Prison has become a symbol of war's missteps

Difficulties of Iraq conflict are reflected in scandal, failures of leadership

Crisis In Iraq

May 09, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - All the troubles and challenges of the war in Iraq converged last fall on a warren of tight, windowless cells of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.

American commanders in Iraq pressured military intelligence officials to squeeze Iraqi detainees at the prison outside Baghdad for valuable "actionable intelligence" that might quell the rising and deadly insurgency in the country.

Among those guarding these detainees on the prison's cell blocks were Army Reserve troops from Maryland, many trained in military police duties, but not as jailers.

These inadequately trained soldiers were led by officers and senior enlisted men who failed to display the most basic of military leadership skills, notably oversight and supervision of the troops under their command.

As the insurgency taxed what critics said was a strained Army, lawlessness and confusion reigned, and Iraqi prisoners by the thousands swelled the prison.

These are among the factors that contributed to Abu Ghraib becoming once again the chamber of horrors that it had been under Saddam Hussein, according to interviews with military officers, Pentagon officials and lawyers for some of those accused in the prison abuse scandal, as well as a report by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba.

Still, officers and soldiers interviewed said that despite pressures for intelligence, the lack of training and severe conditions at Abu Ghraib, there was no excuse for abusing and humiliating prisoners. From their first days, recruits are taught values that include respect, for themselves and others, they said.

A constant theme in the Taguba report's 53-page narrative is the urgency of finding any snippet of intelligence that might help defuse the insurgency.

"We got to make sure that not only do we harden targets but that we get actionable intelligence to intercept the missions before they begin," President Bush said in a Rose Garden news conference in late October.

Intelligence focus

In Iraq, Maj. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, said, "We need to focus a little bit more on human intelligence and our ability to conduct human intelligence in a quick manner."

One military intelligence officer who served in Iraq at the time, but was unaware of the detainee abuse, recalled the urgency of getting detailed information about Iraqi insurgents. "There's a lot of pressure to protect soldiers," he said.

Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, at that time commander of the facility for al-Qaida and Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, studied, at the behest of American commanders in Iraq, the ability of the military in Iraq to "exploit internees" for intelligence purposes at Abu Ghraib and other prisons. According to the Taguba report, Miller recommended in September that the MPs at detention facilities "act as an enabler for interrogation," a euphemism for softening up prisoners for questioning.

Miller has since been appointed to take over management of the prison, and yesterday he pledged to end the abuses there.

Soon after Miller's visit, Maj. Gen. Donald J. Ryder, provost marshal general of the Army, completed a report and said Abu Ghraib held mostly criminals, not terrorists, and therefore would not be as helpful for intelligence. Moreover, said Ryder in the early November report, having guards participate in interrogations runs counter to the smooth operation of a detention facility.

Two weeks after Ryder's report, control of the prison inexplicably passed from the 800th Military Police Brigade to the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade from Wiesbaden, Germany, commanded by Col. Thomas M. Pappas, on orders from the American ground command headed by Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the top U.S. officer in Iraq. "That's weird," one Army officer with experience in Iraq said of the order. "That tells me it's not a detention facility, it's [an intelligence] collection facility."

Sanchez, who was giving regular briefings before the scandal broke April 28 with a report on CBS' 60 Minutes II, has not met the press or issued statements on the investigation. The Taguba report says shifting prison control from MPs to military intelligence personnel "exacerbated" an ambiguous command relationship between the two different military units.

"The main focus of that prison had become intelligence and interrogation," said Neal Puckett, the lawyer representing Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who commanded the 800th brigade, based in Uniondale, N.Y.

One of Karpinski's subordinate units was the 372nd Military Police Company from Cresaptown, Md., which had soldiers guarding the prison. Seven members of the Maryland-based unit face possible courts-martial, accused of abusing and humiliating prisoners, and others might be criminally charged. In addition, several officers with the brigade's chain of command have received reprimands.

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