FORT HOOD, Tex., Jan. 10 -- Army officers and CIA operatives at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison condoned the beatings and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners there and repeatedly praised the enlisted soldiers who abused the inmates, a former guard testified as the first military trial stemming from the prison scandal got underway Monday.
Pvt. Ivan L. Frederick was called as a prosecution witness in the Army's criminal case against Spec. Charles A. Graner Jr., the alleged ringleader of the abusive guards at Abu Ghraib. But his testimony tended to support a key element of Graner's defense -- that he was following orders from higher-ranking officers when he punched and beat the prisoners and forced them to wallow naked in freezing mud outside the prison.
Army Spec. Charles A. Graner Jr., accused of leading the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, arrives for his military trial at Fort Hood, Tex.
(L.m. Otero -- AP)
Frederick, a staff sergeant who was demoted to private after pleading guilty to abuse at Abu Ghraib, said he had consulted with six senior officers, ranging from captains to lieutenant colonels, about the guards' actions but was never told to stop. Frederick also said that a CIA official, whom he identified as "Agent Romero," told him to "soften up" one suspected insurgent for questioning.
The agent told him he did not care what the soldiers did, "just don't kill him," Frederick testified.
President Bush and senior Pentagon officials have repeatedly said the Abu Ghraib abuse was strictly the work of rogue enlisted soldiers, with no involvement by senior officers. The Army has charged several enlisted soldiers with criminal offenses, but none of the officers at the prison or further up the chain of command.
That discrepancy constitutes the heart of the defense case laid out by Graner's defense team during opening arguments at his court-martial.
"Specialist Graner was doing what was expected of him," defense attorney Guy Womack told the 10-man military jury. Noting that senior officers were constantly on hand at Abu Ghraib, Womack said, "Through all this. . . Graner was following orders -- and being praised for it."
Frederick, who was Graner's superior at the prison, testified that senior officers did praise the work of the guards, and that Frederick always told his subordinates about the compliments from the top brass.
But the chief prosecutor, Army Maj. Michael Holley, said "following orders" is not a valid defense.
Holley conceded that the guards at Abu Ghraib were placed in a "chaotic environment," marked by "training problems, certainly leadership problems." But he said the abuse of prisoners was not legal even if ordered by superiors. "Anyone would say, 'That's illegal, that can't be right,' " the prosecutor argued.
Graner, a 36-year-old former prison guard from Uniontown, Pa., faces five charges stemming from the excesses at Abu Ghraib in the winter of 2003-04. If convicted by the court-martial here, he could face up to 17 1/2 years in prison.
Four enlisted soldiers have pleaded guilty to criminal offenses at Abu Ghraib. Graner is the first of the accused guards to go to trial.
Witnesses Monday set forth a horrific story of mistreatment in the prison's "Tier One-Alpha," a cellblock that was supposed to be set aside for "intelligence holds" -- that is, Iraqi prisoners who might be able to provide intelligence officials with information about the guerrilla insurgency that has sprung up since the April 2003 fall of Baghdad.
Frederick and other witnesses who had served as guards at Abu Ghraib told of beatings and humiliation of prisoners. Much of the testimony reflected the brutal scenes in the photographs and videos that were released last spring, sparking the international uproar about Army conduct at the prison.
It was Graner, witnesses testified, who forced seven naked prisoners to form a human pyramid on Nov. 7, 2003, and then took photographs of them. Former guards also said that Graner violently punched a hooded prisoner in the face, knocking him unconscious. In 40-degree temperatures on a December night, he forced a naked prisoner to wallow in the mud outside, witnesses said.
The testimony offered a picture of a military prison that was plagued with staffing and mechanical problems. Witnesses testified that the guards at the prison, primarily Army reservists in their early twenties, had little or no training in running a military prison before they were assigned to Baghdad's highest-security prison.
Frederick, one of the few soldiers who had training as a prison guard, said he was shocked to find the Army operating a prison that had "naked prisoners in cold cells, no windows, no ventilation, no running water."
Witnesses said that most of the soldiers at the prison responded to abuse of inmates by laughing and joining in the mistreatment. But two soldiers -- Spec. Matthew Wisdom and Spec. Joseph Darby -- testified that they were so disgusted by the conduct of their fellow soldiers that they reported it to superiors. Wisdom's warning, in November 2003, was ignored. But two months later, Darby gave Army investigators photographic evidence of the abuse. That led to the public scandal, the congressional hearings and Graner's court-martial.