Abu Ghraib

Abu Ghraib was a prison located west of Baghdad in Iraq. Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein’s (1937–2006) regime used Abu Ghraib to incarcerate, torture, and execute thousands of political dissidents. After Hussein’s regime fell during the Iraq War (2003–2011), U.S. forces used the prison to detain and interrogate many Iraqis who were believed to be insurgents or to have information about insurgent groups planning attacks on the United States or the U.S.-led forces. The United States slowly began turning control of the prison back over to Iraq, which claimed full control in 2006 and closed the prison in 2014. During much of the United States’ occupation of Iraq, Abu Ghraib was in the spotlight due to the detainment, security, and treatment that inmates received while imprisoned there, and many questions were raised regarding the inmates’ individual rights or lack thereof. This entry sheds light on the detainment and treatment of those imprisoned at Abu Ghraib and examines how many of the practices by the U.S.-led forces violated U.S. and international laws and rules of war. Independent and American-sanctioned investigations into the prisoner abuse are reviewed, and legal challenges and subsequent decisions by the U.S. court system, and the ramifications of those decisions, are then discussed.

Early in the Iraq War, a series of media reports and investigations illuminated a pattern of cruel, inhuman, and degrading detainee treatment inside Abu Ghraib prison. Military personnel committed various human rights violations, including the rape, torture, and killing of prisoners of war. Personnel had redeployed torture methods that had been used during the Spanish Inquisition (15th to 19th centuries) and the Stalin show trials (20th century) while also creating new ones to coercively interrogate Iraqis suspected of supporting the anti-American insurgency. The abuses raised important questions about the responsibility of senior civilian and military officials to provide authorization and oversight of subordinates’ use of torture techniques during a war. Investigations and documentary evidence show that senior civilian and military officials not only failed to properly supervise low-level personnel but also created a climate in which the personnel were authorized and encouraged to torture detainees.

In November 2003, the Associated Press published a report documenting numerous abuses at Abu Ghraib. That month, the U.S. Army’s provost marshal also reported that prison conditions in Iraq constituted a violation of the Geneva Conventions and thus involved war crimes. The U.S. Department of Defense began investigating the allegations in January 2004. In April and May 2004, Seymour Hersh published articles accompanied by photographs in The New Yorker detailing the abuses, and a televised 60 Minutes II report the aired pictures. Various human rights watchdog groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, also documented the abuses and torture.

The then president George W. Bush and other senior officials condemned the abuses and attributed them to a small number of rogue military personnel working in Abu Ghraib. However, there is documentary evidence that the abuses resulted from a series of high-level policy decisions and directives developed and implemented by senior Bush administration officials and high-ranking military commanders charged with waging the war against terrorism in Iraq and elsewhere. These policy decisions redefined detainees and detention sites as being off-limits to traditional judicial oversight, authorized “coercive interrogation” techniques to gather “actionable intelligence,” and ignored abuse reports instead of investigating them.

These opinions would guide Bush administration policy. The legal team authorized what it called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” many of which had previously been prohibited by law as torture, to be used against foreign detainees. The legal team created the term enemy combatant to designate foreign detainees. A February 2002 presidential order declared that the administration would consider itself no longer constrained by Geneva Convention provisions prohibiting cruel and inhumane treatment and would use its definition of torture as a guide.

In 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld signed an “action memo” authorizing 15 new coercive interrogation techniques for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (known as “Gitmo”). Major General Anthony Taguba’s report, the so-called Taguba Report, documented that Rumsfeld had sent Major General Geoffrey Miller to “Gitmoize” Iraq operations, where Miller set a clear policy of coercive interrogation. A 2004 internal Army review also reaffirmed this high-level “migration” of coercive interrogation directives across international theaters of operation. In 2004, Rumsfeld testified before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee and conceded that he was fully accountable for the torture and abuses at Abu Ghraib, and in 2008, the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee agreed.

Both the Taguba Report and the 2004 Schlesinger Commission criticized military officials in Iraq for failing to maintain proper command and oversight to prevent abuses. The Schlesinger Commission found what it called “errors of omission” and implicated Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq, for a “confused command relationship” that facilitated abuse. Both the Schlesinger Commission and the Taguba Report reproached Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the prison’s commanding officer.

Karpinski was reprimanded for dereliction of duty and demoted to colonel in May 2005. She denied knowledge of any abuses and claimed that her superiors had authorized the interrogations and denied her access to them. She said that private subcontractors hired by the U.S. government and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents outside her chain-of-command actually oversaw the interrogations and were thus culpable for the supervisory breakdowns. Investigations suggest that they orchestrated some of the more deadly abuses at Abu Ghraib, directing low-level military personnel to “soften up” detainees to “set up the conditions” for interrogation. In 2008, former Abu Ghraib detainees brought federal lawsuits against private military contractors CACI International, CACI Premier Technologies, Inc., and L-3 (formerly Titan Corporation) for alleged abuses suffered there. The contractors’ lawyers argued that they should be considered immune from judicial oversight and accountability since they were operating like a military agency in a foreign war zone. Courts at various levels during the initial ruling and the subsequent appeals process differed in their opinions of whether the contractors were immune from prosecution. In 2012, L-3 reached a settlement with the plaintiffs, although a U.S. district court later dismissed the suit against CACI International. In 2014, a U.S. appeals court ruled that non-U.S. citizens can sue CACI pursuant to the 18th-century Alien Tort Statute, which allows non-U.S. citizens to sue in American courts when defendants violate international laws or U.S. treaties. The contractors, however, still have millions of dollars in federal contracts, and the matter of proper managerial oversight to prevent future abuses remains unresolved.

The Schlesinger Commission and internal Army investigation reports attributed the Abu Ghraib abuses to managerial oversight breakdowns within the chain of command. But there is evidence to suggest that the Abu Ghraib abuses were part of a widespread, systematic pattern throughout Iraq and that senior officials willfully ignored the abuse reports, failing to monitor and investigate subordinates’ detention and interrogation practices. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) testified that when it reported on Abu Ghraib abuses to U.S. authorities throughout 2003, suggesting that as many as 70% to 90% of the detainees were wrongfully detained, the U.S. authorities attempted to restrict its access to the facility.

Rumsfeld publicly praised Sergeant Joseph Darby for providing photographic evidence of Abu Ghraib abuses, but Darby was the target of retaliation by some as a whistle-blower. Darby, whose house was vandalized and who reported sleeping with a pistol under his pillow for protection, was placed in the military’s protective services. Afterward, human rights investigators in Iraq and the Detainee Abuse Task Force (DATF), established in 2005, reported that there was evidence of widespread abuses beyond Abu Ghraib at facilities such as Camp Bucca, Camp Whitehorse, and the Forward Operating Base Rifles near al-Asad, as well as numerous so-called black sites throughout Iraq. Yet the six DATF investigators found that very few service personnel were willing to report the abuses or even help the investigators. When DATF agents closed cases and submitted them to the Army’s Criminal Investigations Command, it reopened several of them to conduct additional fact gathering. This meant that the open cases were exempt from being released to outside groups via Freedom of Information Act requests.

Since the Abu Ghraib scandal, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued rulings that have increased civilian judicial oversight over the detention and treatment of foreign detainees. In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that a presidential administration cannot legally decide to disregard the Geneva Convention protections, and in 2008 in Boumediene v. Bush et al., it reaffirmed the habeas corpus rights of foreign detainees held at Gitmo. On June 29, 2006, the Court reaffirmed its 2004 ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld et al., in which it declared that foreign detainees are entitled to protections under the Geneva Convention and U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996. Yet in 2010, a D.C. district court judge agreed with the then president Barack Obama’s administration and overturned a federal judge’s ruling, which meant that detainees in the Bagram prison in Afghanistan did not have habeas corpus rights.

The authorities regarded the Abu Ghraib abuses as unforeseeable and isolated cases. Over a decade later, debate continues about whether senior officials enabled abuse through faulty oversight or even actively encouraged abuse through directives to obtain actionable intelligence via coercive interrogation. Amnesty International reported that thousands of detainees appeared to have been tortured and abused, contradicting the official assertions that the abuses were random, individual acts. The full scope of the abuse at Abu Ghraib and in Iraq remains unknown. Most Abu Ghraib abuse photographs have not been publicly released, though the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks and the British newspaper The Guardian obtained and released hundreds of thousands of documents and described uninvestigated abuse and torture cases even after the scandal waned.

Paul R. Schupp

See also Guantanamo Bay ; Iraq ; War on Terror ; WikiLeaks

Further Readings

Hersh, Seymour M. Chain of Command: The Road From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2004.

Rajiva, Lila. The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2005.

Strasser, Steven, ed. The Abu Ghraib Investigations: The Official Reports of the Independent Panel and the Pentagon on the Shocking Prisoner Abuse in Iraq. New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2004.