22 May 2004
The well-publicised release of Iraqi detainees from Abu Ghraib prison yesterday was a late and vain attempt by the US military to stem the damage from the torrent of allegations about prisoner abuse. But the more we learn about the prisons the United States established for the thousands detained in its "war on terror", the less credible it seems that the maltreatment at Abu Ghraib was, as US officials insist, limited to a small number of excesses regrettably committed by poorly trained reservists whose zeal ran out of control.
With every shocking photograph, every nauseating video frame and every leaked memo that come into the possession of the American media, the pattern and the greater purpose of the guards' behaviour become more distinct. At the start of the week, The New Yorker magazine made headlines with its assertion that interrogation techniques at Abu Ghraib had been approved, even ordered, at the highest levels of the Pentagon. Since then, we have seen new and shaming pictures of US abuse as well as details of a memo signed by the top US military official in Iraq, Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez, which called on intelligence officers to work more closely with military police to "manipulate an internee's emotions and weaknesses".
Disclosures about the representations made by the International Committee of the Red Cross to the US authorities have shown that, while Abu Ghraib may have been exceptional in the prevalence and excess of the abuse, it was by no means the only US-administered prison where such methods were employed. Humiliation of detainees, often sexual humiliation and intimidation by guards and dogs, appears to have been almost routine across American gulags, from Guantanamo via Afghanistan to Iraq. Hooding, sleep deprivation, diet manipulation and the other practices said to have been discontinued by the British in southern Iraq after protest by the International Red Cross were the very least of what was going on where the US military were in control.
No less disturbing are the reports about the so-called "high-value" prisoners whose location the US authorities will not disclose. The identities of at least some of them are known, thanks to the prominence the US gave to the capture of those who featured in its deck of cards. They have since vanished into the prison system, their whereabouts known only to a very select few.
The consistency of the evidence, whether from photographs, from Red Cross reports, from anonymous Pentagon informants or from former prisoners themselves, is testimony to a concerted policy of persecution and deception. The claim has been made that the Pentagon ran a top secret military intelligence unit, off the books and beyond congressional or international scrutiny, to hide the darkest aspects of its "war on terror" from view. The disgrace, however, is less that such a unit may have existed - after Iran-Contra, we can believe almost anything - than that a country aspiring to spread freedom and democracy around the globe should have been so ready to defy the essentials of both.