Mark S. Hamm, PH.D.
“High Crimes and Misdemeanors”:
George W. Bush and the Sins of Abu Ghraib
The second pillar of peace and security in our world is the willingness of free nations, when the last resort arrives, to retain aggression and evil by force.
--George W. Bush
The chilling images of detainee abuse at Baghdad’s Abu
Ghraib prison—especially the iconic figure of a hooded man connected to
electrical wires; of Private Lynndie England posing in front of a line of
naked men, cigarette dangling from her mouth, her finger pointed towards the
genitals of naked victims—infuriated Muslims around the world and rallied
Arab sentiment to the cause of Islamic extremism. Today copies of the photos
can be seen in marketplaces from
Indeed, as if to remind the world that all terrorism
begins with a grievance, four days after the Abu Ghraib photos were released
the terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi beheaded a 26-year-old Jewish
businessman from Philadelphia named Nicholas Berg, and broadcast the
gruesome event on an Islamic militant Web site, prefacing the decapitation
with a statement about the torture scandal. Teenagers in
A nation that sanctions torture in defiance of its
democratic principles pays a heavy price. The crimes of Abu Ghraib had
devastating political consequences for the
Despite their importance in the history of the
Scholars have met this challenge by offering fascinating sociological perspectives on Abu Ghraib (e.g., Apel, 2005; Brown, 2005; Ferrell, et al., 2005; Mestrovic, 2007), but few have examined the disgrace for what it really is: a crime. This is surprising given criminology’s traditional concerns with violent subcultures and prisoners’ rights. It is especially surprising that left-leaning criminologists have been generally silent on the subject. Consider, for example, how the following Abu Ghraib photograph might be reconciled with Foucault’s famous argument in Discipline and Punish (1977: 16) that modern societies are moving away from controlling the body of the prisoner through a “reduction in penal severity…[characterized by] less cruelty, less pain, more kindness, more respect, more humanity.”
In trials of the soldiers brought to justice for this
crime, judges ruled that photographs are the “best evidence” in the public
debate about the abuses of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at Abu
But they were not the ultimate perpetrators of this crime. The photographic record—along with supporting evidence from various investigations—reveals that the torturing of prisoners at Abu Ghraib followed directly from decisions by top officials, from President George W. Bush on down, to “take off the gloves” in prisoner interrogations. Although the policies and practices of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency are almost entirely hidden from public view, available evidence—some of which is considered in this article—does indicate that the CIA was the lead agency at Abu Ghraib (with Army intelligence and military police in supporting roles). Therefore, the CIA is primarily responsible for what happened there—an aspect of the Abu Ghraib scandal that has been largely ignored by the media (Goodman and Goodman, 2006 are a rare exception).
In the second point made here, and contrary to Phillip Zimbardo’s infamous Stanford prison experiment, I argue that the enduring lesson of Abu Ghraib is that the human capacity for brutality is not universal; rather, group culture and organizational leadership are the catalysts that turn ordinary people into predators.
The crimes of Abu Ghraib began in the late summer of
2003 against the backdrop of rising chaos in
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 and sick people. Treatment often included pushing people around, insulting, and 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 [sic]or underwear—and were denied the opportunity to gather a few essential belongings, such as clothing, hygiene items, medicine or eyeglasses (ICRC, 2004: 256).
The warden at Abu Ghriab, reserve Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, commander of the 800th Military Police (MP) Brigade, and the vast majority of the 300 MPs under her supervision, had never worked in a prison and therefore had no experience or training in the handling of inmates. By all accounts, Karpinski was considered grossly incompetent. She failed to provide both a system to process the detainees, and an adequate number of translators and interrogators to identify genuine insurgents among the thousands of innocent or neutral Iraqis caught up in the sweeps (Ricks, 2006; Taguba Report, 2004). Over the next several months hundreds of raids were conducted and the Abu Ghraib population swelled to more than 10,000 inmates, including women and children as young as nine years old (Kennedy, 2006). Some “high value” detainees arrived with broken bones from beatings; others were brought in severely burned from being strapped across the hoods of Army trucks as they were transported, tied down like slain deer (Ricks, 2006.).
As insurgents mounted nightly mortar attacks on the
prison, MP units were placed on mandatory sixteen-hour shifts, often for
seven days a week. They became demoralized and heavily outnumbered, with a
prisoner-to-guard ratio of 75:1, overwhelming the institution’s security,
food service, and sanitation systems. More than a hundred MPs themselves
lived in cells at Abu Ghraib, often in total darkness due to the electrical
Against this perilous foreground military officials
came under increasing pressure from
Meanwhile, the CIA began to mobilize more and more of
its resources out of
The photographs were taken with digital cameras by MPs working the night shift inside cellblock 1, the so-called Hard Site—seven tiers of cells where interrogations took place—and later gathered by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID) (Hersh, 2005). (A section of the cellblock, 1 Alpha, housed high security CIA prisoners). The full dossier of the CID’s photographic evidence includes 16,000 photos (only 200 were made public), 173 of which were taken by Corporal Charles Graner, Jr., the ringleader of the abuse, and 112 videos. The archive depicts rampant mistreatment of prisoners including forced hooding and nudity, the use of dogs to terrorize detainees, forcing detainees to remain in stress positions for prolonged periods, and varieties of sleep deprivation.
Some of these techniques were designed by Sanchez’s point man on interrogations, Major General Geoffrey Miller—former head of the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba (aka, Gitmo)—who was appointed to Abu Ghraib by Donald Rumsfeld in September 2003. Miller’s tactics were intended to “Gitmo-ize” Abu Ghraib by attacking cultural sensitivity, particularly male sensitivity to issues of gender and sexuality—a technique that Miller reportedly drew from cultural anthropologist Rapael Patai’s 1978 book The Arab Mind, which depicts sexual shame and humiliation as the greatest weakness of Arab men (Ibid.). In addition to attacking cultural sensitivity, Miller ordered physicians and psychologists to review inmate records, looking for individual phobias that could be used to exploit the inmates’ fears (Miles, 2006).
The techniques emerging from Miller’s Gitmo-ized model included beatings, starving, asphyxiation, burning, stretching (as in the medieval “rack”), sexual degradations, “low-voltage electrocution,” all manner of psychological manipulation, mutilation via dog bites, forced drugging, and forcing victims to watch the abuse of loved ones as a method of emotional blackmail (Marks, 2005; Miles, 2006; Ricks, 2006). Prisoners were raped, ridden, deprived of medical treatment, and forced to eat pork and drink alcohol in contravention of their religion (Buncombe et al., 2005). The abuse was pervasive and occurred in showers, stairwells, hallways, storage containers, and vehicles (Mestrovic, 2007). Cellblocks were filled with the screams of inmates. An Abu Ghraib detainee would later recall: “We suffered. We wept. We kept silent” (Kennedy, 2006).
In Miller’s words, the purpose of this was “to treat prisoners like dogs” (Karpinski, 2006), yet the Pentagon would later claim that there was resistance to Miller’s correctional philosophy. An Army investigation says, “There was a great deal of animosity on the part of the Abu Ghraib personnel, especially some [military intelligence] Personnel. This included an intentional disregard for the concepts and teachings the GTMO Team attempted to instill” (Fay, 2004: 59). Even so, no one in the military intelligence community had the courage to blow the whistle, and for good reason: Whistle-blowing would do no good because Miller’s tactics were part of an overarching doctrine of prisoner abuse sanctioned at the highest levels of the United States government.
Entries from a prison logbook contained within the CID
archive indicate that in numerous cases MPs believed their tactics were
being approved by—and in some cases ordered by—military intelligence
officers, CIA agents, and private contractors (Walsh, 2006). Karpinski later
claimed that military intelligence had given the MPs “ideas” that led to the
abuse (Taguba Report, 2004). These tactics were not employed during
interrogation sessions per se; rather, MPs were ordered to use them as a
means of “softening up” detainees for questioning by CIA and military
intelligence (Hersh, 2005; Schulz, 2005). Information gathered in the
interrogations was to be funneled into a newly-established $11 million
computerized database known as the
Evidence of wrongdoing at Abu Ghraib first surfaced on
December 12, 2003, when a confidential report by retired Army Colonel Stuart
Herrington charged that prison officials were systematically violating the
human rights of detainees under the Geneva Conventions. Though the date of
Herrington’s report indicates that the
On the evening of April 28, 2004, a small portion of the Abu Ghraib photographs were shown on the CBS television program 60 Minutes II. Two days later the New Yorker magazine posted on its Web site a fuller account of the images. The pictures were then broadcast by CNN, the BBC, and Al-Jazeera, unleashing public horror and outrage around the world.
The Red Cross found that the methods of abuse at Abu Graib were “part of a process” deployed by U.S. interrogators on a daily basis at a series of overlapping CIA and Defense Department detention systems; first against a few high value al-Qaeda suspects at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, then against scores of ordinary Afghans and other Arabs at Guantanamo, and finally against hundreds of innocent Iraqis at Abu Ghraib and other military bases across Iraq—where the U.S. Army would document 26 confirmed prisoner deaths due to abuse (Physicians for Human Rights, 2005). Abu Ghraib was the tip of the iceberg. Practices at the prison represented a pattern of abusing inmates, not an isolated event. But did this “process” actually involve torture?
The 1985 United Nations Convention against Torture,
ratified by the
Throughout history, torturing societies have created laws and
policies to authorize the practice. The
On January 25, 2002, Gonzales espoused this theory in a
memorandum to the President. Arguing for a “new paradigm” of interrogations,
Gonzales declared that the war on terrorism “renders obsolete” the “strict
limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners” required by the Geneva
Conventions. Advising caution, however, Gonzales warned the President that
The CIA Test Case
From the beginning of the war on terrorism, top officials in the Bush administration recognized the need for a division of labor in its interrogations of the enemy. Accordingly, Army intelligence would take responsibility for interrogating the regular flow of people caught up in the sweeps, while the CIA would specialize in the handling of high value detainees. The practice of torture began in the latter domain.
The new paradigm of interrogations was first applied at
a secret CIA safe house in
Was the president of the
And so, according to another well-placed CIA source
developed by journalist Ron Suskind: “He [Zubaydah] received the finest
medical attention on the planet. We got him in very good health, so we could
start to torture him” (2006:100). Based on the recommendations of CIA
psychiatrists, Zubaydah was stripped and placed in a cell without a bed or
blankets. He was forced to stand for hours on the bare floor, with
air-conditioning adjusted so that he would turn blue, and exposed to
deafening blasts of music by the Red Hot Chili Peppers (
Abu Zubaydah was a test case for the CIA’s evolving new role as jailhouse interrogator after September 11. “It was at this point,” recalled CIA Director Tenet of the Zubaydah case, “that we got into holding and interrogating high-value detainees…in a serious way” (2007: 241). Bush’s comment about pain medication for Zubaydah “made it clear to [CIA] officials in many ways that it was time for the gloves to come off,” Risen concludes (2006: 23). Suskind’s CIA source understood much the same. After 9/11, said the source, Bush had a way of pushing people “to do things they didn’t think they were capable of” (2006:101). Bush also had a way of pushing his lawyers to do things that would expand his executive powers to treat detainees harshly.
In August 2002, several months after the Zubaydah affair, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which acts as an in-house law firm for the President, sent a memo to the White House secretly authorizing the CIA to inflict pain and suffering on detainees during interrogations, up to the level caused by “organ failure” (Mayer, 2005). The memo stipulated that torture was illegal only when it could be proved that the interrogator intended to cause the required level of pain. This document—widely known as the “torture memo”—also advised that, under the legal doctrine of military necessity, the President could supersede national and international laws prohibiting torture.
Gonzales approved the torture memo, and with that the
stage was set for Abu Ghraib. George W. Bush may never have issued a written
policy or a direct order authorizing the torture of prisoners at the
Interrogation Policy at Abu Ghraib
As a practical
matter, the new paradigm lacked coherence and ultimately it created great
confusion among those responsible for its implementation. This became
apparent in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s defeat in May 2003, and the
subsequent cordon and sweep operations that filled Abu Ghraib with thousands
of innocent Iraqis. In early October, the Justice Department issued an
opinion stating that Iraqi insurgents were not protected by the Geneva
Conventions. Weeks later the Department reversed itself, declaring that the
Conventions did apply to prisoners in
Because of its imprecision, Bush’s new paradigm allowed for extremely harsh methods to be used against inmates at Abu Ghraib, thereby narrowing the definition of torture almost to the vanishing point. Amnesty International would later declare that Bush’s interrogation paradigm constituted the most significant attack on international law in fifty years, adding that the United States had condoned “atrocious” human rights violations, thereby diminishing its moral authority and setting a global example encouraging torture by other nations (Cowell, 2005; Schulz, 2005). Bush (2005a) dismissed these charges by claiming, “It seemed like to me they [Amnesty] based some of their decisions on the word of—and the allegations—by people who were held in detention, people who hate America, people that had been trained in some instances to disassemble—that means not tell the truth.”
For the inmates at Abu Ghraib, Bush’s policy meant that
only severe pain or permanent physical damage—caused by procedures
specifically intended to bring about such pain or physical damage—could be
considered torture. Mere “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment did not
qualify; nor did “outrages upon personal dignity.” Therefore,
any method of interrogation that
fell short of “intentionally” inflicting pain tantamount to organ failure or
death was legal under Bush’s powers as Commander-In-Chief (Yoo, 2006). Such
provisions did not apply to private contractors employed by the CIA,
however, because corporate mercenaries operated outside the
The Theories of Abu Ghraib
There are three theories about the torture scandal. Although an Army report concludes that there “is no single, simple explanation for why this abuse at Abu Ghraib happened,” (Jones, 2004:2) that is precisely what the military offers: a single, straightforward theory about the physical and sexual abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. In this theory, supported by the Bush administration and its defenders, the abuse is attributed to a few “bad apples” among the military’s lower ranks. Insisting that its top commanders were not at fault, and that there was no policy, directive or doctrine allowing abuse, the Army pinned the entire affair on “a small group of morally corrupt soldiers and civilians” who had smeared the Army’s honor (Ibid.).
The “bad apples” were mainly low-ranking reservists of
the 372nd MP Company; they included Lynndie
The second theory is based on Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford prison study in which two dozen college students were randomly selected to play the roles of prisoners or guards in a simulated prison setting. Believing that his experiment has striking similarities to the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, Zimbardo attributes the abuse to a collapse of discipline in an over-strapped and unsupervised military unit. Rather than blaming bad apples, Zimbardo (2004:1-2) reflects on his experiment to arrive at an explanation wherein “once-good apples [were] soured and corrupted by an evil barrel…[created by] the vinegar of needless war.” Like Dr. Jekyll turning into Mr. Hyde, good soldiers became bad soldiers because they were psychologically traumatized by war and the chronic, dysfunctional conditions inside Abu Ghraib. This profound social psychological transformation led to boredom among the MPs; which, in turn, caused them to exploit their power imbalance over inmates by turning them into “their playthings.” These amusements spun out of control, leading to the physical and sexual abuse of prisoners. Zimbardo argues that most of us would behave this way under similar circumstances. In other words, we are all latent torturers.
Proponents of Zimbardo’s “automatic brutality” theory often distinguish between psychological and physical abuse. In this argument, psychological abuse (referred to as “torture lite”) does not constitute torture, but physical pain does. Miles (2006), for example, limits his definition of torture to pain interrogation (and fixes blame for Abu Ghraib on unethical medical personnel who failed to challenge these practices). Such a torture paradigm is based on the assumption that a prisoner will tell the truth in order to escape a prolonged period of physical agony.
The third theory is advanced by the historian Alfred
McCoy who argues that the tactics used at Abu Ghraib cannot be so easily
categorized into physical and psychological dimensions. According to McCoy,
over the years American military interrogators have found that mere physical
pain, no matter how extreme, often produces heightened resistance in
prisoners. Once this was understood, the CIA designed a revolutionary
two-phase form of torture that fused
sensory disorientation and
pain. This combination causes
victims to feel responsible for their suffering and thus capitulate more
readily to their torturers. Through repeated practice in
These theories provide a basis for interpreting the Abu Ghraib photographs. The following photos were identified by Army investigators as instances of “intentional violent or sexual abuse” (Jones, 2004). The images are best understood in the context of cultural criminology (see Ferrell, 2007)—a criminology of everyday life which, in this case, necessarily concentrates on both the thrills of sexual violence experienced by the immediate perpetrators of the torture, as well as the agony suffered by victims. For the CID archive reveals that the torture and the sexual humiliation of prisoners were often performed in conjunction with American soldiers having sex with prisoners, and with each other.
At one point in the archive, MPs stand by as a detainee is seen sodomizing himself with a banana; at another point, Graner is sodomizing a 15-year-old boy with a phosphorescent light tube, as the boy screams for help. At another point, a dozen inmates are stacked in a naked pyramid; at another point, a male MP is having sex with a female inmate; at another point, a female MP is forcing inmates to masturbate one another; at another point, a male interrogator is sodomizing a boy; and at still another, Private England is on here knees giving Corporal Graner a blow job. There is, then, a pornographic function of the torture scenarios described below, providing what Jock Young (2007: 160) trenchantly calls “a photographic satire on bourgeois individualism worthy of the Marquis de Sade.”
Among the scenes photographed by Graner on October 18 and 19 (2003), dozens depict a single detainee shackled naked with underwear on his head. Graner told the CID that he was ordered by a “civilian contractor” (often a euphemism for CIA) to strip, shackle and hood the detainee as part of a sleep deprivation program (Danner, 2004). The detainee later told investigators:
They stripped me of all my clothes, even my underwear. They gave me woman’s underwear that was rose color with flowers in it, and they put the underwear over my face. One of them whispered in my ear, ‘Today I am going to fuck you,’ and he said this in Arabic.
I faced more harsh punishment from Grainer[sic]. He cuffed my hands with irons behind my back to the metal of the window, to the point my feet were off the ground and I was hanging there for about five hours just because I asked about the time, because I wanted to pray. And then they took all my clothes and he took the female underwear and he put it over my head. After he released me from the window, he tied me to my bed until before dawn….until I lost consciousness (Testimony of Hila, 2004).
Several conclusions can be drawn about the photo and accompanying text. First, although Miller’s Gitmo-ized interrogation methods allowed such short-shackling “for no more than 1 hour per use” (Schlesinger, 2004), this detainee was held five times as long in the first use, then an undetermined number of hours in the second use (“he tied me to my bed until before dawn”). Even within the wide-sweeping legal authority granted soldiers in the war on terrorism, Graner had gone over the top.
For the prisoner, the net physical effect of this treatment was excruciating. After being made to stand barefooted on concrete for hours on end, fluids would have begun to flow down to the inmate’s legs. The legs would have then swollen, forming lesions that would erupt and separate, possibly leading to hallucinations. Then it is possible that the kidneys would have shut down. As the prisoner tired, he would have slouched forward. The weight of his arms pulling on the chest cavity would have constricted breathing, thereby compromising oxygen flow to the brain and other vital organs. Note that the pain is self-inflicted; it is not coming from the outside in the form of a beating or a cattle prod, but from within—driven by the prisoner’s weakness to help himself.
Second, the treatment was also designed leave the prisoner in a state of acute psychological trauma. The prisoner’s nakedness and the use of women’s underwear were meant to sexually humiliate him. Along with the threat of homosexual rape (“Today I am going to fuck you,”), the abuse constitutes an assault on cultural prohibitions against homosexuality among Arabs and a cold-blooded attack on the inmate’s manhood. Such violence takes on added meaning when we consider that the inmate is being sleep deprived and sensually deprived of auditory and visual acuities. Following their visits to Abu Ghraib, Red Cross medical staff determined that prisoners so treated were suffering from “memory problems, verbal expression difficulties, incoherent speech, acute anxiety reactions, and suicidal tendencies” (ICRC, 2004: 13).
Put simply, this prisoner is being treated in a way that is “difficult to endure” because his “bodily functions are impaired.” Granier’s blatant violation of the Army’s short-shackling policy indicates that he “intended” to cause this level of pain and suffering. The abuse therefore constitutes an act of torture as torture is legally defined by the Bush administration itself.
According to the government’s theory, Graner concocted these torture techniques on his own. He was a very bad apple. According to Zimbardo’s theory, Graner was driven to the psychological brink by the social dysfunction of Abu Ghraib. How he acquired the torture techniques, the theory does not say. According McCoy’s theory, Graner was following CIA orders to abide by a precise set of practices designed for use on Arab men. Indeed, during his court martial Graner’s primary defense would be that the CIA and “other civilians” had wanted him to soften up prisoners to make them easier to interrogate (Curtiss, 2005). This is confirmed by a comment Graner made to a fellow MP at Abu Ghraib in October 2003. “MI [Military Intelligence] and OGA [Other Government Agencies, another euphemism for CIA] are making me do things that are morally and ethically wrong,” said Graner. “But I have no choice” (quoted in Kennedy, 2006). Graner’s superiors did not intervene to stop his sadistic treatment of inmates. Instead, in early 2004 Graner received an Army accommodation medal for his outstanding performance on the Hard Site (Ibid.).
Here is the last, and perhaps the most important point
about the photograph presented above. According to the Army’s investigation
(Fay, 2004), we can be 85-90 percent certain that this inmate had no
intelligence value whatsoever. The investigation says: “Most…of the violent
or sexual abuses occurred separately from scheduled interrogations and did
not focus on persons held for
intelligence purposes” (Jones, 2004:3, emphasis added). In other words, the
torture of this prisoner failed to produce any intelligence because there
was no intelligence to produce. Wildly contrary to President Bush’s stance
on interrogations, the inmate posed no threat to the
The Pattern of Torture
One case does not an argument make, of course, so more evidence is necessary to either confirm or refute the various theories of Abu Ghraib. Such evidence is presented next. While the photos may have no corollary in the criminology literature, the following images indicate that there are corollaries within the Abu Ghraib photos themselves. That is, the images reveal a pattern of torture.
According to Graner’s testimony, after he and Sabrina Harman reported to work on the evening of November 4, Graner noticed an odd fluid leaking out of the showers into his office. Upon entering the shower room, the MPs spotted a sealed body bag leaking fluid across the floor. Inside they found a dead Iraqi packed in ice and decided to pose for pictures. In the photo above, Harman is grinning and giving a thumbs-up sign above the Iraqi’s mutilated face. “It was just a dead guy,” Harman said flatly of the incident. “No big deal” (quoted in Kennedy, 2006). The next morning, the dead man had an intravenous drip inserted into his arm and was carried out of the prison on a stretcher, so that other inmates would not realize he was dead.
The dead prisoner was Manadel al-Jamadi, later to become known among
troops as the “
Hence there is parallel to the first torture scenario. Both prisoners were suspended by the wrists, with arms hyper-extended behind their backs—a position widely known as the “Palestinian hanging” for its alleged use by Israeli intelligence in the Palestinian territories. The stress position has been condemned by international human rights groups as torture. Human rights workers suspect that it was an “enhanced interrogation technique” approved by the Bush administration (Hettena, 2005).
Further evidence of the pattern appears in the photo
above. Readers are well-aware of this image, also taken on the night of
November 4. The prisoner is perched on top of a cardboard box; arms
outstretched, with a hood on his head, a blanket around his shoulders and
electrical wires extending from his hands. The hooded man was for many Arabs
a shocking figure uniting humiliation and divinity. For Americans, not only
did the photo represent the nation’s drift away from the ideals that made it
for many a moral beacon in the post-World War II era, but it carried a
postmodern burden as well: the burden of shame. The
New York Times proclaimed that
this image has “become in many eyes more the symbol of
To the MPs of
Abu Ghraib, this prisoner was known as “Gilligan”—a reference to the
television comedy character which epitomized the American effort to
infantilize Arab men. He was handled primarily by Sabrina Harman, a
26-year-old Army reservist and former assistant manager at a Papa John’s
The bad apple theory holds that Harman dreamed this treatment up herself—that this untrained, lowly Army reservist, who had worked on the Hard Site for little more than two weeks, had the martial aptitude necessary to invent such cruelty. Again, Zimbardo’ theory offers no explanation for how Harman learned the technique. And McCoy’s theory says that the treatment is a CIA tactic, similar to the Palestinian hanging, in which sensory disorientation is fused with self-inflicted pain. Further insight is revealed below.
This is what happened to Gilligan before the iconic image was taken. According to Graner, on November 2 he was approached by a soldier from the Army’s CID—the same agency that would later investigate the Abu Ghraib scandal—and ordered to soften up Gilligan by making his life “a living hell for the next three days.” In the photo, Gilligan is hooded and handcuffed to a waist-high rail on a prison catwalk, his arms covered in blood. He remained in this stress position for three days, as Graner and a CID officer yelled at him, day and night, repeating lines from Stanley Kubrick’s apocalyptic 1987 film on the contradictions of the Vietnam war, Full Metal Jacket. “It was basically…Full Metal Jacket—loud as you could to him, and then asking him what his name was,” Graner told investigators. “You fell asleep, you fell down. Wow, you just woke yourself up,” he explained (quoted in Scherer and Benjamin, 2006).
short-shackled to the rail for 72 hours, it is likely that Gilligan’s legs
would have swollen, compromising his kidneys and other vital organs. Again
the technique involves self-inflicted pain combined with sensory
disorientation. And again, even though Gilligan was suspected of having
information about the location of four missing
Here, finally, is Sabrina Harman as she appeared at the height of the Abu Ghraib ordeal. She appears to be wearing panties similar to those that were worn by an inmate who was tortured by Palestinian hanging outside his cell on November 29 (not shown here for legal reasons). Such behavior is consistent with a pattern of treatment involving the degradation of Arab men by female soldiers at Abu Ghraib. Only here, in this case, the ritualized humiliation of a prisoner is literally connected to the sexual seduction of his female captor. The bad apple theory suggests that Harman is smiling because she is simply happy to be wearing her panties on the outside of her military uniform, in the middle of a maximum security prison, inside a war zone. But a cleaner eye prevails. Sabrina Harman is not just smiling; she is in a state of unremitting joy. Though closed in bliss, even her eyes seem to be smiling. This poses no problem for the bad apple theory (bad apples can enjoy their sadism) but it does create problems for Zimbardo. Inspect the photo: Which seems more likely? Is this the look of a bored, stressed-out soldier trapped in a descending spiral of victimization brought on by the pressure to conform to the demands of a chaotic and overcrowded prison? Or, is this the look of a satisfied employee who has just performed her assignments precisely as she has been ordered by her male superiors?
Conclusion: The Criminology of Torture
On April 20, 2004, George W. Bush stood before a crowd
of supporters in
Five major investigations would follow. Despite Bush’s promises, none of them fully investigated the links between military police, military intelligence, the CIA, senior commanders in Iraq, the Pentagon and, finally, the White House. Nor did they fully investigate the atmosphere of legal ambiguity created by Bush’s policy decisions on the treatment of detainees in the war on terrorism. In an odd way, the sensational nature of the sexual abuse photos at Abu Ghraib became a diversion for violations of the Geneva Conventions that occurred there. None of the investigations even mentioned the reasons for detaining women and children at the prison. More the pity, there was little public outcry for a complete, independent inquiry and Abu Ghraib was dismissed as “Animal House on the night shift,” as former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger put it in his report. Abu Ghraib was simply the unauthorized actions taken by a few bad apples, coupled with the failure of a few leaders to provide adequate leadership.
Criminology has much to offer public conversations about Abu Ghraib. For starters, Bush’s renunciation of torture represents a classic state of denial, to use Stan Cohen’s piercing expression. Disavowals of torture “are not private states of mind,” argues Cohen. “They are embedded in popular culture, banal language codes and state-encouraged legitimations” (2001:76). Like Cohen’s description of torture committed by the Argentinean junta of the 1970s, the public discourse surrounding Abu Ghraib was highly coded and full of sanctimonious statements about national purity, good and evil, and the sacred responsibility to eliminate enemies. These statements formed the basis of the Bush administration’s denial text about Abu Ghaib. Rigid language rules, intended to conceal information, all but eliminated from the official discourse such concrete facts as those presented in this research; namely, that innocent prisoners were tortured at Abu Ghraib. Instead, the official discourse referred to “detainees” who had been “maltreated” and “abused” by “a few bad apples” in the “Animal House”—all of which was an unfortunate but minor concern in the “crusade” to rid the world of “evil-doers,” thus spreading “freedom and democracy” throughout the Middle East.
Moreover, Bush’s interpretive denial (Bush would claim on numerous occasions over the years that what happened at Abu Ghraib was really something other than torture) amounted to conscious disinformation intended to swindle the American public into thinking that the government’s investigations should be taken at face value, in the hope that the media—and by implication, the nation—would move on. The strategy was enormously successful inasmuch as the core problems of Abu Ghraib were never confronted and no independent commission was ever set up to investigate the policies that led to the torture. The Bush White House repudiated its torture memo in December 2004 (a few days before Alberto Gonzales’s confirmation hearings to become attorney general) and sidestepped all questions about authorizing the CIA to use harsh interrogation techniques. “It was as if the interrogation policies were developed in a presidential vacuum” laments Risen (2006:24). As a result, Abu Ghraib disappeared from the headlines, mainly because of the lack of proof that Bush had ordered the torture. Worse than torture not being in the news, it was no longer news.
High Crimes and Misdemeanors
Two years after his official denial, to his credit Bush
proposed to demolish Abu Ghraib as a goodwill gesture to the Iraqi people.
Blowing up the prison, bulldozing its remains underground, and allowing al-Jazzera
to broadcast these scenes would have sent the Arab world a powerful message
Under the U.S. Constitution, a president can be impeached for “high
crimes and misdemeanors.” Impeachable offenses include using lies and
deceptions to formulate government policy, and deliberately violating laws
Cohen argues that torture cannot be explained in the same way as ordinary crime, though he does allow that criminological theory may provide a framework for conceptualizing the problem. In this regard, and well-known to criminologists of all stripes, Edwin Sutherland (1947) maintained that all criminal behavior is learned, and that it is learned in interaction with others in a process of interpersonal communication. This learning process involves two characteristics: techniques of committing the crime—skill, or criminal tradecraft—which can sometimes be very complicated; and ideology, or the specific motives for the offense. Sutherland’s theory of ordinary transgressions offers insight into the problem of high crimes and misdemeanors.
No one is more responsible for spreading the ideology
But the real utility of Sutherland’s theory is in its
first principle. How did the MPs learn to torture? My research suggests that
McCoy has it right. That is, while some instances of torture (e.g., rapes
and beatings) were undoubtedly carried out by bad apples, and other times
were perpetrated by soldiers working through a “diffusion of responsibility”
problem as noted by Zimbardo in his automatic brutality theory, I argue that
the most refined and
aggressive interrogation methods
used at Abu Ghraib were designed by the CIA. CIA field officers worked in
close proximity to military interrogators at Abu Ghraib (McKelvey, 2007);
and by virtue of that proximity, MPs were trained and ordered by CIA—often
via military intelligence or private contractors—to use these aggressive
methods against prisoners, and use them ruthlessly. Lynndie
This was especially so for the women. Although they
took the brunt of the blame for Abu Ghraib, Lynndie
The CIA Director at the time of the Abu Ghraib torture
scandal, George Tenet, reported directly to the President of the
Anytime the CIA is involved in state criminality, of course, it will use what the agency calls a “cut out”—a person or persons who will provide plausible deniability for the President’s wrongdoing. “Bush made it clear to Tenet what he wanted done [in prisoner interrogations],” says Risen.
[But] it appears that there was a secret agreement among very senior administration officials to insulate Bush and to give him deniability, even as his vice president [Dick Cheney]…[was] meeting to discuss the harsh new interrogation methods with George Tenet (Risen, 2006:25).
Yet in the final analysis, this is a story about
monumental administrative incompetence. Abu Ghraib was not an aberration. It
was a symptom of a war in which the people in charge had no idea what they
were doing. American efforts to rebuild looted schools and hospitals in
Not only have Bush’s catastrophic policy failures
created a failed state in the middle of the Arab world; they have also
undermined American legitimacy at home. “Our enemies are innovative and
resourceful, and so are we,” said Bush upon signing a $402 billion Defense
Department budget on August 4, 2005. “They never stop thinking about new
ways to harm our country, and neither do we” (2005b). Bush’s malapropism
speaks volumes about the consequences of his haphazard, ineffective, and
morally hideous counterterrorism regime. “I’m also not very analytical,”
said the 43rd President of the
Military records show that between 2004 and 2006 at
least 19,000 Iraqis were released from Abu Ghraib and other military prisons
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_________ (2005b) President’s Address at the Signing of
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__________ (2004a) President’s Remarks in a
Conversation on the USA Patriot Act,
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 The following description is based on expert medial opinions in Mayer, 2005 and McCoy, 2006b, as well as from medical professionals interviewed for this research.
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