Abu Ghraib: Who gave the orders?


“Do you really think a group of kids from rural Virginia decided to do this on their own? Decided that the best way to embarrass Arabs and make them talk was to have them walk around nude?”


That good question was posed by Gary Myers, a civilian defense attorney for Sergeant Ivan Frederick, who is one of the military police accused of systematic abuse of detainees in the interrogation unit in Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad (see Torture at Abu Ghraib  by Seymour Hersh, The New Yorker, 10 May).


Myers’ client, and the other accused, are from the 372nd National Guard Company of Military Police, based at Cumberland, Maryland, which was mobilised to serve in Iraq.  It’s impossible to believe that they acted alone.


Myers went on to say that his client’s defense will be that he was carrying out the orders of his superiors and, in particular, the directions of military intelligence. 


In fact, there is no doubt that they were ordered to do what they did by military intelligence to “prepare” detainees for interrogation.  There is little doubt either that the systematic abuse came about because of the demand for “actionable intelligence” to counter the rising insurgency last autumn.


Taguba report

This is known from an internal military inquiry by Major General Antonio Taguba into the operations of the 800th Military Police Brigade, which was responsible for all US military detention facilities in Iraq.  His report was not meant for public release, but it is now widely available (on, for example, the MSNBC website here). 


The Taguba inquiry was ordered in late January, a couple of weeks after the systematic abuse at Abu Ghraib was brought to the attention of the military authorities by a military policeman called Joseph Darby.  He presented the authorities with a CD containing incriminating photographs, and made an incriminating statement.  At that point, an investigation was started, which led to several members of the 372nd Company being indicted in March.


The purpose of the Taguba inquiry was, amongst other things, to “inquire into all the facts and circumstances surrounding recent allegations of detainee abuse, specifically allegations of maltreatment at the Abu Ghraib Prison”.  His conclusions about the latter are very blunt.  He found:


“That between October and December 2003, at the Abu Ghraib Confinement Facility (BCCF), numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees.  This systemic and illegal abuse of detainees was intentionally perpetrated by several members of the military police guard force (372nd Military Police Company, 320th Military Police Battalion, and 800th MP Brigade), in Tier (section) 1-A of the Abu Ghraib Prison (BCCF).


The allegations of abuse were substantiated by detailed witness statements and the discovery of extremely graphic photographic evidence.  Due to the extremely sensitive nature of these photographs and videos, the ongoing CID investigation, and the potential for the criminal prosecution of several suspects, the photographic evidence is not included in the body of my investigation.  The pictures and videos are available from the Criminal Investigative Command and the CTJF-7 prosecution team.”


But, more seriously for the US military (and for the US Government) he leaves no doubt that the purpose of this systematic abuse was to prepare detainees for interrogation by military intelligence and other US government agencies (that is, the CIA), and that the abuse was carried out at the request of military intelligence.  He concludes:


“I find that … Military Intelligence (MI) interrogators and Other US Government Agency’s (OGA) interrogators actively requested that MP guards set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses.  … I find that personnel assigned to the 372nd MP Company, 800th MP Brigade were directed to change facility procedures to ‘set the conditions’ for MI interrogations.  I find no direct evidence that MP personnel actually participated in those MI interrogations.”


In the light of that, the notion that the military police from 372nd MP Company acted on their own is unsustainable.


When Donald Rumsfeld appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 7 May, Senator John McCain asked him:


I'd like to know who was in charge of the -- what agencies or private contractors were in charge of interrogations? Did they have authority over the guards? And what were their instructions to the guards?


Those are the key questions.  He didn’t get straight answers.


Miller recommendations

There is another key question: were the procedures for the guarding and interrogation of detainees changed in Iraq last autumn by orders from above?  If so, did these changes allow military police to “set the conditions” for interrogations, and lead directly to the systematic abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib?


Last autumn, there was another military inquiry into detention facilities in Iraq, headed by Major General Ryder.  Taguba quotes the following from Ryder’s report:


“Recent intelligence collection in support of Operation Enduring Freedom posited a template whereby military police actively set favorable conditions for subsequent interviews.”


That confirms that in US detention centres in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo the treatment of detainees is geared to extract information, and the guards are actively engaged in that process.


That must not have been the case in Iraq last autumn.  Then, with the knowledge and encouragement of the Pentagon, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff sent Major General Geoffrey Miller to Iraq to examine “counter-terrorism interrogation and detention operations in Iraq”, and “to review current Iraqi Theater ability to rapidly exploit internees for actionable intelligence”.


Miller was sent because “actionable intelligence” was urgently required to counter the rising insurgency in Iraq.  He was then in charge of Guantanamo.  He visited Iraq from 31 August to 9 September and shortly therefore made recommendations to General Sanchez, the commander in Iraq.


As part of his inquiry, Taguba reviewed Miller’s recommendations.  These were largely concerned with integrating the guarding and interrogation procedures in order to extract information from detainees more effectively and more quickly.  Taguba comments as follows about his recommendations:


“The principal focus of MG [Major General] Miller’s team was on the strategic interrogation of detainees/internees in Iraq.  Among its conclusions in its Executive Summary were that CJTF-7 [US/UK military command in Iraq] did not have authorities and procedures in place to affect a unified strategy to detain, interrogate, and report information from detainees/internees in Iraq. The Executive Summary also stated that detention operations must act as an enabler for interrogation.


“With respect to interrogation, MG Miller’s Team recommended that CJTF-7 dedicate and train a detention guard force subordinate to the Joint Interrogation Debriefing Center (JIDC) Commander that ‘sets the conditions for the successful interrogation and exploitation of internees/detainees’.  Regarding Detention Operations, MG Miller’s team stated that the function of Detention Operations is to provide a safe, secure, and humane environment that supports the expeditious collection of intelligence.  However, it also stated ‘it is essential that the guard force be actively engaged in setting the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees’.


“MG Miller’s team also concluded that Joint Strategic Interrogation Operations (within CJTF-7) are hampered by lack of active control of the internees within the detention environment.  The Miller Team also stated that establishment of the Theater Joint Interrogation and Detention Center (JIDC) at Abu Ghraib (BCCF) will consolidate both detention and strategic interrogation operations and result in synergy between MP and MI resources and an integrated, synchronized, and focused strategic interrogation effort.”


In essence, Miller recommended that the practice in detention centres in Afghanistan and in Guantanamo – that guards be actively involved in “preparing” detainees for interrogation – be extended to Iraq.  Late last year it was in operation in the interrogation centre in Abu Ghraib, and there are photographs to prove it.


Ordered by whom?

Did this happen as a consequence of Miller’s recommendations?  It’s very difficult to believe that it didn’t.  Here was the man in charge of Guantanamo coming over to advise on how to make detainees cough up “actionable intelligence” to counter the rising insurgency.  His advice, which was all about getting MPs to “set the conditions” for interrogation, would hardly have been ignored.


One thing that did happen was that on 19 November; Sanchez ordered that the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade be placed in tactical control of Abu Ghraib.  Taguba comments:


“This effectively made an MI Officer, rather than an MP Officer, responsible for the MP units conducting detainee operations at that facility.   This is not doctrinally sound due to the different missions and agendas assigned to each of these respective specialties.” 


The systematic abuse in Abu Ghraib had, in fact, begun about a month earlier. 


The Ryder report mentioned above categorically denied that the 800th Military Police Brigade had received orders to change the procedures for detention and interrogation, saying:


The 800th MP Brigade has not been directed to change its facility procedures to set the conditions for MI interrogations, nor participate in those interrogations.”


That sounds like a rebuttal to an accusation.  Taguba disagreed:


As will be pointed out in detail in subsequent portions of this report, I disagree with the conclusion of MG Ryder’s Team in one critical aspect, that being its conclusion that the 800th MP Brigade had not been asked to change its facility procedures to set the conditions for MI interviews.  While clearly the 800th MP Brigade and its commanders were not tasked to set conditions for detainees for subsequent MI interrogations, it is obvious from a review of comprehensive CID interviews of suspects and witnesses that this was done at lower levels.”


That set the scene for the systematic abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib.


Miller has now been put in charge of all US detention facilities in Iraq.  He is now in a position to effect “synergy between MP and MI resources and an integrated, synchronized, and focused strategic interrogation effort”, as he recommended last autumn.


What’s the betting that his first action was to ban cameras from the scene of the synergy?


The US administration has been making a virtue of the fact that the systematic abuse of detainees in Abu Ghraib has been investigated and several military policemen have been charged (though, as yet, none of the intelligence personnel who ordered them to do it).  In fact, without the incriminating photographs, there might not have been any investigation.  Their existence meant that a thorough investigation had to be done, lest they get into the public domain, as they eventually did.  But without them, the whole affair could easily have been swept under the carpet.



May 2004

Labour & Trade Union Review