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Abu Ghraib: The Hidden Story

Final Report of the Independent Panel to Review DoD Detention Operations (The Schlesinger Report)

by James R. Schlesinger, Harold Brown, Tillie K. Fowler, and General Charles A. Horner (USAF-Ret.)
August 2004, 102 pp. plus appendices

AR 15-6 Investigation of the Abu Ghraib Detention Facility and 205th Military Intelligence Brigade

by Major General George R. Fay
August 2004, 142 pp.

Free societies in the Middle East will be hopeful societies, which no longer feed resentments and breed violence for export…. The terrorists are fighting freedom with all their cunning and cruelty because freedom is their greatest fear—and they should be afraid, because freedom is on the march.”

—President George W. Bush,
Republican National Convention, New York, September 2, 2004

It was discovered that freedom in this land is not ours. It is the freedom of the occupying soldiers in doing what they like…abusing women, children, men, and the old men and women whom they arrested randomly and without any guilt. No one can ask them what they are doing, because they are protected by their freedom…. No one can punish them, whether in our country or their country. They expressed the freedom of rape, the freedom of nudity and the freedom of humiliation.”

—Sheik Mohammed Bashir,
Friday prayers, Um al-Oura, Baghdad, June 11, 20041

They have long since taken their place in the gallery of branded images, as readily recognizable in much of the world as Marilyn struggling with her billowing dress or Michael dunking his basketball: Hooded Man, a dark-caped figure tottering on a box, supplicant arms outstretched, wires trailing from his fingers; and Leashed Man, face convulsed in humiliation above his leather collar, naked body twisted at the feet of the American female in camouflage pants who gazes down at him without expression, holding the leash casually in hand. The ubiquity of these images in much of the world suggests not only their potency but their usefulness and their adaptability. For the first of the many realities illuminated by the Global War on Terror—or the GWOT, as the authors of the latest reports listed here designate it—is the indisputable fact that much of the world sees America rather differently from the way Americans see themselves.

Out of the interlocking scandals and controversies symbolized by Hooded Man and Leashed Man, the pyramids of naked bodies, the snarling dogs, and all the rest, and known to the world by the collective name of Abu Ghraib, one can extract two “master narratives,” both dependent on the power and mutability of the images themselves. The first is that of President Bush, who presented the photographs as depicting “disgraceful conduct by a few American troops, who dishonored our country and disregarded our values”—behavior that, the President insisted, “does not represent America.” And the aberrant, outlandish character of what the photographs show—the nudity, the sadism, the pornographic imagery—seemed to support this “few bad apples” argument, long the classic defense of states accused of torture.

The facts, however, almost from day one, did not: the Red Cross report, the Army’s own Taguba report, even the photographs themselves, some of which depicted military intelligence soldiers assisting in abuses they supposedly knew nothing about—all strongly suggested that the images were the brutal public face of behavior that involved many more people than the seven military police who were quickly charged. The new reports not only decisively prove what was long known, widening the circle of direct blame for what happened at Abu Ghraib to nearly fifty people, including military intelligence soldiers and officers—although subsequent disclosures suggest the number is at least twice that. More important, the reports suggest how procedures that “violated established interrogation procedures and applicable laws” in fact had their genesis not in Iraq but in interrogation rooms in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba—and ultimately in decisions made by high officials in Washington.

As General George R. Fay writes, in a section of his report that was classified and kept from the public,

Policies and practices developed and approved for use on Al Qaeda and Taliban detainees [in Afghanistan and Guantánamo] who were not afforded the protection of the Geneva Conventions, now applied to detainees who did fall under the Geneva Conventions’ protections.

According to General Fay, these “policies and practices” included, among others, “removing clothing, isolating people for long periods of time, using stress positions, exploiting fear of dogs and implementing sleep and light deprivation.”

What we know as “the Abu Ghraib scandal” has in fact become an increasingly complex story about how Americans in Afghanistan and Cuba and Iraq came to commit acts, with the apparent approval of the highest officials, that clearly constitute torture. The images themselves, however, having helped force open the door to broader questions of how the Bush administration has treated prisoners in the War on Terror, are now helping as well to block that door; for the images, by virtue of their inherent grotesque power, strongly encourage the view that “acts of brutality and purposeless sadism,” which clearly did occur, lay at the heart of Abu Ghraib. Even public officials charged with investigating the scandal—these are the fourth and fifth full reports on the matter, with at least four more to come—at the same time seek to contain it by promoting the view that Abu Ghraib in its essence was about individual misbehavior and sadism: “Animal House on the night shift,” as former secretary of defense James Schlesinger characterized it, even as his own report showed in detail that it was a great deal more.

The second “master narrative” of Abu Ghraib is that of the Muslim preacher Sheik Mohammed Bashir, quoted above, and many other Arabs and Muslims who point to the scandal’s images as perfect symbols of the subjugation and degradation that the American occupiers have inflicted on Iraq and the rest of the Arab world. In this sense the Hooded Man and the Leashed Man fill a need, serving as powerful brand images advertising a preexisting product. Imagine, for a moment, an Islamic fundamentalist trying to build a transnational movement by arguing that today “nations are attacking Muslims like people attacking a plate of food,” and by exhorting young Muslims to rise up and follow the Prophet’s words:

And why should ye not fight in the cause of Allah and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated (and oppressed)?—women and children—whose cry is: “Oh Lord, rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from thee one who will help!”

For such an Islamic fundamentalist, quoting these words to give legitimacy to his call for jihad against the United States—as Osama bin Laden did in his famous 1998 fatwa “Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders”2—what better image of Arab ill-treatment and oppression could be devised than that of a naked Arab man lying at the feet of a short-haired American woman in camouflage garb, who stares immodestly at her Arab pet while holding him by the throat with a leash? Had bin Laden sought to create a powerful trademark image for his international product of global jihad, he could scarcely have done better hiring the cleverest advertising firm on Madison Avenue.

And not only are these photographs perfect masterpieces of propaganda; they have, to paraphrase Henry Kissinger, the considerable advantage of being true. Or, to put it another way: if the Hooded Man and the Leashed Man and the naked human pyramids and the rest shocked Americans because of their perverse undermining of the normal, they shocked Iraqis and other Arabs because the images seemed to confirm so vividly and precisely a reality that many had suspected and feared but had tried not to believe.


I always knew the Americans would bring electricity back to Baghdad. I just never thought they’d be shooting it up my ass.”

—Young Iraqi translator,Baghdad, November 2003

On first setting eyes on the Hooded Man in April, I thought instantly of this joke, which I’d heard in a Baghdad street six months before. At that moment, the insurgency, wholly unanticipated by American officers on the ground and stubbornly denied by their political masters in Washington, had been gaining strength for months.3 Enormous suicide bombings had killed hundreds, had driven the United Nations, the Red Cross, and many other international organizations from the country, and had turned Baghdad into a city of stone, its public buildings and hotels and many of its roads encircled by massive concrete blast barriers and its American occupation government wholly inaccessible behind the barbed-wire and machine-gun nests of the grim fortress called the Green Zone.

The only Americans most Iraqis saw were the sunglasses-wearing machine-gunners atop the up-armored Humvees and Bradley fighting vehicles that barreled through traffic several times a day. These patrols were coming under increasingly frequent attack, usually from the ubiquitous “improvised explosive devices,” or IEDs, which insurgents concealed in garbage cans or behind telephone poles. By November the number of attacks against Americans had doubled, to nearly forty a day. In May 2003, the month President Bush declared that “major combat” was over, forty-one Americans died in Iraq; in November, six months later, 110 died. And by and large, as was clear in Iraq at the time, and as these reports amply confirm, the American officers had very little idea who was killing their troops and had become increasingly desperate to find out. General Fay writes in his report that

as the pace of operations picked up in late November–early December 2003, it became a common practice for maneuver elements to round up large quantities of Iraqi personnel [i.e., civilians] in the general vicinity of a specified target as a cordon and capture technique. Some operations were conducted at night….

Representatives of the Red Cross, who visited Abu Graib nearly thirty times in this period, offered a more vivid account of “cordon and capture”:

Arresting authorities entered houses usually after dark, breaking down doors, waking up residents roughly, yelling orders, forcing family members into one room under military guard while searching the rest of the house and further breaking doors, cabinets and other property. They arrested suspects, tying their hands in the back with flexi-cuffs, hooding them, and taking them away. Sometimes they arrested all adult males present in a house, including elderly, handicapped or sick people. Treatment often included pushing people around, insulting, taking aim with rifles, punching and kicking and striking with rifles. Individuals were often led away in whatever they happened to be wearing at the time of arrest—sometimes in pyjamas or underwear….4

In this way the Americans arrested thousands of Iraqis—or, as Schlesinger puts it, “they reverted to rounding up any and all suspicious-looking persons—all too often including women and children. The flood of incoming detainees contrasted sharply with the trickle of released individuals.” Soon the population of the US military’s detention system approached ten thousand and very few Iraqis did not have some family member or friend who had gained intimate familiarity with American “cordon and capture.” When Sheik Bashir complained to the Sunni faithful at the Um al-Oura mosque that Friday in June of the occupying soldiers “abusing women, children, men, and the old men and women whom they arrested randomly and without any guilt,” he had no need to point to photographs. In Baghdad and Falluja eight months before, I had heard the same bitter complaints, not only about the brutality of the tactics but about the obvious randomness of the arrests, which General Fay now confirms:

  1. 1

    See Edward Cody, “Iraqis Put Contempt for Troops on Display,” The Washington Post, June 12, 2004.

  2. 2

    See Osama bin Laden, “Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders,” February 28, 1998, in Voices of Terror, edited by Walter Laqueur (Reed, 2004), pp. 410–412.

  3. 3

    See my “Delusions in Baghdad,” The New York Review, December 18, 2003.

  4. 4

    See my “Torture and Truth” and “The Logic of Torture,” the first articles in the present series, in The New York Review, June 10 and June 24, 2004, respectively.

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