Shock and awe—the nifty marketing phrase for the war in Iraq—took on new meaning last week, not over the U.S. military's prowess, but over recently published photographs of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners.
The pictures are still-lifes in sadism. Naked bodies piled and posed in sexual positions, female soldiers grinning and gesturing at male genitalia, a police dog moments before attacking a naked prisoner, electrodes, hoods, blood splattered walls, a battered and bloodied dead body wrapped in cellophane and packed in ice. Hundreds, perhaps upwards of a thousand pictures, give evidence of American military soldiers undergoing the ugly transformation from prison guards to torturers.
Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, the site where Saddam Hussein once terrorized Iraqi citizens, is now the site where American soldiers are accused of terrorizing Iraqis.
The adage a picture is worth a thousand words rang true as the scandal unfolded. While press releases and written reports of abuse surfaced as early as January, the media frenzy and global outrage did not erupt until actual photographs of the abuse hit the airwaves on April 28 during a CBS 60 Minutes II report. Extensive articles chronicling the abuse quickly followed in The Wall Street Journal, New Yorker and The Washington Post.
Innocence through ignorance is the route seemingly chosen by President Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, General Richard Myers and the chain of command's upper echelons.
The first week of March Major General Antonio Taguba concluded an extensive investigation of the 800th Military Police Brigade and Abu Ghraib prison and submitted a report confirming the violation of Army regulations and Geneva conventions at Abu Ghraib prison and the existence of "numerous photos and videos of actual detainee abuse." Yet Bush, Rumsfeld and Congress all claim to have learned about the photographs and the extent of the abuse nearly two months later via the 15-minute 60 Minutes II segment.
The fact that Gen. Myers asked for and received from CBS a two-week delay before airing the segment and photos speaks to a massive communication breakdown between the Pentagon, White House and Congress. For all America's military and technological might, word of the report and its photos could not make it from the Pentagon to the White House or Congress during that two-week delay.
Taguba writes, "[B]etween October and December 2003, at the Abu Ghraib Confinement Facility, 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 also noted in his report that issues beyond staff inefficiencies and unenforced standards contributed to the disaster.
"I find that psychological factors, such as the difference in culture, the Soldiers' quality of life, the real presence of mortal danger over an extended time period, and failure of commanders to recognize these pressures contributed to the perversive atmosphere that existed at Abu Ghraib," writes Taguba.
On May 7 Rumsfeld testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He acknowledged being vaguely aware of reports of and investigations into Iraqi prisoner abuse. He admitted he was "blindsided" by the photos and had not seen them until the night before his testimony. Even more disconcerting, he admitted he still had not read the entire Taguba report. On the same day Rumsfeld was testifying about the elusive report he had yet to completely read, thousands of people were downloading the 53-page report off the Internet.
Repeated warnings from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other respected human rights groups started surfacing as far back as March 2003.
In January the ICRC delivered to the Whitehouse a report chronicling abuses, some "tantamount to torture." ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger discussed prison conditions with Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
"ICRC delegates directly witnessed and documented a variety of methods used to secure the cooperation of the persons deprived of their liberty with their interrogators," the report says.
The 24-page report says the abuse is not limited Abu Ghraib prison.
The worst of the scandal may be yet to come. Rumsfeld testified on Friday that more photographs and videos exist. This week more revelations of torture and abuse emerged including a photograph published in the New Yorker of a naked prisoner flanked by two snarling police dogs. Subsequent photos, all taken within a 12-minute timeframe, show the prisoner lying on the floor in a pool of blood with a deep bite wound. Other reported images include the rape of an Iraqi woman and sexual attacks on Iraqi boys. The Pentagon is currently weighing the pros and cons of releasing all the images. A full release could legally compromise the prosecution of suspects, but the leaking of the images to the press is also inevitable.
To date, seven soldiers are facing court-martial. Seven other soldiers have received letters of reprimand.
The first court-martial is scheduled to begin next week. Spc. Jeremy C. Sivits of Hyndman, Pa., a member of the 372nd Military Police Company, will face a military court in Baghdad on May 19. As with all court-martials, the media can attend but cameras are not allowed.
The abuse is currently being billed as an isolated incident involving a handful of renegade soldiers, but emerging reports contain allegations against military units and prisons beyond Abu Ghraib and numerous criminal investigations are underway.