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The American Prospect March 2005

Ritual Abuse

Abu Ghraib was supposed to be the end of U.S. torture, once the scandal was exposed. But what if it was just the beginning?

BY Tara McKelvey

THE WALLS AND CEILING WERE PAINTED BLACK. Acid rock blared around the clock. It was cold in the tiled room, located in a building outside Baghdad International Airport, on January 1, 2004. But despite the chilly temperature, Mohamed (he asked me to use a fake name), a 36-year-old sound engineer from the al-Bunuk district of Baghdad, was sweating. The interrogators had forced him and another hooded detainee to run back and forth in the room for hours. When Mohamed and the other detainee bumped into each other, a husky American in a T-shirt and camouflage pants would grab the loose cloth on the back of their hoods and crack their skulls together.

"Bang," says Mohamed. "He kept doing that for a while."

Sitting in a hotel room in Amman, Jordan, on December 6, 2004, less than a year after being captured by U.S.-led forces in Iraq, Mohamed describes how three interrogators later pushed his limp body back and forth across the slick tiles. "I was like a ball, you know, a punching ball," he says. "I could hear them talking and laughing."

As Mohamed describes his detention from December 30, 2003, to January 6, 2004, he heaves a raspy sigh and dabs his eyes with a tissue. He covers the damp tissue with a fresh one and places them both carefully on the table. A slender, dark-haired graduate of Baghdad University's College of Arts, he has fastidious manners and eats a cheese sandwich at lunch with a knife and fork. He has a ruptured eardrum (an American soldier periodically blasted a horn in his ear) and a scarred wrist that looks as if it has been skinned (he was kept in "flexicuffs" for days).

The interrogators worked in shifts, Mohamed says, and each had a specialization. Every few hours, he'd hear a "slightly different" kind of acid rock and think, "Oh, there's the guy who works with cold water." That interrogator would pour water on Mohamed's skin when he was dehydrated and watch him lick off the drops. Another beat him with a metal folding chair (until it broke into pieces). There was a female soldier who used sexual humiliation: She exposed her breasts and simulated sex. One interrogator prepared a CD on which a child cried over and over again, "Save me!" When Mohamed heard the recording, he says, he thought about his three daughters, ranging from six months to seven years of age.

During his detention, he was asked repeatedly about former Vice President Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the No. 1 fugitive in Iraq. "I have no relationship with him," Mohamed says. "I've seen him on TV -- that's it." A blond soldier in glasses and a crew cut would say, "Give us the information we want or we're going to kill you."

In Baghdad, there is no record of Mohamed's detention, says Barry Johnson, a Multi-National Force public-affairs officer. Detainees held for fewer than 14 days are not always processed, he explains, and Mohamed was detained for only eight days. But there are photos of his house -- shot by Al-Jazeera and described by the BBC -- that show a bloody floor and smashed gates following the December 30, 2003, "raid-and-search campaign" by U.S. troops.

IN SOME WAYS, AMERICANS HAVE REASON TO CELEBRATE the two-year anniversary of the Iraq War on March 19, 2005. Saddam Hussein is in custody, and Iraqis recently voted in their first free elections in decades. But the insurgency continues, and there are new signs that some of the techniques that scandalized the world after the Abu Ghraib story broke may be continuing, and that Iraqi security forces are now involved. On February 5, 2005, The New York Times ran a photo of one of the Iraqis' captives, a terrified-looking Egyptian kidnapper, Abdel-Qadir Mahmoud, alongside an article describing harrowing threats and interrogation techniques.

The Iraqi police may have ratcheted up the harsh treatment of detainees -- but not by much, say human-rights workers in the United States. Sleep deprivation, military dogs, and other aggressive methods have been used in an effort to ferret out information from detainees at Guantanamo Bay and in Afghanistan, where eight men have died in U.S. custody, according to Human Rights Watch researcher John Sifton. The methods have been criticized for their inefficiency and brutality (an FBI agent calls them "torture techniques" in a December 5, 2003, e-mail recently released by the American Civil Liberties Union). Yet public discussion of the techniques, says Sifton, has fallen into a "conceptual lacuna."

"People are leaving out whole aspects of the issue, trying to fit it into a simple narrative," he explains. "They say, 'It's just the night shift at Abu Ghraib.'"

It's a shame, say human-rights workers, because these techniques may be implemented in the future -- if not on Iraqis like Mohamed (that will be left to local police) then on those picked up elsewhere. In other words, say human-rights experts, this is how we do business in Iraq and, possibly, in other countries down the road.

"It seems that if we feel threatened, we will do what we need to do," says Karen J. Greenberg, executive director of New York University's Center on Law and Security. "We don't have a mechanism in place for accountability, and there's nothing to stop these methods from being used in another conflict. Why do we care? Because if this is a continuing U.S. policy, it will destroy our position in the world."

Officially, stricter guidelines for interrogations have been issued: A December 31, 2004, Justice Department memo redefines torture and limits what interrogators can do. But it's not clear where things are headed. Congressional leaders are considering legislation that might provide an allowance for using "coercive techniques" that could "shock the conscience" (a phrase used in a 1952 Supreme Court case) when, as Representative Jane Harman said in a speech at Georgetown University on February 7, 2005, "the president believes there is 'an urgent and extraordinary need.'" "It's a type of legal definition that works in theory but is actually dangerous," says Human Rights Watch's Sifton. "If you give detainees an excuse to mistreat detainees, they'll exploit it."

A Democratic aide told me that the legislation was still in the formative stages and that Harman was not ready to comment on specifics.

Interrogations have their place. Saddam Hussein was tracked to his "spider hole" on December 13, 2003, because Americans had unraveled a "social network," says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a think tank that looks at defense policy. "Everybody says, 'Well, torture doesn't work.' It may not work on an individual, but if you put enough people to the question, it can provide information. The people being tortured might not have known where Saddam was, but they know somebody who might know." When asked if other methods could have been used, Pike laughs. "They could have said, 'Pretty please,'" he says.

The harshest techniques -- such as "water boarding," in which prisoners are strapped to a board, submerged in water, and made to feel like they're drowning -- were discussed as a way of handling high-level al-Qaeda suspects, says Timothy Flanigan, who served as deputy to Alberto Gonzales in 2001 and 2002. "The only thought was that if we used these techniques, it would save American lives," says Flanigan, a father of 14 children and now general counsel for Tyco International. "We did not want to leave permanent damage."

The water board, which Flanigan described to me, dates at least back to the 1970s in this country, when it was used to toughen up officers at two Navy schools, according to a March 22, 1976, Newsweek article. On March 26, 1976, Amnesty International Secretary-General Martin Ennals wrote to President Gerald Ford's defense secretary and complained, saying the practice "increases the expertise of the trainers in the application of torture." The defense secretary, one Donald Rumsfeld, apparently never wrote back.

For the most part, experts advise against torture. FBI agents who visited Guantanamo Bay questioned the harsh strategies "in terms of effectiveness," according to a May 13, 2004, e-mail obtained by the ACLU. Military officials say they are outraged. "Our policy has always been to treat detainees humanely," says Lieutenant Colonel John Skinner, a U.S. Defense Department spokesman. "All credible allegations of mistreatment are always investigated."

Yet recent investigations, including a report by Vice Admiral Albert Church on interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay and in Afghanistan and Iraq, have been postponed indefinitely. In August 2004, Defense Department spokesmen said the Church report would be released within weeks. In early February, Skinner said a draft had been circulated at the Pentagon. But the final report has yet to appear. "It'll be out when it's completely done," Skinner says.

THE TORTURE STORY, ESPEcially concerning Abu Ghraib, seems to be in its wind-down phase. But experts warn that there are more chapters to come. "With detainee abuses, the story is less than halfway through its life," says Scott Horton, former chairman of the Committee on International Human Rights of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. One issue, he says, is "the operation of a gulag of detention facilities around the world."

Mohamed is a member of a potential class-action lawsuit filed by Susan Burke, Shereef Akeel, and attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights against private contractors Titan Corporation and CACI International Inc. for abuses their employees allegedly committed in Iraq. Spokesmen for both companies have vehemently denied the charges.

Mohamed returned home from captivity to find a black banner in front of his house, symbolizing the death of his father, 70-year-old Shihab Ahmed, in the raid. An autopsy, according to Mohamed, listed the cause of death as "gunshot wounds," including three fired at short range to the back of his head. Later that week, an American colonel arrived at Mohamed's house.

"He filled the entire street with Hummers," says Mohamed. "He got out of the car and he said, 'We're sorry. We got some false information.' My relatives said, 'Show him what they did.' I lifted up my pant leg, and my leg was completely blue. I think the colonel was affected by what he saw."


Copyright 2005, The American Prospect, Inc.