’ve now had fifteen of the highest-level officials involved in this entire operation, from the secretary of defense to the generals in command, and nobody knew that anything was amiss, no one approved anything amiss, nobody did anything amiss. We have a general acceptance of responsibility, but there’s no one to blame, except for the people at the very bottom of one prison.
—Senator Mark Dayton (D-Minn.), Armed Services Committee, May 19, 2004

What is difficult is separating what we now know from what we have long known but have mostly refused to admit. Though the events and disclosures of the last weeks have taken on the familiar clothing of a Washington scandal—complete with full-dress congressional hearings, daily leaks to reporters from victim and accused alike, and of course the garish, spectacular photographs and videos from Abu Ghraib—beyond that bright glare of revelation lies a dark area of unacknowledged clarity. Behind the exotic brutality so painstakingly recorded in Abu Ghraib, and the multiple tangled plotlines that will be teased out in the coming weeks and months about responsibility, knowledge, and culpability, lies a simple truth, well known but not yet publicly admitted in Washington: that since the attacks of September 11, 2001, officials of the United States, at various locations around the world, from Bagram in Afghanistan to Guantanamo in Cuba to Abu Ghraib in Iraq, have been torturing prisoners. They did this, in the felicitous phrasing of General Taguba’s report, in order to “exploit [them] for actionable intelligence” and they did it, insofar as this is possible, with the institutional approval of the United States government, complete with memoranda from the President’s counsel and officially promulgated decisions, in the case of Afghanistan and Guantanamo, about the nonapplicability of the Geneva Conventions and, in the case of Iraq, about at least three different sets of interrogation policies, two of them modeled on earlier practice in Afghanistan and Cuba.1

They did it under the gaze of Red Cross investigators, whose confidential reports—which, after noting that “methods of physical and psychological coercion were used by the military intelligence in a systematic way to gain confessions and extract information,” then set out these “methods” in stark and sickening detail2—were handed over to American military and government authorities and then mysteriously “became lost in the Army’s bureaucracy and weren’t adequately addressed.”3 Or so three of the highest-ranking military officers in the land blandly explained to senators on the Armed Services Committee on May 19. On that same day, as it happened, an unnamed “senior Army officer who served in Iraq” told reporters for The New York Times that in fact the Army had addressed the Red Cross report—“by trying to curtail the international organization’s spot inspections of the prison”:

After the International Committee of the Red Cross observed abuses in one cellblock on two unannounced inspections in October and complained in writing on Nov. 6, the military responded that inspectors should make appointments before visiting the cellblock. That area was the site of the worst abuses… . Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade, whose soldiers guarded the prisoners, said that despite the serious allegations in the Red Cross report, senior officers in Baghdad had treated it in “a light-hearted manner.”4

Why had these “senior officers” treated the grave allegations of the Red Cross, now the subject of so much high-level attention, in “a lighthearted manner”? The most plausible answer is that they did so not because they were irresponsible or incompetent or evil but because they were well aware that this report—like the others that had been issued by the Red Cross, and by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and other wellknown organizations—would have no bearing whatever on what the American military did or did not do in Iraq.

The officers almost certainly knew that, whatever the investigators of the Red Cross observed and wrote, American policies in Abu Ghraib prison were governed by entirely different concerns, and were sanctioned, even as the insurgency in Iraq gained strength and the demand for “actionable intelligence” became more urgent, by their most senior commanders—among others, by Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the overall commander in Iraq, who on October 12 (about the time Red Cross investigators were making their two unannounced inspections) signed a classified memorandum calling for interrogators at Abu Ghraib to work with military police guards to “manipulate an internee’s emotions and weaknesses” and to assume control over the “lighting, heating … food, clothing, and shelter” of those they were questioning.5

Six weeks later, Brigadier General Karpinski herself wrote to Red Cross officials to say that “military necessity” required the isolation of prisoners of “significant intelligence value” who were not, she asserted, entitled to “obtain full [Geneva Convention] protection,” despite the Bush administration’s stated position that the conventions would be “fully applicable” in Iraq.6 We now have a good deal of evidence about how military policemen at Abu Ghraib, who had been ordered (according to Sergeant Samuel Provance, one of the first soldiers in military intelligence to speak to reporters) to “strip down prisoners and embarrass them as a way to help ‘break’ them,”7 attempted, whether enthusiastically or reluctantly, to fulfill these orders.


We can begin with the story of the as-yet-anonymous prisoner who on January 21, 2004, gave a sworn statement—obtained by The Washington Post—to the military’s Criminal Investigation Division about his time in Abu Ghraib:

The first day they put me in a dark room and started hitting me in the head and stomach and legs.

They made me raise my hands and sit on my knees. I was like that for four hours. Then the Interrogator came and he was looking at me while they were beating me. Then I stayed in this room for 5 days, naked with no clothes… . They put handcuffs on my hand and they cuffed me high for 7 or 8 hours. And that caused a rupture to my right hand and I had a cut that was bleeding and had pus coming from it. They kept me this way on 24, 25, and 26 October. And in the following days, they also put a bag over my head, and of course, this whole time I was without clothes and without anything to sleep on. And one day in November, they started different type of punishment, where an American Police came in my room and put the bag over my head and cuffed my hands and he took me out of the room into the hallway. He started beating me, him, and 5 other American Police. I could see their feet, only, from under the bag.

A couple of those police they were female because I heard their voices and I saw two of the police that were hitting me before they put the bag over my head. One of them was wearing glasses. I couldn’t read his name because he put tape over his name. Some of the things they did was make me sit down like a dog, and they would hold the string from the bag and they made me bark like a dog and they were laughing at me… . One of the police was telling me to crawl in Arabic, so I crawled on my stomach and the police were spitting on me when I was crawling and hitting me… .

Then the police started beating me on my kidneys and then they hit me on my right ear and it started bleeding and I lost consciousness… .

A few days before they hit me on my ear, the American police, the guy who wears glasses, he put red woman’s underwear over my head. And then he tied me to the window that is in the cell with my hands behind my back until I lost consciousness. And also when I was in Room #1 they told me to lay down on my stomach and they were jumping from the bed onto my back and my legs. And the other two were spitting on me and calling me names, and they held my hands and legs. After the guy with the glasses got tired, two of the American soldiers brought me to the ground and tied my hands to the door while laying down on my stomach. One of the police was pissing on me and laughing on me… . And the soldier and his friend told me in a loud voice to lie down, so I did that. And then the policeman was opening my legs, with a bag over my head, and he sat down between my legs on his knees and I was looking at him from under the bag and they wanted to do me because I saw him and he was opening his pants, so I started screaming loudly and the other police starting hitting me with his feet on my neck and he put his feet on my head so I couldn’t scream… . And then they put the loudspeaker inside the room and they closed the door and he was yelling in the microphone… .

They took me to the room and they signaled me to get on to the floor. And one of the police he put a part of his stick that he always carries inside my ass and I felt it going inside me about 2 centimeters, approximately. And I started screaming, and he pulled it out and he washed it with water inside the room. And then two American girls that were there when they were beating me, they were hitting me with a ball made of sponge on my dick. And when I was tied up in my room, one of the girls, with blonde hair, she is white, she was playing with my dick… . And they were taking pictures of me during all these instances.8

What is one to make of this Dantesque nightmare journey? The very outlandishness of the brutality might lead one to think such acts, if not themselves fantasies, must be the product of a singularly sadistic mind—and that indeed, as the Army has maintained, we are dealing here with the abuses of a half-dozen or so unstable personalities, left unsupervised, their natures darkened and corrupted by the stresses of war and homesickness and by the virtually unlimited power that had been granted them. That the abuse reported by many other Abu Ghraib detainees in their affidavits, and depicted in the photographs, is very similar does not of course disprove the Army’s “few bad apples” defense; on the contrary, perhaps these half-dozen or so miscreants simply terrorized their cellblock, inflicting similar abhorrent acts on anyone they pleased. But then we come upon the following report, written by the Reuters bureau chief in Baghdad and published in the magazine Editor and Publisher, about the treatment of three Iraqi employees of Reuters—two cameramen and a driver—who were filming near the site of the downing of a US helicopter near Fallujah in early January when troops of the 82nd Airborne Division arrived:

  1. 1

    In Abu Ghraib prison alone, senior officials have testified that no less than three sets of interrogation policies were put in play at different times—those cited in Army field manuals, those used by interrogators who previously worked in Afghanistan and a third set created by Iraq’s commanding general after policies used at Guantanamo Bay,” from Craig Gordon, “High-Pressure Tactics: Critics Say Bush Policies—Post 9/11—Gave Interrogators Leeway to Push Beyond Normal Limits,” Newsday, May 23, 2004.

  2. 2

    See my “Torture and Truth,” The New York Review, June 10, 2004, the first part of the present article, which takes up the Red Cross report in detail.

  3. 3

    See Edward Epstein, “Red Cross Reports Lost, Generals Say: ‘The System Is Broken,’ Army Commander Tells Senate Panel about Abu Ghraib Warnings,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 20, 2004.

  4. 4

    See Douglas Jehl and Eric Schmitt, “Officer Says Army Tried to Curb Red Cross Visits to Prison in Iraq,” The New York Times, May 19, 2004.

  5. 5

    See R. Jeffrey Smith, “Memo Gave Intelligence Bigger Role: Increased Pressure Sought on Prisoners,” The Washington Post, May 21, 2004.

  6. 6

    See Douglas Jehl and Neil A. Lewis, “US Disputed Protected Status of Iraq Inmates,” The New York Times, May 23, 2004.

  7. 7

    See Josh White and Scott Higham, “Sergeant Says Intelligence Directed Abuse,” The Washington Post, May 20, 2004.

  8. 8

    See “Translation of Sworn Statement Provided by __, Detainee #_, 1430/21 Jan 04,” available along with thirteen other affidavits from Iraqis, at “Sworn Statements by Abu Ghraib Detainees,” www.washingtonpost. com. The name was withheld by The Washington Post because the witness “was an alleged victim of sexual assault.”

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