The Abu Ghraib We Cannot See

IN mid-October of 2003, Specialist Sabrina Harman of the 372nd Military Police Company was assigned guard duty on the military intelligence cellblock at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad. That was the block where prisoners of the American occupation forces were held pending and during interrogation. The M.P.’s had no military training as prison guards, and they were told to do whatever the interrogators — a mix of military intelligence and C.I.A. officers and civilian contractors — asked them to do to the prisoners.

Specialist Harman and her comrades were astonished to find a number of prisoners on the block naked and trussed to the bars in painful “stress positions,” their heads hooded by sandbags, or by women’s panties. In civilian life, Specialist Harman aspired to become a police crime-scene photographer, and so at Abu Ghraib she set to work at once, snapping away with her digital camera.

What were the pictures for? “Just to show what was going on,” Ms. Harman said. To say, “Look, I have proof, you can’t deny it.” Sometimes she and her fellow guards posed alongside their abused wards, but most of her photos from Abu Ghraib have a purely documentary quality — solitary prisoners, stripped and manacled in their cells, stretched over bed frames or forced to balance on a box. Cpl. Charles Graner, the M.P. in charge of the night shift on the intelligence block that fall, also took photographs. And Corporal Graner, too, spoke of his snapshots as a form of “proof.” He showed the pictures to his superior officers, medics, lawyers.

Later, he told Army investigators how he had routinely beat up prisoners for interrogators, or kept them up all night, making them crawl naked back and forth across the floor. “Was all this stuff wrong?” he said. “Yeah.” But his point was that it was no secret. He kept getting praised for his work.

Six months later, in April 2004, when the Harman and Graner photographs were leaked to the press, they shocked the world’s conscience. They also performed a great public service. They told us something about ourselves that we might have suspected but did not fully know — that the Bush administration had decided to fight terror with terror, and torture with torture.

We did not fully know this before the photographs came out, because our leaders hid it from us, and when it was revealed they denied it. “We do not torture,” Mr. Bush kept saying, even as a stream of official documents leaked to the press contradicted him.

Had a journalist taken the photos, there would have been prizes. Instead, the photographs were used by the administration and the military to frame the soldiers who took and appeared in them as rogues acting out of their own individual perversity. In this way, the exposé became the cover-up: the soldiers who revealed our corruption to us were made scapegoats and thrown in prison.

Five years later, America is again caught up in a debate about the release of photographs that show our soldiers using Bush administration “interrogation techniques” at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.

Barack Obama, whose first act as president was to re-criminalize torture, initially favored making the pictures public. Then Mr. Obama changed his mind. His critics (civil libertarians, human rights advocates and press commentators) are saying that this makes him no different from his predecessor.

They are mistaken. Just as it was a public service to release the Abu Ghraib photographs five years ago, Mr. Obama is right today to say we don’t need more of them.

The president claims that a new round of images of prisoner abuse flashing around the globe would enflame America’s enemies and endanger our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. There’s no doubt about it: the policies that the photographs depict have already done terrible damage to America’s cause.

But there’s another critical consideration. Releasing additional photographs would not be telling us anything that we don’t already know. We don’t need to see a picture to know that American interrogators used waterboarding — a crime our military has prosecuted as torture for more than a century — when we can see former Vice President Dick Cheney taking credit for having people waterboarded.

Mr. Obama is not suppressing information when he opposes the release of more photographs. After all, he just made public a series of Bush administration torture policy memos that authorize the very methods for inflicting pain and suffering that the Abu Ghraib photographs represent. In fact, it is because of Mr. Obama’s leadership in bringing these dark practices to light that the press and the public — having for too long been passive to the point of complicity on the issue — are now agitating for more sensational imagery. Who are we trying to fool, if not ourselves, if we pretend that we need more photos to know what has been going on?

Crime-scene photographs, for all their power to reveal, can also serve as a distraction, even a deterrent, from precise understanding of the events they depict. Photographs cannot show us a chain of command, or Washington decision making. Photographs cannot tell stories. They can only provide evidence of stories, and evidence is mute; it demands investigation and interpretation.

I spent more than a year living with the photographs from Abu Ghraib while writing a book about the soldiers who took them and appeared in them. I saw many more pictures than were ever published in the press, including, I believe, many — if not most — of the photos that the president would now prefer that you don’t see.

Yet in order to tell the story of the pictures most effectively, I decided not to include any of them in the book. I had more than two million words of interviews to work with, and as many words again of government paperwork, and in this way I could show that most of the worst things that happened at Abu Ghraib were never photographed. What those soldier-photographers revealed to us with their cameras was just a hint of what they have to tell us if only we would listen.

Some of the most disturbing photographs from Abu Ghraib are not photographs of torture. Rather, they are photographs that show our soldiers trying — without the proper training or equipment — to do their jobs. One of the most gruesome images shows an empty cell, sticky with blood. It is an image of pure gore, like a snapshot of an abattoir floor, and if one comes upon it in a sequence of torture photographs it seems self-evidently a picture of unspeakable aftermath.

But the soldiers who served at Abu Ghraib can speak, and the story they tell of that picture is one of professional military conduct. One night an Iraqi guard at the prison smuggled a loaded pistol to a prisoner. An informant tipped off the guards. When the M.P.’s went to recover the gun, the prisoner began shooting, and the soldiers shot him in the legs. The blood in the photo is the prisoner’s, and nobody else was hurt. Meanwhile, prisoners were regularly beaten bloody in the showers during interrogation, and there are no photographs of that.

Today, with all that we know about the Bush administration’s torture policy, the discussion about the release of more photos is a sideshow. Yet, in his eagerness to move on, Mr. Obama himself sometimes seems to forget what the memos he has released tell us about the pictures he is holding back.

Several times, in the past week, he has revived the old “bad apples” theory that blames a few low-ranking “individuals” for doing what our highest leaders asked of them. Photographs can’t show us that the real bad apples were at the top of the civilian chain of command in Washington, but that is what we need to know — or, rather, since we’ve known it and gone along with it for a long time, that is what we need to come to terms with now.

Philip Gourevitch, the editor of The Paris Review, is the author, with Errol Morris, of “The Ballad of Abu Ghraib.”


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Photos Lie – and They Also Tell the Truth. Release Them.

Abu Ghraib Guards Say Memos Show They Were Scapegoats


Charles Graner and Lynndie England posed a few years ago at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Both were sentenced to prison for their role in detainee abuse.

When the photos of detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq surfaced in 2004, U.S. officials portrayed Army Private Charles A. Graner Jr. as the ringleader of a few low-ranking “bad apples” who illegally put naked Iraqi detainees in painful positions, shackled them to cell doors with women’s underwear on their heads and menaced them with military dogs.

Now, the recent release of Justice Department memos authorizing the use of harsh interrogation techniques has given Graner and other soldiers new reason to argue that they were made scapegoats for policies approved at high levels. They also contend that the government’s refusal to acknowledge those polices when Graner and others were tried undermined their legal defenses.

Graner remains locked up at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., about halfway through a 10-year prison sentence for detainee abuse, assault and dereliction of duty. His lawyer said this week that he is drafting appeals arguments centered largely on the revelations in the memos and a newly released congressional investigation into the interrogation practices.

President George W. Bush “was so disappointed in what happened, yet the whole time he knew what was going on,” said Graner, answering questions through his wife, Megan, who also worked at Abu Ghraib. He is the only one of about a dozen soldiers tried for abuses at the prison who remains incarcerated.

Graner and other defendants — including Lynndie R. England, who was photographed holding a naked detainee by a leash — were blocked by military judges from calling senior U.S. officials to the stand at their trials in 2004 and 2005. The government would not acknowledge any policy or procedure that could have led to what the world saw in the photographs.

Some of what the guards at Abu Ghraib did, such as throwing hooded detainees into walls, echoes tactics authorized in the Justice Department memos, such as “walling,” in which interrogators were allowed to push detainees in CIA custody into a flexible wall designed to make a loud noise.

But the Abu Ghraib photographs also depicted some actions, such as punching or stomping, that bear no relation to the techniques described in the memos, as well as others that were improvised by guards, such as forcing detainees to masturbate or to form human pyramids while naked.

Charles Gittins, a Virginia lawyer who represents Graner, said he has been fuming since reading the memos. He said he has long believed that there was no way Graner and the other Army reservists invented techniques such as stress positions, leashing and the use of dogs, and he says the documents confirmed his suspicions.

“Once the pictures came out, the senior officials involved in the decision-making, they knew. They knew they had to have a cover story,” Gittins said. ” ‘It was the bad apples led by Charles Graner.’ ”

Gittins said he hopes to convince the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces that top officials improperly influenced the court and kept evidence from the defense.

According to the memos and congressional documents, U.S. officials reverse-engineered techniques from U.S. survival training courses designed to teach troops how to endure capture and interrogation. Justice and Defense department officials approved the use of dogs, nudity, stress positions, sleep deprivation and other techniques.

Those tactics, according to the documents, were put into use at the facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in the CIA’s secret prisons, and eventually were adopted in Afghanistan and Iraq after then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s approval was forwarded from officials at Guantanamo to Capt. Carolyn Wood, a military intelligence officer. She told investigators that she then sought approvals in Afghanistan for the tactics and brought them with her to Iraq and Abu Ghraib. Senior officers in Iraq also approved the methods there.

Though considered illegal under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the tactics were put into official use in late 2003. They have since been banned in a new Army Field Manual on interrogations.

Janis L. Karpinski, a former Army Reserve general in charge of prisons in Iraq who was demoted and left the Army as a result of the Abu Ghraib scandal, said she was stunned silent by the administration memos.

“I could have cried,” Karpinski said. “I always had a sense of betrayal because it’s just disgusting. I’m sure those photos scared the hell out of them,” she added, referring to Bush administration officials. “Here, in living color, you have a photographic rendition of your memos. Is that what they wanted it to look like? Guess what, that is what it looks like.”

It is unclear whether low-level soldiers who were convicted of crimes can retrospectively use the Justice Department memos to their advantage. Gary Myers, a New Hampshire lawyer who represented Ivan L. “Chip” Frederick on abuse charges, said that unless the soldiers knew about the policies specifically, the memos might be irrelevant in a courtroom. Still, Myers said he is going to use the recent developments to try to get Frederick’s dishonorable discharge removed from his record.

“If what was suggested as license was itself illegal, relying on illegal documents or opinions is not in my mind a defense,” Myers said. “What we know now is we had at the time a rogue government that created an environment where this sort of conduct was condoned, if not encouraged. But it doesn’t do anything for you when you hold it up against the maltreatment statute of the [Uniform Code of Military Justice], which is law, passed by the Congress.”


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