Focus: Iraq prison abuse scandal
Catastrophe

The White House faced its biggest crisis over Iraq last week, but its origins lie in practices that may have been routine. We reveal how the abuse of prisoners began long before the sickening images which have outraged the world appeared

Peter Beaumont in London, Paul Harris in New York, and Jason Burke in Baghdad
Sunday May 9, 2004

The Observer

There are two versions of what Specialist Sabrina Harman, a US military police officer, was doing with a camera in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad. According to her mother, the former assistant manager of Papa John's pizza restaurant in north Virginia was collecting evidence of improper treatment in the jail.

Robin Harman told yesterday's Washington Post that when her daughter told her what she was doing during her two weeks' leave at home last November, she told her to stop. 'We got into an argument about it at 4 am. Sabrina said she had to prove this. I told her to bring the pictures home, hide them and stay out of it.' It is not an explanation accepted by military investigators probing Harman's role in the abuse at Abu Ghraib.

Neither is it an explanation seemingly borne out by the digital photographs seized from Harman's laptop. Among the hundreds of pictures found is one taken before her unit got to Abu Ghraib last October - a gruesome trophy photograph showing Harman crouching by a decaying corpse giving the camera a thumbs-up and a grin.

Her explanation is also in contradiction with the charges she faces. For it is Harman who has emerged as a central figure in the abuse allegations at Abu Ghraib - a figure involved in some of the most shocking pictures to emerge from the prison.

Harman was one of two soldiers who posed for the now infamous photograph of the pyramid of naked Iraqis in the jail. She is charged with photographing and videotaping detainees ordered to strip and masturbate. And it is Harman who stands accused of attaching wires to a hooded prisoner - stood on a box - and telling him he would be electrocuted if he fell off.

Even Harman's witness statement to investigators fails to stand up the claim by her family and lawyer that she was one of the good guys amid the bad. She makes clear that she was a participant in institutionalised torture.

'The person who brought them in would set the standards on whether or not to "be nice",' said Harman. 'If the prisoner was co-operating, then he was able to keep his jumpsuit, mattress, and was allowed cigarettes on request or even hot food. But if the prisoner didn't give what they wanted, it was all taken away until [military intelligence] decided. Sleep, food, clothes, mattresses, cigarettes were all privileges and were granted with information received.'

The statement confirms what the International Committee for the Red Cross had been saying for months. In visits to Iraq's US-administered prison, it has been documenting abuse that was not the 'exception' but was close to the norm - abuse that was 'tantamount' to a policy of torture, and tolerated by coalition forces.

According to Harman, prisoners were stripped, searched and then 'made to stand or kneel for hours'. At other times they were forced to stand on boxes or hold boxes or to exercise ceaselessly. And what has become increasingly clear in the past few days, in interviews with returning special forces soldiers from Iraq, was that the techniques employed at Abu Ghraib were not simply for the cruel entertainment of military policemen and private contractors running the prison, but an even crueller application of abusive interrogation techniques taught to both US and British special forces.

What has also become clear is that concern over what was happening to Iraqi detainees had been circulating for months, both within the coalition and within the Red Cross and human rights' organisations monitoring Iraq.

Suddenly an administration that seemed immune to bad news from Iraq has been forced on the defensive as the images of Harman and her colleagues cheerfully abusing prisoners in their charge have emerged as a metaphor for the coalition's failures in Iraq.

That it has been a catastrophe for US foreign policy is asserted by usually robust senior Pentagon officials who claim privately that Iraq policy is now '97 per cent disaster' and the war is no longer being planned but crisis-managed from day-to-day. And catastrophe was the word used by the beleaguered Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during his humiliating appearance before Congress.

The Red Cross investigates

Last summer - a few days before the Red Cross evacuated its staff from Baghdad - Nada Doumani, the Lebanese spokeswoman for the ICRC's delegation to Iraq, was sitting in her sandbagged office complaining of the huge difficulties in tracking detainees within the US-administered prison system in Iraq.

Already, as is now clear, her officials were privately concerned over what they were hearing was happening inside the prisons that they were visiting.

These days Doumani and the Iraq delegation is based in neighbouring Jordan, the security situation meaning it still too dangerous for the ICRC to have a permanent, large-scale presence in Iraq. And with the leaking of her organisation's damning confidential report into the conditions of detainees, she can say a little more.

It is a report that paints the most damning picture of conditions in US-run facilities, and that challenges the assertions of the White House and Pentagon that the torture cases in Abu Ghraib were 'exceptional'.

According to other Red Cross officials, concern had been mounting throughout the year over persistent allegations of abuse. 'Between 31 March and 24 October we made 29 separate visits,' says Doumani. These culminated in a visit to Abu Ghraib in October, during which the most egregious abuses were uncovered.

'Right after that visit we gave a findings presentation to the director of the prison, [Brigadier-General] Janis Karpinski.' said Doumani. That critical presentation was followed by the production of a working paper for discussion, also to Karpinski.

At the same time, Red Cross officials were also concerned about allegations of alleged beatings meted out to Iraqis by British soldiers in their sector which was also raised with senior British officers at around the same time - in October and November.

As conversations continued between Red Cross officials and officers on the ground, a damning summary report on treatment of detainees was forwarded by the Iraq delegation to the organisation's headquarters in Geneva.

By New Year it had landed on the desk of the Red Cross's president, Jakob Kellenberger. A former Swiss diplomat, largely to European missions, it would present of the greatest challenges of his career.

For Kellenberger and other senior officials in Geneva, that summary report confirmed worrying reports that were coming from across the US-administered prison system set up to deal with suspects detained in the war in terror. From Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay to Iraq and to friendly third-party countries with poor human rights records which were willing to open up their facilities to the US, a picture was emerging of routine and arbitrary ill treatment. Of men picked up, sometimes on the smallest pretext, disappearing into a chilling closed world.

Determined to raise the organisation's concerns, Kellenberger had scheduled a trip to Washington to talk to the most senior US officials in the Bush administration.

On 13 and 14 January he attended a series of meetings in Washington. In two days he would meet US Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. In each meeting, say Red Cross sources, Kellenberger would deliver the same message: his organisation's belief that coalition soldiers were torturing and mistreating Iraqi detainees.

Within hours that message would be on the desks of Donald Rumsfeld and the most senior officers in the US military. But if Rumsfeld is to be believed, even as a discreet inquiry was launched into the allegations, none of the President's most senior officials thought to tell George Bush.

But Kellenberger was not alone in being concerned. According to the timeline leaked by investigators to the US media, army investigators had also been tipped about the abuses and, after months of inaction, were taking the issue seriously.

Joseph Darby, a 24-year-old reservist at Abu Ghraib, had plucked up his courage and slipped an anonymous note underneath the door of one of his superior officers. It described brutal incidents of abuse of Iraqi prisoners and the existence of graphic photographs taken by Darby's own colleagues.

That move triggered the crisis which has emerged from the brutal hallways of Abu Ghraib to echo through Washington's corridors of power. Darby eventually turned over a computer disk of pictures to a sergeant in his unit on 13 January. A few hours later, army investigators seized other computers and disks from members of the unit. By 14 January - according to this version of events - General John Abizaid was on the phone to Rumsfeld, as Kellenberger was also raising his concern.

On 16 January, the US army curtly announced it had ordered an investigation into abuses at the prison - a five-sentence press release said that an inquiry into 'reported' incidents of detainee abuse had begun. It did not even name the prison.

Washington in crisis

When Rumsfeld, Bush's acerbic, 73-year-old Secretary of Defence, entered the Oval Office for a scheduled meeting on a spring morning last Wednesday, his mind was on a request to Congress for an extra $25 billion to help fund the war in Iraq.

Instead, he found that Bush had other matters to deal with. What followed was an astonishing dressing-down by Bush of one of his closest advisers and personal friends in the presence of Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Bush was deeply upset at the storm of bad publicity swirling out from the Abu Ghraib scandal. If the story that has been carefully leaked from the White House is true, the first time the President saw the pictures that have dominated the world's media was when they were broadcast on CBS's Sixty Minutes news show.

According to that account, Bush was also unaware of a detailed secret military report into the Abu Ghraib abuses that had also leaked to the press, and the Red Cross's devastating presentation.

'I should have known about the pictures and the report,' Bush said. Rumsfeld agreed that what had happened was 'not satisfactory'.

But if Rumsfeld thought that was the end of it, he was dead wrong. At least three senior White House officials, with the President's authority, then leaked the scolding to the media. Karl Rove, Bush's political guru, took the lead in spinning the story. Rove had been furious to see Bush 'blindsided' due to Rumsfeld's failure to alert the White House to the crisis.

As he scanned Thursday's morning headlines, Rumsfeld knew his future was on the line. One defence official last week went so far as to say that Rumsfeld was 'white as a sheet' that day.

But by then the White House was in full crisis mode. Shortly after the Wednesday morning meeting with Rumsfeld, crews from two Arab networks arrived and began setting up equipment in the Map Room. Bush had scooped a hole in his busy schedule to speak directly to the Arab world.

The interviews began at 10 am, each lasting 10 minutes. Several senior aides had advised Bush to apologise, as Rice had done the day before. But when the interviews ended, stunned officials were still left waiting for the magic 'I'm sorry'. Onlookers from the State Department were horrified. They had included a strong recommendation Bush apologise for the Abu Ghraib abuses in a so-called 'talking points' memo to the President.

Perhaps Bush felt an apology was not yet necessary. But as the day wore on and the scandal continued to swirl around the world, advisers kept pressing him to change his mind. He was initially reluctant, believing enough had been done. It was a position that was not to last.

Inside Abu 'Grope'

From the outside all you can see of the prison at Abu Ghraib is a series of squat watchtowers along the road atop a long wall and a tangle of barbed wire that funnels visitors towards the gate of Saddam's most notorious prison. Beyond the wall, it is subdivided into smaller 'camps', including Camp Ganci (with five divisions according to the seriousness of the crime); Camp Vigilant for high-security detainees split into 'black, grey, and white lists;' a Medical Wing, and another camp for those 'serving time'.

Rumours of brutality had been circulating for most of last year. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch had both raised concerns about Abu Ghraib and other prisons. Among Iraqis, the rumours of sexual abuse found greater credence than with the international media, and among US soldiers the prison was even dubbed 'Abu Grope'.

Among those waiting outside yesterday for news from inside was Zacaria Falah, from the northern city of Mosul, who himself spent 70 days in Abu Ghraib this year. His older brother is still imprisoned. Both were accused of helping 'the resistance' - a charge they deny.

Falah tells a similar story to many detainees. He was taken from his home, which was ransacked during the raid, in the middle of the night and transported to a base in Mosul known as 'Camp Disco' to Iraqis because of the habit of the guards of putting on loud music and making the detainees 'dance' for hours on end. From there he was taken to Abu Ghraib, where he was housed in a tent, sleeping on the floor with 34 other men.

But last January few were listening to those like Falah. The story, on a low simmer, needed graphic pictures to boil over - pictures that would detonate a political crisis when they emerged.

Instead, the hundreds of photos, CD discs and videotapes seized from the military police in Abu Ghraib after Darby's complaint were locked in a safe in Baghdad belonging to the army's Criminal Investigation Division. Brigadier-General Mark Kimmitt, the US military spokesman in Iraq, called the Pentagon. He reportedly called the evidence 'damaging and horrific'. Secretly, Major-General Antonio Taguba was appointed to investigate the problem.

Official silence in the Pentagon was still the pattern. Although top officials, including Rumsfeld and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, were kept abreast of the probe, it was in the form of conversations, not a passing on of the detailed reports or photographs. Taguba's report wrapped up in March and six soldiers were charged.

But while many officials would have hoped a line had been drawn under the issue, the story was far from over. By the second week of April it began to leak.

That was when CBS reporters rang the Pentagon revealing they had the pictures and planned to broadcast them. The Pentagon launched an effort to keep the story off the airwaves. Myers called CBS and persuaded staff at Sixty Minutes to hold off on the broadcast. He argued the pictures would be so damaging to US forces in Iraq that deaths could directly result, especially with some US hostages still in Iraqi hands.

In the meantime Pentagon planners drafted an 11-page media response to the story, including some three dozen expected questions and prepared answers. The plan was to focus on Darby's role as an honest whistleblower and the army's swift - if largely secret - investigation.

But as the week has worn on, the Pentagon's strategy to concentrate the story on a few 'bad apples' - including Sabrina Harman - has begun to seriously unravel, not only because of Harman's own evidence but because of the leaked Red Cross report and evidence of returning special forces soldiers to the UK.

According to one officer recently returned from Iraq, sexual humiliation of prisoners in Abu Ghraib was not an invention of 'maverick guards' but part of a system of degradation developed for use by British and US troops called R2I - resistance to interrogation - which uses sexual jibes and stripping prisoners to prolong 'the shock of capture' when detainees are at their most vulnerable.

In an interview with the Guardian yesterday, the officer said: 'It was clear from discussions with US private contractors in Iraq that prison guards were using R2I techniques, but they didn't know what they were doing.'

What has also emerged is the role that US military intelligence officers - and private intelligence contractors - have played in directing the abuse with most of the reservists involved alleging that they thought their duty was to 'soften up' the prisoners for questioning.

Indeed, Taguba's leaked confidential report identifies at least three contractors as being potentially to blame for the problems - contractors who are neither subject to Iraqi law, military discipline or the Geneva Conventions. Yet even as the scandal has boiled over, according to at least one of the companies named in Taguba's report, CACI International, the Pentagon has yet to contact it.

The British connection

By this weekend the disturbing ramifications of what went on in Abu Ghraib had spread to America's closest ally in Iraq - Britain. The Observer has established it was not only US military intelligence, CIA and private contractors who conducted interrogations with prisoners softened up by Harman and her colleagues, it was British officials as well.

Sources in London have disclosed that not only were three military intelligence officers based at Abu Ghraib since January as, unbeknown to them, the crisis was unfolding in Washington, but MI6 officers had been visiting the prison on a regular basis to carry out their own interrogations.

On top of concerns over British mistreatment of Iraqi detainees in the Red Cross report, on top of allegations of abuse by the Queen's Lancashire Regiment in the Daily Mirror, allegations that British officers were in Abu Ghraib, and were unaware of the abuse, has deepened the sense of crisis in London as well as Washington.

As the allegations of abuse continue to build up, UK officials both in London and Baghdad have been at pains to try to distance themselves from what some in the US military have been up to, describing stand-up rows between civilian officials and the US military officers over the treatment of detainees.

It is a tension described to The Observer by Rahman al-Dulaimy, 39, who was arrested in June last year and held in different detention centres for four months. Dulaimy, a former Baath party official whose brothers were in Saddam's secret police, contrasts his treatment by US and British soldiers.

'The soldiers took me to their base at the civil defence headquarters in the al-Shaab district of Baghdad. They kept me alone in a room with my hands zip-tied behind my back for two days, feeding me only one spoonful of army rations a day and giving me a total of two glasses of water. During these two days some interrogators beat me frequently, flung me around, pried off one of my toenails and stood on my back.'

He went down to al-Basra, to Um Qassr, to al-Nasariya, then finally to Basra. 'In Basra I was put in a warehouse under the guard of British soldiers. They treated me well, with dignity and asked many questions, but not in a violent way. The food was much better there - three meals each day and good Iraqi food - and when I felt ill they took me to hospital.

'The prison was more clean and tidy too, and for that I don't want to criticise or accuse the people in Basra. I made a kind of friendship with one of the [British] soldiers who used to listen to me and help me. I got blankets and slept and sat with no problems. People did not bother us and were good to us.

'There were a few Americans there and they did not mix with the British but lived in an isolated area close to the camps and relations were not good. The Americans accused the British of being too soft with prisoners.'

Yet for all of Dulaimy's flattering comparisons between the British and US, it is also clear from the Red Cross's report that, while treatment by British soldiers is not of the order of the organised abuse in some US facilities, the British army has no reason to be complacent amid repeated reports of beatings.

'We know that bad things have gone on,' said one official. 'But we believe it is of a different order. We know a few people may have stepped over the line and they will be dealt with appropriately.'

Rumsfeld at bay

But the question that remains is what is appropriate for the official who has presided over the whole sorry mess - Rumsfeld. On Friday, almost five months after he was first told of the scandal, he appeared before Congress to tell them what he knew, his second career-threatening interview in a week.

'I offer my deepest apology,' he said of the soldiers' behaviour: 'It was un-American.'

In more than six hours of testimony Rumsfeld was contrite and apologetic, while still defending his corner. One after another Rumsfeld, Myers and two other senior Pentagon aides expressed their sorrow for what had happened.

But if the administration was uniform in expressing regret, behind the scenes it is a different scene. Though many do not expect Rumsfeld to resign, his future is uncertain. Even Republican congressmen are furious that he did not inform them of the pictures of the abuse. But sacrificing Rumsfeld is likely to be seen as too high a political price to pay in an election year.

With Rumsfeld warning, however, that the 'worst images' are yet to come, and respect for the US across the world at an all-time low, many are happy to bet he will not make it to the elections in November.

How the story of abuse unfolded

1 May 2003 President George Bush declares end to major combat.

30 June US Army Reserve Brig Gen Janis Karpinski named commander of all military prisons in Iraq.

13 October-6 November Maj Gen Donald Ryder, the US army's provost marshal general, visits Iraq to review prison operations. He noticed 'tension' between US military police and intelligence interrogators.

October-November The abuse documented in the pictures from Abu Ghraib takes place.

13 January 2004 Whistleblower Joseph Darby informs his superiors of an abuse problem and of the existence of pictures. Rumsfeld is told within days and informs Bush.

16 January US Central Command announces that prison abuses are being investigated.

17 January Karpinski told of serious deficiencies in her command and a lack of leadership. Karpinski is later suspended from duty.

31 January Maj Gen Antonio M Taguba is named chief investigator on abuse probe.

January-February Bush becomes aware of charges of abuse in Iraqi prisons.

3 March Taguba presents findings of abuse.

13 March Six soldiers charged with counts ranging from conspiracy to indecent acts.

April CBS journalists contact Pentagon about pictures. General Richard Myers persuades CBS to delay its broadcast.

28 April CBS's 60 Minutes broadcasts pictures.

1 May Six more US soldiers are reprimanded. Daily Mirror releases photos of Iraqi prisoners. Members of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment are allegedly involved.

2 May Doubts raised over authenticity of Mirror photos.

3 May A third British soldier says he saw members of the regiment beating prisoners.

4 May Army claims Mirror images are fake.

5 May High court case announced into claims that British soldiers acted unlawfully by killing six innocent Iraqis in Basra over the past year.

6 May British soldier gives new details of abuse of jailed Iraqis: prisoners were said to have been beaten by UK servicemen until their faces were 'like haggises'.

7 May Rumsfeld apologises to Congress and warns that others photos and videos still exist.

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