THE ROAD TO ABU GHRAIB : Gathering Intelligence in a War Zone

As Insurgency Grew, So Did Prison Abuse

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By Scott Wilson and Sewell Chan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 10, 2004

Second of three articles

BAGHDAD, May 9 -- In the fall of 2003, U.S. officials watched anxiously as a potent guerrilla resistance rose across broad swaths of northern and central Iraq. Insurgents assassinated diplomats, detonated car bombs and mounted daily hit-and-run strikes on U.S. soldiers. Fearful of reprisals, Iraqis shrank from collaborating with an occupation authority that appeared powerless to reverse the tide of violence and lawlessness.

Less than two weeks after 1,000 pounds of explosives demolished U.N. headquarters here on Aug. 19, driving the organization from Iraq, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller arrived in Baghdad from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he was warden of the U.S. detention facility for suspected terrorists. Miller's mission in Iraq signaled new zeal to organize an intelligence network that could hit back at the insurgents, but through unorthodox means.

"He came up there and told me he was going to 'Gitmoize' the detention operation," turning it into a hub of interrogation, said Brig. Gen. Janis L. Karpinski, then commander of the military prison system in Iraq. "But the difference is, in Guantanamo Bay there isn't a war going on outside the wall."

The worsening war outside the walls of the U.S. prison system in Iraq had a direct bearing on the abuses that occurred inside the facilities, according to Iraqi and American sources. Through the summer and fall of 2003, when detainees at Abu Ghraib prison suffered mistreatment now notorious throughout the world, the security situation in Iraq and the treatment of Iraqi prisoners ran parallel courses, both downward.

U.S. officials were under mounting pressure to collect wartime intelligence but were hobbled by a shortage of troops, the failure to build an effective informant network and a surprisingly skilled insurgency. In response, they turned to the prison system. Today, as outrage spreads over images of abused prisoners, the practices inside the prisons have the potential of strengthening the insurgency that they were designed to defeat.

Interviews with U.S. officials, former prisoners and Iraqis who have supported the occupation, along with findings outlined in the Army's internal investigation of prison abuses, make clear that there was a connection between changes in conditions inside the prisons and the struggle to control an increasingly hostile country.

Last fall, U.S. military leaders cast about for ways to generate more information on the insurgency after focusing their early intelligence efforts on the hunt for Saddam Hussein, his top lieutenants and the weapons of mass destruction that were the Bush administration's rationale for going to war.

The urgency of the problem prompted U.S. officials to accept a new intelligence service they once opposed because of its similarity to Hussein's. It also led to more widespread detentions of Iraqis. The strategy was reflected in the rising number of Iraqis arrested for questioning across the country in the late fall. At Abu Ghraib alone, the number of prisoners rose from 5,800 in September to 8,000 five months later, when Karpinski received an official admonishment.

The harsh treatment of prisoners was seen by some of the perpetrators as consistent with Miller's recommendation for "setting conditions" for interrogations by military intelligence officers. Although abuses of prisoners have been denounced as aberrations, former detainees describe humiliation, pain and discomfort as commonplace.

The treatment could also be traced to other outside pressures on the American jailers. Pre-interrogation punishment at Abu Ghraib was dispensed by reservists embittered by their prolonged stay in Iraq and plagued by frequent attacks from outside the prison walls, according to the Army investigation conducted by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba.

"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 the failure of commanders to recognize these pressures contributed to the perversive atmosphere that existed at Abu Ghraib," Taguba wrote.


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