Book Excerpt: American Exceptionalism at Its Worst

The horrors of American torture at Abu Ghraib are revealed.


(page 3 of 3)


Victor Peskin.

Rumsfeld's "outing" turned Darby's world upside down. When he returned to the United States, his wife was already in hiding due to threats. Some of Darby's family members called him a traitor; his brother stopped talking to him; and Darby, fearing recriminations from his former high school classmates and neighbors, kept away from his hometown of Cumberland, Maryland.

Several investigations followed Darby's whistle-blowing on Abu Ghraib's "little shop of horrors." Of these, Major General Antonio M. Taguba's fifty-three-page report detailing the Army's failure to uphold the Geneva Conventions at Abu Ghraib was the most devastating. Taguba lamented to Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker that his investigation was limited to the military police at Abu Ghraib and did not include those above them in the chain of command. "These M.P. troops were not that creative," he told Hersh. "Somebody was giving them guidance, but I was legally prevented from further investigation into higher authority. I was limited to a box." Still, Taguba's inquiry, which revealed extensive evidence of wrongdoing, angered high-ranking officials in the Department of Defense. In January 2006, the two-star general received a telephone call from General Richard Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, telling him he was to retire within a year. "They always shoot the messenger," Taguba recalled. "I was being ostracized for doing what I was asked to do."

In his report, Taguba concluded that the 372nd Military Police Company had committed "sadistic, blatant, and wanton" criminal acts that included keeping detainees naked for days at time, threatening them with weapons and dogs, and forcing them to perform sexual acts on one another. He also found that Military Intelligence interrogators and those from "other government agencies" (OGA, a military euphemism for the CIA) "set . . . physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses." Another investigation, this one led by Major General George Fay, concluded that "CIA detention and interrogation practices led to a loss of accountability, abuse, reduced interagency cooperation, and an unhealthy mystique that further poisoned the atmosphere at Abu Ghraib."

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other high-level U.S. officials maintained that what happened at Abu Ghraib was abuse, not torture. Conveniently overlooking the [Assistant Attorney General Jay S.] Bybee and [Deputy Assistant Attorney General John] Yoo memo of August 2002 justifying certain forms of torture for interrogation purposes, Rumsfeld claimed that the abuses at the prison were at odds with what the president wanted. "The president from the beginning had a policy of humane treatment and torture was not allowed," said Rumsfeld. "We had a policy that reflected the president's policy." Such protestations belied the fact that the International Committee of the Red Cross had written the administration as early as November 2003 about various forms of ill-treatment at the prison. According to the Red Cross, detainees "under supervision of Military Intelligence were at high risk of being subjected to a variety of harsh treatments ranging from insults, threats and humiliations to both physical and psychological coercion, which in some cases was tantamount to torture, in order to force cooperation with their interrogators."

In the end, few people were sanctioned for the cruelties at Abu Ghraib. Among them were seventeen Army Reservists. Karpinski received a court-martial, becoming the highest-level official to receive formal sanctions. She was demoted from general to colonel for "dereliction of duty," misleading investigators, and, oddly, shoplifting, the last a purported misunderstanding that had taken place years before. Six other soldiers from the 800th were also sanctioned, with several doing prison time. Specialist Charles Graner, "the night-shift ringleader [infamously] photographed grinning beside piles of naked detainees," was sentenced to ten years via court-martial. Staff sergeant and night-shift leader Ivan Frederick received eight years, while three others received a year or less. Perhaps the most publicized reservist, Lynndie England—widely recognized as the woman holding a leash tethered to a detainee and hotly criticized for having an affair and a child with Graner—received three years and a dishonorable discharge.

While the arrests of these particular individuals weren't difficult to effectuate, those at the highest levels of command remained shockingly immune from legal scrutiny. Although the reservists clearly committed crimes and deserved recrimination, as Karpinski notes in her memoirs, "Officers like me . . . do not make policies. We implement them." Her higher-ups, by contrast, were rewarded for their time in Iraq. By the time of Karpinski's writing, General Sanchez—holder of the top military position in Iraq during the scandal—was awaiting a fourth star, and General Barbara Fast—the most senior military intelligence officer in Iraq—had been promoted to commanding general of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center at Fort Huachuca in Arizona.

Also evading punishment for any role they may have played in either explicitly or implicitly condoning the abuse were the Bush Six: the six U.S. officials who authored the legal framework that had enabled torture. They include David Addington, former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney; Jay Bybee, a prominent lawyer who served as head of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice from 2001 through March 2003; Douglas Feith, Bush's former undersecretary of defense for policy; Alberto Gonzales, who served as both White House Counsel and U.S. Attorney General; William Haynes II, chief counsel for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former Department of Defense general counsel; and John Yoo, a deputy in the Office of Legal Counsel from 2001 to 2003.

Soon after his forced retirement from the Army, Antonio Taguba wrote in a preface to a human rights report that U.S. detention and interrogation practices in the war on terror had damaged "America's institutions and our nation's founding values, which the military, intelligence services, and our justice system are duty-bound to defend." He added: "After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt whether the [Bush] administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account."


Hiding in Plain Sight: The Pursuit of War Criminals from Nuremburg to the War on Crime by Erick Stover, Victor Peskin, and Alexa Koenig (University of California Press, 2016, $32.95, 504 pp.) Eric Stover is faculty director of the Human Rights Center and adjunct professor of law and public health at UC Berkeley. Victor Peskin is associate professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University and a research fellow at the Human Rights Center, UC Berkeley School of Law. Alexa Koenig is executive director of the Human Rights Center and lecturer in residence at the UC Berkeley School of Law. The Human Rights Center at the UC Berkeley School of Law is an independent research and training center that applies innovative technologies and scientific methods to investigate war crimes and other serious violations of human rights. The Human Rights Center received the 2015 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.

This excerpt appears in the August edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

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