Abu Ghraib was not the exception; it was the rule

Editorial

The Independent

Published: 15 July 2005

There are some documents whose content is so consistently shocking that the individual details it catalogues start to seem banal. The report by the US military on treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay appears to be a prime example of the genre.

This report, submitted to the US Senate Armed Services Committee, assesses the treatment meted out to detainees at the "facility" that subsequently became known as Camp Delta. It identifies only three instances where US Army policy was breached. And none was considered serious enough for the Army to reprimand the then commandant of the camp, Maj-Gen Geoffrey Miller.

Overall, the report finds that there was no torture, and describes the detention and interrogation operations as "safe, secure and humane". Exactly how reassuring this is, however, rather depends on whether your view of what is safe, secure and humane concurs with that of the US Army. Consider the following.

Acceptable practices apparently include taping a prisoner's face, threatening to have members of the prisoner's family killed and suggestive touching by female interrogators. Also acceptable are systematic degradation of a sexual variety and the use of dogs and leads for intimidatory purposes. Interrogation of at least one prisoner went on for 20 hours a day for many days in succession.

But wait: do not these practices applied to the Camp Delta prisoners, mostly captured in Afghanistan, have a strangely familiar ring? Do they not bear a striking resemblance to the techniques used just a few months later at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad? We have all seen the photographs - of Private Lynndie England taunting a prisoner on a lead, of prisoners piled in a pyramid, of dogs used to intimidate.

And what was the verdict then about the use of such "interrogation" techniques? The Pentagon denied absolutely that these practices were Army policy. It insisted that the officers and others who figured in the photographs were merely bad apples who did not reflect the high standards otherwise observed in the US armed forces. These were just isolated excesses committed by undisciplined reservists on the night shift when there was insufficient supervision.

England, her superior officer, Charles Graner, and at least six other junior soldiers were court-martialled. England faces a new trial; Graner is serving a 10-year prison sentence. The then head of prisons in Iraq, Brig-Gen Janis Karpinski, who testified that the part of the prison where these incidents took place was outside her remit, was relieved of her command. All have been personally disgraced.

Yet it is hard to discern what real difference there is between what went on at Guantanamo and the abuses at Abu Ghraib - except perhaps the photographic evidence. And, indeed, Maj-Gen Miller was transferred from one to the other, apparently to toughen things up in Iraq. But Maj-Gen Miller is in the clear, while Brig-Gen Karpinski and low-ranking reservists have been held up as examples of what the US military should not be about.

It will be for the US Senate committee to decide how to respond to the report. But the Pentagon and the US top brass cannot have it both ways. Either the interrogation techniques used at Guantanamo were official policy, in which case England and the others have been unfairly punished and the Pentagon must come clean about what the US defines as permissible, or they were utterly unacceptable at both places - in which case Maj-Gen Miller and the whole hierarchy that sanctioned such treatment must be called to account without delay.