Book Excerpt: American Exceptionalism at Its Worst

Book Excerpt: American Exceptionalism at Its Worst


Alexa Koenig.

The horrors of American torture at Abu Ghraib are revealed.

The recently published book Hiding in Plain Sight: The Pursuit of War Criminals from Nuremberg to the War on Terror (University of California Press) tells the story of efforts to capture the world’s most wanted fugitives—mass murderers like Adolf Eichmann, Ratko Mladic, Osama bin Laden, and the elusive Joseph Kony. The story weaves through history and reccurring challenges for international justice, including judicial and political obstruction, backroom deal-making, and broken laws. This excerpt from Hiding in Plain Sight shares a tale of American exceptionalism: How the United States—a proponent of international justice in the post-World War II period—stepped outside the rule of law following 9/11, to use torture, black sites, and extreme detention during the War on Terror.

—Andrea Lampros, Communications Manager, Human Rights Center, UC Berkeley School of Law


House of Horrors

Around the time that Saddam Hussein was being pulled from his “spider hole” in Tikrit, a twenty-four-year-old Army Reservist by the name of Joe Darby was in his office at a sprawling complex some twenty miles west of Baghdad. The day before, a buddy, Corporal Charles Graner, also a member of the 372nd Military Police Company, had given him a CD holding hundreds of images and video clips that he and other guards had taken of their colleagues and the surrounding countryside. Scrolling through the CD, Darby laughed when he came across a picture of a pyramid of naked men. Then he arrived at a photograph of a young woman, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, giving a thumbs-up sign and pointing at the genitals of a young Iraqi detainee, who was naked except for a green plastic bag over his eyes. And then there were others: a video of a uniformed American soldier sodomizing a female detainee; an image of a corpse, its face battered and bruised, bundled in a cocoon of ice.

The more Darby looked, the more horrified he became. “It didn’t sit right with me,” he recalled. “I know, in the heat of the moment, in a war, things happen. You do things you regret . . . but this crossed the line to me.

By that time, Darby had served as a military policeman at Abu Ghraib for several months. Built by British contractors in the 1960s, the 280-acre complex of cell blocks and guard towers first served as an insane asylum for severely disturbed inmates in the pre-Thorazine era. After Saddam took over the prison, the Western media dubbed it Saddam’s Torture Central, because it was where he arranged for the torture and murder of dissidents in twice-weekly public executions overseen by his son, Uday. When ropes failed to kill the prisoners, Uday would have them gassed. Uday was especially fond of the women’s prison: He would select a female prisoner to be brought into his office at Iraq’s Olympics headquarters, rape her, then order her shot or hung from a nearby tree. “If Iraq under Saddam Hussein was hell,” one American commander recalled, “then Abu Ghraib was the furnace. . . . Of all the ghosts in Baghdad, none wailed louder than those at Abu Ghraib.”

When Saddam’s regime collapsed, the prisoners at Abu Ghraib had looted whatever could be stolen—doors, wiring, iron bars, plumbing, light fixtures. Bob Bauer, a former CIA chief, visited the prison two days after it closed. “It was the most awful sight I’ve ever seen,” he told CBS’s 60 Minutes. “If there’s . . . a reason to get rid of Saddam Hussein, it’s because of Abu Ghraib. There were bodies that were eaten by dogs, torture. You know, electrodes coming out of the walls. It was an awful place.”

Senior U.K. officials recommended that the prison be demolished. However, after touring the facility, Lieutenant Paul Bremer III, the chief American administrator in Iraq—desperate for somewhere to hold the military’s rapidly growing population of criminals, suspected insurgents, and other detainees—instead decided to rebuild it as quickly as possible. In late June, Janis Karpinski, an officer in the Army Reserve, was placed in charge of eight battalions of U.S. soldiers and more than twenty jails throughout Iraq, including Abu Ghraib. Karpinski was the first female general ever assigned to command troops in a war zone and had no previous experience running a prison system. To make matters worse, her boss, General Ricardo Sanchez, wasn’t pleased that a woman had been assigned to be the senior military officer in his theater. Recalled Karpinski: “The message I got was: Over my dead body is this female going to be in charge of all the police operations in this country.”

In her autobiography, One Woman’s Army, Karpinski describes how Abu Ghraib became the dumping ground for suspected insurgents during the first six months of the war: “The rule around Iraq seemed to be, if in doubt, send ’em out to Abu Ghraib.” By late summer 2003, Abu Ghraib was packed with nearly 3,000 prisoners. Many of the detainees were Iraqi civilians who had been picked up in random military sweeps or at checkpoints for “suspicious activities.” Most were men, but there were also women, adolescents, and even children as young as ten, the majority of whom were deemed not a threat to society but who were not immediately released due to orders from above.

The prison’s sewage system consisted of holes in the ground and portapotties that over-flowed and, in the extreme summer heat, caused a horrible stench. Water was rationed, and electricity regularly went down, cloaking the prison in an eerie darkness. Shelling of the prison was so frequent that the guards, huddling against walls, would make wagers on the size of an incoming round—was it a 60, an 80, or the one they dreaded most, the 120 mm—and where it might explode.

Three agencies interrogated prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The first was the CIA-directed Iraqi Survey Group, which had been set up to find weapons of mass destruction and to interrogate “high-value detainees” suspected of having links to international terrorist organizations. Then there was a Special Operations covert fusion group—Task Force 121—that included the CIA, Army Delta Force, and Navy SEALs. Task Force 121 was a hybrid of Special Forces that had tried unsuccessfully to capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and was later deployed to pursue Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The Iraqi Survey Group and Task Force 121, which operated in the prison’s secret dark site, kept the names of their detainees off the books to hide them from the International Committee of the Red Cross and thus international oversight. Finally, there was the military’s own intelligence unit.