The pattern of abuse of Iraqi prisoners follows established CIA interrogation techniques
May 6, 2004
By Vikram Dodd
In Britain the debate about photographs depicting abuse of Iraqi prisoners has centred on their authenticity. In the US there are no doubts about the pictures showing what American soldiers did in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison.
But the photos raise a larger question. Did a gang of reservists from Virginia hit on ways of mistreating Muslim prisoners to maximise their humiliation all by themselves? President Bush says the photos disgust him. However, there is growing evidence that the abuses in Abu Ghraib were no aberrant act, but a warped product of US policy and the practices of its intelligence community.
In emails released by his family, Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick, a guard at Abu Ghraib, says military intelligence used dogs to intimidate prisoners, leading to "positive results and information". In one email he wrote: "We have had a very high rate with our style of getting them to break. They usually end up breaking within hours." Sgt Frederick said that he queried some of the abuses: "I questioned this and the answer I got was: this is how military intelligence wants it done." Another guard supports his claim that intelligence people controlled Abu Ghraib, as does the former head of US military prisons in Iraq, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski.
The recently leaked army report into the abuses, by Major General Antonio Taguba, said military intelligence, CIA personnel and private contractors "actively requested that guards set physical and mental conditions for favourable interrogation of witnesses". They were meant to soften up detainees before the interrogators got to work.
It's not just in Iraq that the US is accused of abusing its prisoners. The five Britons released from Guantánamo Bay told of beatings and other ill-treatment. Weeks before last year's alleged abuses at Abu Ghraib, Gen Karpinski said a team ofintelligence officers from Guantánamo Bay visited Abu Ghraib to "give them new techniques".
While in Iraq in late August and early September 2003, the Guantánamo team - overseen by Major General Geoffrey Miller - recommended that military police guards act as "enablers" for interrogations, Gen Taguba reported. The US is now bringing in Gen Miller, who ran the camp at Guantánamo Bay, to run prisons in Iraq. He could at least ensure that guards no longer carry cameras.
A Briton released from Guantánamo alleged that, as in Abu Ghraib, sexual humiliation was identified by US officials as a way of breaking Muslim detainees. In Iraq it was the simulation of oral sex, forced masturbation and human pyramids, withpeople kept naked for long spells. In Guantánamo, according to one British detainee, naked prostitutes paraded before inmates to taunt them.
Abuse allegations against the US have now surfaced in Iraq, Guantánamo, Bagram, in Afghanistan, and even in Gambia, where a British businessman told the Guardian he was threatened with rape and beatings while being questioned by US agents.
Part of the interrogating team at Abu Ghraib was from the CIA. There are clues from that organisation's history that it has found ill-treating detainees to be useful in the past. Two CIA interrogation manuals surfaced in 1997 after the Baltimore Sun obtained them under freedom of information laws. Reading them in the context of the pictures from Iraq and accounts from Guantánamo suggests that the advice they contain is still being applied.
One, dating from 1983, was written for use in Honduras. Entitled "Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual", it states: "The purpose of all coercive techniques is to induce psychological regression in the subject by bringing a superior outside force to bear on his will to resist. Regression is basically a loss of autonomy."
Sgt Frederick says detainees at Abu Ghraib were kept in isolation for up to three days in windowless rooms. According to the CIA manual, "a person's sense of identity depends upon the continuity in his surroundings, habits, appearance, relations with others ... Detention should be planned to enhance ... feelings of being cut off from anything known and reassuring."
The US denies it uses torture. While the pulling of fingernails may be out, coercion and psychological stress are permitted, according to the CIA manual. How to put such advice into practice is up to intelligence officers.
Of the Iraqi images, the most chilling was the hooded man standing on a box, with wires attached to him. He was reportedly told he would be electrocuted if he moved. According to the CIA manual, threatening him with electrocution may have been better than the real thing: "The threat of coercion usually weakens or destroys resistance more effectively than coercion itself. For example, the threat to inflict pain can trigger fears more damaging than the immediate sensation of pain." However, "if a subject refuses to comply after a threat has been made, it must be carried out. Otherwise, subsequent threats will also prove ineffective."
But the CIA manual can enlighten us further about the scandal at Abu Ghraib. The man on the box would have battled exhaustion from having to stand motionless, driven by fear of an electric shock. And, the manual says, "pain that he feels he is inflicting upon himself is more likely to sap his resistance. If he is required to maintain a rigid position such as standing at attention or sitting on a stool for long periods, the immediate source of discomfort is not the questioner but the subject. After a while, the subject is likely to exhaust his internal motivational strength. Intense pain is likely to produce false confessions, fabricated to avoid additional punishment."
The 1983 CIA manual draws heavily from the 1963 "Kubark manual", named after the codeword the CIA gave itself. It explains what the US military may have hoped to gain by sexually humiliating prisoners. "The effectiveness of most of the non-coercive techniques depends upon their unsettling effect. The interrogation situation is in itself disturbing to most people encountering it for the first time. The aim is to enhance this effect, to disrupt radically familiar emotional and psychological associations ... When this aim is achieved, resistance is seriously impaired. There is an interval ... of suspended animation, a kind of psychological shock or paralysis. It is caused by a traumatic or sub-traumatic experience which explodes, as it were, the world that is familiar to the subject as well as his image of himself within that world. At this moment the source is farlikelier to comply."
This appears to be what US intelligence officers at Abu Ghraib have been putting into effect. Specialist Sabrina Harman, one of the accused guards, testified that it was her job to keep prisoners awake, including the hooded man placed on a box with wires attached to his fingers, toes and genitals.
According to the New Yorker, she stated: "MI [military intelligence] wanted to get them to talk. It is Graner [a guard] and Frederick's job to do things for MI ... to get these people to talk." The Kubark manual states that "resistance is sapped principally by psychological rather than physical pressures". It also warns that approval from headquarters is needed for "bodily harm" or "medical, chemical or electrical methods". The two deaths now being treated as murder probably emanate from sadism, rather than policy.
It remains to be seen what kind of disciplinary or legal action the Abu Ghraib interrogators and their superiors will face. As Sgt Frederick wrote in an email: "They always said that shit rolls downhill, and guess who is at the bottom?" And if George Bush is unsure what US intelligence is capable of, he can always ask his dad. The first President Bush used to be head of the CIA.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004