No 37 May 2004

Closing the black hole of human rights

By Peter Hulm

The official outrage over mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq obfuscates a shocking truth about our societies: the degree to which atrocity has become a tool of modern politics.

We cannot ask simply about Abu Ghraib: what kind of soldiers carry out these abuses, or how does the military system encourage these practices?

It is similarly misguided to look for an ideology behind such atrocities, as if every act of torture springs from a carbon copy of Nazism and anti-Semitism, and its perpetrators are crypto-members of the Gestapo. There are too many uneasy parallels with the way prisoners and people outside the protection of the law are treated in our homelands.

It is possible that the abusive privates and sergeants of Abu Ghraib Prison will be demonized by their Washington masters and controllers. But we, the ordinary public, should expect to find the guilty soldiers just as well-meaning and humanitarian as our neighbours. Which of course is what they are, provided your neighbours are prison guards under the orders of military intelligence and it is government policy to mistreat prisoners whether innocent or guilty.

The military system, whether in Vietnam or Northern Ireland, takes its cues from society, filtered through the Defense Ministry via the government. It even engages in a complicity of silence over its practices: ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is standing operating procedure in military-political relationships. Guantánamo Bay prison and the military’s softening-up practices in Afghanistan (denounced by Human Rights Watch) are not inventions of the Pentagon but represent Administration policy.

Suspension and a formal reprimand seem the mildest of punishments for the prison system commander Janis Karpinski, given the extreme dereliction of duty reported by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, according to the report published on and (the Pentagon has not released the text).

As Seymour Hersh summarized it in The New Yorker, Lt. General Karpinski was “rarely seen at the prisons she was supposed to be running,” despite her claims that she “paid regular visits to the detention facilities.” The report says the detailed calendar provided by her aide-de-camp “does not support her contention.” The investigator found that a major contributing factor in the breakdown of standards was the failure of commanders to appreciate the pressures on these military traffic cops and reservists who had little experience of handling difficult prisoners and one year ago thought they were due to go home. ”The quality of life for soldiers assigned to Abu Ghraib (BCCF) was extremely poor”: none of the usual base amenities such as PX or barbershop or similar facilities. “There were numerous mortar attacks, random rifle and RPG attacks, and a serious threat to soldiers and detainees in the facility.”

The report says General Taguba “could find no evidence that BG Karpinski ever directed corrective training for her soldiers or ensured that MP soldiers throughout Iraq clearly understood the requirements of the Geneva Conventions relating to the treatment of detainees.” She issued orders for reforms but did not follow up to check they had been carried out. “What I found particularly disturbing in her testimony was her complete unwillingness to either understand or accept that many of the problems inherent in the 800th MP Brigade were caused or exacerbated by poor leadership and the refusal of her command to both establish and enforce basic standards and principles among its soldiers,” the report concludes. There were repeated escapes, shootings, disturbances among prisoners, and even Iraqi guards within the top-security site supplying arms to high-value detainees (HVDs).

The prison was overcrowded and understaffed. Karpinski says her superiors made things worse by blocking the ordinary release of suspects who were no longer considered a danger to coalition forces. Civilian contractees (interrogators and translators) walked around freely inside the detention area. Roll-calls supposed to take place twice a day took place twice a week, and the counts were regularly inaccurate. Prisoners could come into the system and leave again without being recorded.

But the Taguba report concludes that “Karpinski and her staff did a poor job allocating resources[…] Abu Ghraib (BCCF) normally housed between 6000 and 7000 detainees, yet it was operated by only one battalion. In contrast, the HVD Facility maintains only about 100 detainees, and is also run by an entire battalion.” Army doctrine suggests a trained brigade can handle 4000 detainees at a time. The 800 th received no specialized training. Worse, “there is no evidence that the command, although aware of these deficiencies, attempted to correct them in any systemic manner.”

The rot could be found throughout the US-controlled detention and correction facilities of Iraq.

According to the version of Taguba’s report: two majors on Karpinski’s staff were “essentially dysfunctional” but despite numerous complaints, were not replaced. The battalion commander in charge of the sensitive wing of Abu Ghraib was “an extremely ineffective commander and leader.” His major effectively ran day-to-day operation. The lieutenant-colonel was replaced for two weeks after “a briefing provided [….] to the CJTF-7 Commander” (Lieutenant-General Ricardo S. Sanchez of the Combined Joint Task Force 7, the senior military official in Iraq) near the end of October.

It is not indicated what the briefing said. But there were no papers recording the switch. The Taguba report observes” “Temporarily removing one commander and replacing him with another serving Battalion Commander without an order and without notifying superior or subordinate commands is without precedent in my military career.” The brigade judge advocate, says the report, “appears to lack initiative and was unwilling to accept responsibility for any of his actions.” The lieutenant colonel in charge of operations “did not properly supervise the Brigade staff.”

But this incompetence is along way from Taguba’s conclusion that “numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees. This systemic and illegal abuse of detainees was intentionally perpetrated by several members of the military police guard force.”

Taguba’s report says he suspects that a military intelligence colonel and lieutenant colonel along with two civilians, a contracted interrogator and translator, “were either directly or indirectly responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib.” The report declares: “Military Intelligence (MI) interrogators and Other US Government Agency’s (OGA) interrogators actively requested that MP guards set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses,” despite Ryder’s denials that this took place.

The Taguba report quotes several soldiers, inside and outside the “hard site” used to keep anti-Coalition suspects, as being told that military intelligence wanted the guards to ‘loosen them up’.

In fact, the leading non-commissioned officers working for the MI were both prison guards in civilian life, the soldiers reported. At least once, 6-8 ‘high-value’ prisoners were scooted around the prison under MI orders to keep them from the International Committee of the Red Cross. “This maneuver was deceptive, contrary to Army Doctrine, and in violation of international law.” the report points out.

Most disturbing – and confusing for the military police – an order issued on 19 November made “an MI Officer, rather than an MP Officer, responsible for the MP units conducting detainee operations” at Abu Ghraib. This lends credence to Karpinski’s claim she is being made the scapegoat for failures of command higher up the totem pole.

Despite the pressures, the report singles out two battalions and their lieutenant-colonels in other prisons who were efficient and disciplined, as well as praising the 165 th MI Battalion and its commander for providing perimeter security and force protection at Abu Graib. And the abuses were exposed thanks to an MP, Specialist Joseph Darby, who, Hersh reports, was given a CD containing photos of the mistreatment. A Navy dog-handler refused to participate “despite significant pressure from the MI personnel.” A lieutenant stopped an abuse and reported the incident immediately.

But it seems ironic – and a deliberate slap in the face of Administration critics – that the new boss of Iraqi prison system is Major General Geoffrey Miller, former commander at Guantánamo, where the blanket of silence is even more stifling. The guards don’t even have to abide by the Geneva Conventions, except as the US interprets them, as Donald Rumsfeld underlined in his testimony to Congress.

General Miller is probably as responsible as Rumsfeld for the abuses at El Graib. He headed a task force that went to Iraq on 31 August last year and declared: "It is essential that the guard force be actively engaged in setting the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees." The Executive Summary of the report stated that “detention operations must act as an enabler for interrogation.” This is coded language for the abuses that have caused the scandal: “a euphemism for breaking the will of prisoners,” in Hersh’s explanation.

Two months later, the army’s chief law-enforcement officer, Provost Marshal Donald Ryder, who was sent in again after continued reports of abuses. He produced a report that in contrast to Taguba’s reads like a cover-up. It admits that Miller used Guantánamo procedures as the baselines for its instructions. This despite the differences between prisoners held on Cuba and in Abu Ghraib. The overwhelming proportion of Iraqi prisoners are criminals (and ordinary people picked up in round-ups as anti-Coalition suspects), as the Taguba report notes. Ryder told the Army on 5 November there were no military police units purposely applying inappropriate confinement practices. But the Taguba report states: “In fact, many of the abuses suffered by detainees occurred during, or near to, the time of that assessment.”

Taguba, appointed on 24 January, was restricted by the terms of his brief to investigating abuses after 1 November. What happened beforehand could be safely hidden by the Ryder report’s anodyne conclusions.

Don’t expect to find a paper trail. Soldiers who refused to join in the abuses unless they had written orders were not forced to go through with spoken orders.

In one respect the Taguba report reads like a copout. None of the MPs had proper training in how to be a prison guard. But the general faults Karpinski for not demanding training. Is Taguba just being a good soldier covering up for the top brass? Surely it is the responsibility of the Army to give its forces the right training, equipment and personnel, not just the hard-pressed officers who are required to cope?

We are left with the puzzle of the photographs. “Trophy” items? “ Holiday” snaps? Means of further humiliating prisoners? All of these explanations may be true. But that is not all. The soldier who broke the scandal apparently did so when he received a CD of the incriminating photos from MPs who treated him as a buddy. An Argentine navy officer who confessed to involvement in ‘disappearances’ said his colleagues did all they could to associate him with the ‘dirty’war. I’m reminded of what Fritz Stangl, the Nazi Commandant of Treblinka. told Gitta Sereny when she asked him why the cruelty to prisoners who were going to be killed anyway? His explanation was that the cruelty and humiliation were necessary to make it possible for his staff to carry out the extermination policy.

But none of these observations, or the intense spotlight on Abu Ghraib, should divert our attention from what I consider the essential point.

The truth is that people in their thousands and millions around the world are being pushed outside the system of legal and physical protection in democratic societies –refugees, illegal immigrants, displaced people, effectively rightless minorities, members of unacknowledged nationalities, stateless populations. They are sucked off the political radar screen into a black hole of human rights that cloaks our knowledge of what exactly is happening to them.

Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues that politics today is conducted through the exercise of ultimate power over others, the state of exception rather than the rule of law, the camp (hidden from view, whether Auschwitz, interrogation cells or airport holding areas), and the refugee (of whatever kind). Citizenship, as the rise of the new Right in Europe has made clear, has become a device for exclusion rather than inclusion.

This is why charges of anti-Americanism against the US Administration’s war critics are so disturbing to anyone who supports a self-critical democracy. In an eerie premonition of the Iraqi pictures that hypnotise us on our television screens and newspapers, Agamben even describes the unconvicted, innocent or marginalized in our modern ‘camps’ as living a ‘naked life’. The ‘refugees’ – whether illegal Mexicans fruit-picking in California or would-be asylum seekers kept in holding areas at airports – depend on the goodwill of their guards to give them rights. Ignoring these issues, Agamben says, is the reason why conventional politics has suffered ‘a protracted eclipse’.

Is there no answer to the torrent of atrocity? Have we been plunged into the Desert of the Real? – to quote Slovene cultural theorist Slavoj Ž i ž ek and The Matrix. Agamben says that only if we put respect for individual rights again at the forefront of political concern can we revitalize public life. It also means taking steps against cruelty and abuse on every front, in domestic life and social relations as well as in the military. When, for example, are US authorities going to take real steps against rape and brutality in Homeland prisons?

The alternative comes down to a dialogue of brutality: our terrorism against their terrorism. Which is very much the situation that some people want. “Terror against terror – there is no longer any ideology behind that,” points out Jean Baudrillard.

He is right. Even before the latest revelations, the working artists and academics from the US who attend the experimental European Graduate School in Saas-Fee Switzerland (MacArthur ‘genius’ Fellows in waiting according to one of their professors) voiced their concern at restrictions imposed on civil rights in the wake of 9/11. In discussions with Claude Lanzmann, the maker of the epic memorial of Holocaust experience Shoah, they said they felt the Administration has become proto-Fascist in its threats to rights.

Tracy Ann Essoglou, a Florida-based artist who was one of the School’s first Ph. Ds, has created a multi-media installation called Sins of the New Millennium, an attempt to update the Seven Deadly Sins in a secular world. “We cannot expect to resolve interpersonal, intracultural and interplanetary differences through ever-increasingly complex and contorted judicial systems,” she says. “And we cannot regulate human behaviour by creating more and more laws.”

Her Sins piece lists its secular seven as: aggression, neglect, ‘territorialization’, impunity, complacency, wastefulness, and wilful ignorance. Essoglou’s installation invites visitors to draw up their own list. But this seems a pretty good place to start. Those who want to can judge for themselves how far the Bush Administration is guilty of these sins, and how much is endemic in the system of government they have promoted.

Peter Hulm, co-owner of Crosslines Global Report is completing a Ph. D. dissertation at the European Graduate School on atrocity and celebrity. Agamben, Baudrillard and Ž i ž ek are on the faculty of EGS. Essoglou’s work was shown at World Bank headquarters in 1995-6.


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11 May 2004