Media tour highlights improvements, 'transparency' at Abu Ghraib prison
Col. Dave Quantock could see something was wrong at the Abu Ghraib prison almost as soon as he walked in.
He had no idea that a prisoner-abuse scandal was about to rock the U.S. Army from top to bottom. But all he had to do was look at the soldiers to see that discipline had seriously broken down.
There were “aberrations” in uniform, Quantock said. Many soldiers’ helmets were covered in Arabic writing. One soldier was actually wearing a shawl.
“I lit into one guy,” said Quantock, commander of the 16th Military Police Brigade, Airborne, which arrived for duty at Abu Ghraib in January. “Their standards were a serious issue.”
Quantock’s observations echoed Maj. Gen. Anthony Taguba’s report on the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. In it, Taguba said the abuse amounted to “egregious acts and violations of international law.”
Noting the dysfunctional atmosphere, the report said some soldiers “wrote poems and other sayings on their helmets and soft caps,” went around after hours in civilian clothes and did not salute senior officers.
Such things are telling, Quantock said, because once discipline is breached even in seemingly small matters, “it’s a slippery slope.”
There is plenty of evidence in Taguba’s report that the prison was rife with abuses large and small.
Numerous officers and senior noncommissioned officers were disciplined during the period that the worst abuses were occurring. Besides widely publicized reprimands for dereliction of duty in connection with the abuse scandal, Abu Ghraib officers were disciplined for allowing troops to drink alcohol, fraternization and, on one occasion, failure to train troops properly after a soldier negligently discharged his M-16 and hit a fuel tank.
One captain has been court- martialed on charges he secretly took photographs of his female soldiers in the nude, according to the report.
But it was the worst actions — sexually posing and humiliating prisoners, and apparently setting dogs on them, shown in photographs apparently taken by the soldiers themselves — that has caused worldwide revulsion and seriously damaged U.S. credibility.
“It’s appalling,” Quantock said. “It’s sick.”
Quantock was one of the commanders on Monday’s media tour of the prison facility. The tour was part of a continuing effort to persuade the world that, despite the horrible things that appear to have gone on there, the people in charge now have nothing to hide, and never will have again.
“It’s very important to us to demonstrate transparency in how we operate the facility,” said Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who came to take charge of U.S.-run Iraq prisons last month, and was previously warden at the Guantanamo prison.
It was important, Miller said, “to help us establish confidence in how we are doing this mission, throughout the coalition and Iraqi society, and once again assure America that we are doing right.”
To do that, Miller, Quantock and Col. Foster Payne, commander of the 504th Military Intelligence Brigade, escorted reporters around the base that smelled faintly of manure.
As the bus rumbled past one of many bare-dirt enclosures where prisoners sleep 25 to a tent on wooden floors, the improvements to the prison were exclaimed — better medical care with a new hospital in a tent in a former warehouse, better communication with prisoners with weekly meetings to hear their concerns, and a new visitor center that will increase family visits for the prisoners, most of whom haven’t been charged with any crime.
“They have board games, volleyball and soccer,” Quantock said.
But prisoners gathered near the razor wire separating their encampment from the road as the bus went past, gesturing and holding up banners to send their own message.
“There is a lot that is hidden,” read one. “Release us — our families are waiting,” read another. One man gestured to what looked like a scar on his side.
Miller has vowed to reduce the Abu Ghraib population of 3,800 by more than half, with quicker releases than what’s been the average four-to-six-month stay, and more expeditious court referrals.
He also said he favored compensating the “small number” of detainees who had been mistakenly arrested and held for months after committing no crime.
The tour took reporters into the interrogation building, a roughly-hewn structure that smelled sweetly of freshly cut wood. It contained several small rooms with one-way mirrors, tables and chairs, ashtrays and air conditioners. Each had a metal ring in the floor to restrain prisoners. The mirrors allowed Payne to monitor interrogations, he said, which occur “24 hours a day, seven days a week,” and last from one to five hours.
Inside the building where the abuse is said to have taken place, Miller said, are now 19 “high- risk” detainees, who are either dangerous or are thought to be of special intelligence value. On the other side, in cells looking down on the cellblock where the infamous photographs are thought to have been taken, were the five women held at Abu Ghraib. Before Miller arrived, there were 10 women and they were detained in a tent; Miller said he moved them inside because it was cooler.
During the first media tour, the women cried out that they were wrongly imprisoned and missed their children, according to news reports.
On Monday’s tour, the women did not make a sound. Miller mentioned that Payne had bought them new dresses.