A Prison on the Brink
Usual Military Checks and Balances Went Missing

By Scott Higham, Josh White and Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 9, 2004

First of three articles

For U.S. military police officers in Baghdad, the Abu Ghraib prison was particularly hellish. Insurgents were firing mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades over the walls. The prisoners were prone to riot. There was no PX, no mess hall, no recreation facilities to escape the heat and dust. About 450 MPs were supervising close to 7,000 inmates, many of them crowded into cells, many more kept in tents hastily arranged on dirt fields within the razor-wired walls of the compound. Around the perimeter, GIs kept wary eyes on Iraqi guards of questionable loyalty.

Precisely how many prisoners were being held at Abu Ghraib was anyone's guess. Roll calls were spotty. Escapes were commonplace. Prison logs were replete with flippant and unprofessional remarks. MPs were occasionally out of uniform, and some were out of control. Discipline was breaking down. So was the chain of command.

Abu Ghraib was on the brink.

"Most of the time, I felt like my life was in danger," said Sgt. William Savage Jr., a Florida corrections officer sent to Abu Ghraib as a reservist with a military police company. "I always thought something was going to happen."

Few could imagine what was about to happen at Abu Ghraib. The photographs featuring piles of naked Iraqis seem as though they were taken from a pornographic magazine, not from the digital cameras carried by American servicemen and women. But an examination of military investigative reports and interviews with soldiers and officers in Iraq at the time reveal that there were early warnings, and that a combination of conditions inside Abu Ghraib produced a culture of licentious behavior and abuse. Confusion was high. Morale was low. The checks and balances established to hold soldiers accountable during the vagaries of war were virtually non-existent.

By the fall of 2003, rumors of abuse began to circulate. Sgt. Blas Hidalgo heard them while working the guard towers of Abu Ghraib. He dismissed the talk as made-up military gossip.

"It sounded too crazy," he told The Washington Post in a recent interview.

'Unnerving as Hell'

The problems at Abu Ghraib, which have unleashed an international scandal and shaken the Bush administration, were foreshadowed by experiences at two earlier prison camps set up by U.S. forces after the invasion in March 2003.

As U.S. troops marched north, Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, near Basra, quickly became the largest facility for Iraqi prisoners. For two months, military commanders sent thousands of prisoners to the makeshift camp. Soon the camp held more than 7,000 prisoners.

At Bucca, there were troubling signs in a military police unit that would later be at the center of what took place at Abu Ghraib.

On May 12, four soldiers from the 320th Military Police Battalion, based in Ashley, Pa., were charged with beating prisoners after transporting them to Camp Bucca. MPs from a different unit reported the incident, saying the legs of prisoners were held apart while soldiers kicked them in the groin.

Around that time, President Bush had announced the end of major combat operations, and spirits in many military police units were high. It appeared that many MP units would be headed home. By the end of May, the several thousand members of the 800th Military Police Brigade, which included the 320th Battalion, were told that they would instead be managing the Iraqi prison system.

For many of the MPs, it was a crushing blow.

"Morale suffered, and over the next few months there did not appear to have been any attempt by the Command to mitigate this morale problem," Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba would later conclude in his 53-page report examining the abuses at Abu Ghraib.

Located on the outskirts of Baghdad, Abu Ghraib, a symbol of torture and repression under Saddam Hussein, had been looted. It was decrepit and falling apart. While renovations were underway, the military came up with a temporary alternative: Camp Cropper, a collection of tents and small buildings at the Baghdad airport.

Cropper was originally designed to hold 200 captives. But with street crime on the rise and the insurgency in Baghdad becoming bolder, Cropper was teeming with prisoners by the summer of 2003. On some days, more than 1,000 prisoners were in the camp.

It became a dangerous place that smelled of sewage and sweat. Flies infested the camp. Those who have been there describe it as an outdoor cesspool where detainees stockpiled their feces to throw at MPs. The prisoners also turned the dust beneath their feet into weapons by pouring their water rations and fashioning hardened dirt clods.

"It was worse than you can imagine on days when there was no breeze," said one MP assigned to the camp who requested anonymity because he signed a "nondisclosure" agreement before leaving Iraq. "If there was a hell, I can imagine that's what it smelled like."

The poor conditions had consequences.

"Abu wasn't running, none of the satellite prisons were running, so we had nowhere to send these guys," said one military officer assigned to the camp who has been ordered not to discuss Cropper. ". . . Anytime it got real hot, there were riots."

The uprisings rattled even the most seasoned of soldiers. Detainees would cut themselves on the concertina wire that surrounded the camp and try to smear their blood on MPs. They rushed the wire and threw rocks they had stored up.

"It was unnerving as hell," the officer said.

On June 9, the detainees rioted after one of the prisoners hit an MP. The prisoner was subdued, and one of the MPs took off his camouflage shirt and "flexed his muscles to the detainees, which further escalated the riot," according to the military report.

Rocks started to fly. One soldier was hit in the head. Another was struck by a tent pole. A prisoner pulled an MP through the concertina wire.

"This thing was out of control," the officer said.

The MPs were overwhelmed, and guards opened fire. Five prisoners were wounded. An investigation into the incident concluded that the shooting was justified, and no soldiers were punished. Still, the incident symbolized a severe lack of training, said another officer familiar with the incident.

Officers said they complained about the conditions at Camp Cropper, but no one seemed to listen. They said they were told that the military was preparing to open Abu Ghraib as quickly as possible.

"The challenge was trying to find a place to take them," one officer said.

Setting the Conditions

For 18 months, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller had run the detainee operation at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. On Aug. 31, he and a team of inspectors arrived in Baghdad to examine prison operations in Iraq. They visited Camp Cropper and the refurbished Abu Ghraib prison, which had opened Aug. 4.

Miller recommended that Cropper be closed. He made another recommendation: that MPs and military intelligence officers work closely to gather information from the prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

At Guantanamo, where suspected al Qaeda terrorists and Taliban fighters are kept and interrogated, Miller said, he found that separating MPs, who serve as jailers, from intelligence officers, who conduct interrogations, was counterproductive. He viewed MPs as key players in the process because they could serve as the ears and eyes of military intelligence officers on the cellblocks. Miller recommended that the new commander in charge of the 800th MP Brigade, Brig. Gen. Janis L. Karpinski, consolidate the two functions, permitting MPs to set "conditions for the successful interrogation and exploitation" of the prisoners.

One month after Miller's team left Iraq on Sept. 9, another inspection team arrived in Iraq. This one was headed by Maj. Gen. Donald J. Ryder, the provost marshal in charge of Army military police. Ryder arrived in Baghdad on Oct. 13, two weeks after Camp Cropper was closed.

Ryder conducted a "comprehensive review of the entire detainee and corrections system in Iraq." He found flawed operating procedures, improper restraint techniques, a lack of training, an inadequate prisoner classification system, understrength units and a ratio of guards to prisoners designed for "compliant" prisoners of war and not criminals or high-risk-security detainees.

But Ryder also found "there were no military police units purposely applying inappropriate confinement practices."

At Abu Ghraib, the guard-to-prisoner ratio was about one to 15, with one battalion guarding 7,000. Army doctrine calls for one battalion per 4,000 enemy soldiers. In civilian prisons, one guard per three inmates is considered ideal.

In his report submitted on Nov. 6, Ryder recommended that military police not "participate in military intelligence supervised interrogation sessions." He concluded that allowing MPs to "actively set favorable conditions for subsequent interviews runs counter to the smooth operation of a detention facility."

But even as Ryder was writing his report, Abu Ghraib was descending into chaos and worse.

Taguba's report detailed numerous lapses:

Standard operating procedures and copies of the Geneva Conventions were not distributed to the guards handling the prisoners. No one knew for sure how many prisoners were being kept at Abu Ghraib. It took MPs four days to document transfers of detainees within the prison, making it nearly impossible to determine who was where at any given time. Roll calls were supposed to be conducted twice a day. Instead, they were conducted twice a week.

When MPs did count prisoners, there was no standard method. Sometimes MPs lined up detainees in rows of 10 and counted them in bulk. Other times, the soldiers moved prisoners to one end of a cellblock, ordered them to walk and counted them as they passed by.

Sometimes, "Other Government Agencies," a common expression for the CIA, would bring prisoners to Abu Ghraib. MPs were kept in the dark about the prisoners' identities and the reasons behind their captures. On at least one occasion, MPs moved these captives around the Abu Ghraib complex to keep them away from inspectors with the International Committee of the Red Cross. MPs called the prisoners "ghost detainees." Military investigators called that practice an apparent "violation of international law."

Prisoners learned to exploit the chaos. Military investigators said they discovered one report that documented at least 27 escapes from the facility. Karpinski said 32 had escaped. No one knew for sure because oversight was so poor.

"It is highly likely that there were several more unreported cases of escape that were probably 'written off' as administrative errors or otherwise undocumented," military investigators later wrote.

After escapes, follow-up and accountability were lacking. Investigations into escapes were "rubber-stamped" and approved by Karpinski, but there was no evidence that any of the general's orders for changes were followed, Taguba found.

If the recommendations had been followed, investigators concluded, "many of the subsequent escapes, accountability lapses and cases of abuse may have been prevented."

Not Trained to Be Guards

The real trouble started after Oct. 15, when the 372nd Military Police Company, a segment of the 320th Battalion based in Cresaptown, Md., took over Abu Ghraib from a military police company based in Henderson, Nev. The 372nd soldiers, reservists from small-town America, were not trained to be prison guards. An MP officer from another unit at Abu Ghraib said he was struck by their unprofessionalism.

"It was lots of things, from the way they wore the uniforms to the way they interacted with each other," said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. ". . . They didn't carry themselves like soldiers."

And their ranks were thinly stretched. Savage, the Florida corrections officer, said soldiers were far outnumbered by the prisoners, most of whom were common criminals. For the guards, the sense of a siege was ongoing. At night, the soldiers on the towers squeezed off hundreds of rounds into the darkness in response to the incoming mortar and small-arms fire.

The 372nd company commander was Donald J. Reese, 39, a salesman from New Stanton, Pa. His unit was given perhaps the most sensitive mission: control of Tier 1A, where "high priority" detainees were held for interrogation by civilian and military intelligence officers. The 203 cells of Tiers 1A and 1B were in a two-story cinderblock building known as the "hard site" at Abu Ghraib, so called to distinguish it from the many tent compounds on the prison grounds. 1B held "high risk" or trouble-making detainees.

With little experience in corrections to fall back on, the unit deferred to MPs who had civilian prison backgrounds.

"Detainee care appears to have been made up as the operations developed with reliance on, and guidance from, junior members of the unit who had civilian corrections experience," Taguba later found.

Those members included Staff Sgt. Ivan L. "Chip" Frederick II, 37, who had worked as a correctional officer at Buckingham Correctional Center in Virginia, and Spec. Charles A. Graner Jr., 35, a divorced father of two who worked as a prison guard in Greene County, Pa. Frederick was the top enlisted man in charge of 1A, where he and Graner worked closely with intelligence officers, their colleagues said.

The officer in charge of the prison was Lt. Col. Jerry L. Phillabaum, a reservist who commanded the 320th Military Police Battalion. Taguba found that Phillabaum was "an extremely ineffective commander and leader" who did little after the Camp Bucca beating incident five months earlier to put his soldiers on notice about proper detainee treatment.

Phillabaum's boss was Karpinski, the reservist general in charge of the 800th Military Police Brigade. She rarely visited Abu Ghraib, Taguba's report found. Karpinski was based at the Baghdad airport.

Karpinski, a corporate management consultant from Hilton Head, S.C., was called to active duty in June. She said she tried to regularly visit each of the detention facilities under her command. But she scaled back as the insurgency stepped up attacks. She was responsible for 3,400 soldiers at 16 facilities, including Abu Ghraib.

Soon after the 372nd arrived at Abu Ghraib, it became clear that there was a problem at the top of the prison's chain of command: Karpinski sent Phillabaum, a 1976 West Point graduate, to Kuwait for two weeks to "give him some relief from the pressure he was experiencing," the report states. Phillabaum later told The Post he was gone from Oct. 18 to Oct. 31.

Also during this period, military intelligence made a focused push on interrogations in Tiers 1A and 1B, Karpinski would later say.

"The MI said -- they specifically came to me in the September-October time frame, and said, 'Man, could you talk to those prison guys and ask if we could have those cells?' " she later told The Post. "They explained why. I said, 'I will go down and campaign for you because I understand.' "

Taguba's report and interview with MPs and their attorneys reveal what happened next.

Spec. Sabrina D. Harman, 26, of Alexandria told Taguba's investigators that Graner and Frederick were responsible for getting "these people to talk." She told The Post that military intelligence officers "made the rules as they went."

Sgt. Javal S. Davis, 26, also with the 372nd, supported that account.

"In Wing 1A we were told that they had different rules," Davis, a college dropout from New Jersey, told investigators. He said intelligence officers frequently said things such as "loosen this guy up" and "make sure he has a bad night." Davis said he was told: "Good job. They're breaking down real fast."

Davis said Graner told him agents and military intelligence personnel "would ask him to do things, but nothing was ever in writing," the report states.

The methods moved from the unorthodox to the perverse.

They "handcuffed their hands together and their legs with shackles and started to stack them on top of each other by insuring that the bottom guys penis will touch the guy on tops butt," Adel L. Nakhla, a U.S. civilian contract translator, told military investigators.

The Post obtained a series of digital photographs that were taken by MPs. Scattered among the hundreds of travelogue images of Iraq were some depicting prisoner abuse, most of them stamped with dates. The earliest of the abuse pictures, stamped Oct. 17, shows a naked man handcuffed to a cell door. A photograph of a naked man handcuffed to a cot with women's underwear stretched over his head was stamped Oct. 18. A photograph of Pfc. Lynndie R. England holding a chain or strap that is wrapped around the neck of a naked man outside a cell was stamped Oct. 24. A picture of a pile of naked men was stamped Oct. 25.

England, 21, who grew up in a West Virginia coal town, worked as a processing clerk in the cellblock and is reportedly engaged to Graner.

Military investigators said prisoners endured many other forms of abuse at Abu Ghraib. Soldiers kept some detainees naked for days and forced others to masturbate in front of female soldiers. They attached wires to the fingers and genitals of a man and threatened him with electrocution. One male MP had sex with female detainees. In one case, a detainee was severely injured during a dog attack. MPs broke chemical lights and poured the phosphoric liquid on detainees. One prisoner was sodomized with a chemical light.

Karpinski later said she was unaware of the abuse and blamed much of it on military intelligence personnel, who she said gave the MPs "ideas" that led to the abuse.

The Taguba report found that command of the prison was placed under military intelligence on Nov. 19, well after the abuses began. But Karpinski says that order formalized changes made earlier. The report also says that although there was not a clear order that the MPs were to "set conditions" for military intelligence interrogations, "it is obvious . . . that this was done at lower levels."

Phillabaum also said he did not know what was going on and blamed it on a few rogue soldiers, particularly Frederick.

"I have been made the scapegoat in this event," Phillabaum wrote in an e-mail to The Post. "Frederick was the NCO [noncommissioned officer] in charge of that wing of the prison. No one higher in his chain of command, starting with his platoon sergeant, knew what was occurring. If he thought that his actions were condoned, then why were they only conducted between 0200-0400 hours for a few days in late October and early November?"

Phillabaum added, "The acts of a couple of demented Reserve MP guards who are prison corrections officers at home were their own idea."

The soldiers' attorneys and relatives have said the MPs were following orders.

"It is clear that the intelligence community dictated that these photographs be taken," said Guy L. Womack, a Houston lawyer representing Graner, who has since been charged in the case.

The father of another charged soldier, Spec. Jeremy C. Sivits, 24, a mechanic from Hyndman, Pa., also said his son did the bidding of others. "He did what he was told," Daniel Sivits told The Post.

It is unclear when the abuses ended, though Taguba said in his report, it "is important to point out that almost every witness testified that the serious criminal abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib . . . occurred in late October and early November 2003."

On Jan. 13, a soldier in the battalion, identified by the New Yorker magazine as Spec. Joseph M. Darby, placed an anonymous note describing the photographs under the door of an Army criminal investigator.

The next day, an Army Criminal Investigation Division team set to work.

"On 14 Jan 2004 at approximately 0230 hours there was a knock at the door to my room," Frederick wrote in a statement sent to his family. "Cpt. Reese opened the door and said, 'Freddy, CID is here and they want to talk to you.' "

Frederick was told to dress and surrender his weapons. He wrote in his statement that he "questioned some of the things that I saw." But "the answer I got was this is how Military Intelligence (MI) wants it done."

Over the next three weeks, investigators would interview 50 people, including several 372nd MPs and 13 detainees.

Harman and Davis gave statements to investigators. They, along with five other MPs -- Frederick, Graner, Sivits, England and Spec. Megan M. Ambuhl, 29 -- were eventually charged in the abuse incidents and face courts-martial.

The military told the media that about the investigation in a one-paragraph news release on Jan. 16. But no details were provided -- and the release attracted little attention.

On Jan. 31, Taguba was assigned to investigate the officers involved. In March, he recommended that Karpinski and Phillabaum be relieved of their commands and given reprimands for various command failures. He recommended the same for Col. Thomas M. Pappas, commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade and his liaison officer, Lt. Col. Steven L. Jordan.

Taguba said Reese, the commander of the 372nd soldiers, should also be relieved and reprimanded. In all, administrative actions were recommended against seven officers, three sergeants and two employees of a private contractor, CACI International. Steven Stephanowicz, an interrogator, and translator John Israel both worked with military intelligence officers. The contractors are receiving intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers learned last week that 37 civilian interrogators worked with the military in Iraq.

Six of the seven criminally charged soldiers are now stationed in Camp Victory, a U.S. base near the Baghdad airport, where they are awaiting their fate.

Back in Washington, top officials are trying to minimize the damage to their careers. On Thursday, President Bush issued an apology from the Rose Garden. The next day, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld appeared before legislators and apologized.

He told the lawmakers to brace themselves for more photographs, videos and disclosures of abuse.

"It's not a pretty picture," Rumsfeld said.

Staff writer Jackie Spinner, correspondent Sewell Chan in Baghdad and research editor Margot Williams contributed to this report.

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