Still to blame

Newly declassified files on detainee abuse include sworn statements by a Pentagon employee about a military interrogator who threw the Koran on the floor and "stepped on it" -- provoking detainees to riot.

Topics: Afghanistan, Iraq war, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, ACLU, Pentagon,

In sworn statements given to Pentagon investigators last summer, a Defense Department civilian employee assigned to military intelligence units described an incident in which an interrogator in Afghanistan “took a Koran, threw it on the floor and stepped on it,” provoking a riot by Muslim detainees.

Along with scores of other documents and depositions concerning alleged prisoner abuse at U.S. military prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the statements by the civilian employee were declassified and released last week in response to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The employee’s name is redacted from the depositions delivered in June 2004 to the Arizona headquarters of the 309th Military Intelligence Battalion. Those depositions and the other documents were among previously classified materials used by Gen. Paul Kern, Maj. Gen. George Fay and Lt. Gen. Anthony Jones to prepare an official Pentagon report on the Abu Ghraib scandal last summer.

Detainee charges of Quran desecration have aroused fresh controversy since Newsweek magazine published a news item about a Quran that was allegedly flushed down a toilet in order to demoralize Muslim prisoners at Guantánamo. Spokesmen for the White House and the Defense Department blamed subsequent lethal rioting by Afghan Muslims on the Newsweek report and indignantly denied that any such incidents had occurred.

Amid charges of fabrication and even treason spewed by furious right-wing pundits and bloggers, Newsweek humbly retracted its story. The magazine’s embarrassment became a propaganda triumph for the White House and Pentagon, which, at least temporarily, successfully transformed concern over prisoner abuse and lack of official accountability into a debate about press standards.



Yet now the newly released documents again raise the issue of brutal and illegal tactics used against Muslim detainees — particularly desecration of the Quran and other forms of religious pressure that violate the Geneva Conventions and U.S. law. As first reported by the Washington Post, the documents include numerous allegations of mistreatment of copies of the Muslim holy book — including one detainee’s statement to FBI agents that guards at Guantánamo had “flushed a Koran in a toilet.”

Army and Defense Department officials have sought to cast doubt on the detainee allegations, suggesting that former prisoners want to stoke resentment by spreading “unsubstantiated” stories of desecration and abuse. Dismissing a reporter’s question about “possible similar desecrations” of a Quran, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita last week replied that “there haven’t been credible allegations to that effect.”

The Pentagon’s denials in the face of dozens of detainee allegations underscore the significance of the civilian employee’s sworn statements. Although limited in scope, those statements represent the first independent confirmation of Quran desecration by someone other than a detainee or former prisoner.

The first statement from the civilian employee, dated June 10, 2004, included testimony about working at Abu Ghraib in October 2003 as a member of a small “Mobile Training Team” from Fort Huachuca, Ariz. The team’s mission at the Iraqi prison was to “provide an overall assessment of interrogation operations, training, and advice and assistance.” The civilian employee noted that the Intelligence Rules of Engagement — Army regulations setting forth permissible interrogation methods — “was posted and was very similar to the IROE used in Afghanistan.”

While much of the June 10 statement is general and somewhat vague, the civilian employee specifically recalled an informal conversation with an Abu Ghraib interrogator about how to question detainees more aggressively:

“I gave him examples of approaches including Pride and Ego Down where an interrogator took a Koran, threw it on the floor and stepped on it … I also explained sleep deprivation. I told him that in Afghanistan the interrogators could use an adjusted sleep schedule for detainees. The conversation was meant to explain why these activities were prohibited or restricted … During my time at [Abu Ghraib], I did not witness any abuse or maltreatment of detainees.”

“Pride and Ego Down” refers to methods used to intimidate and break the will of recalcitrant prisoners during interrogation. In a highly controversial September 2003 memorandum authorizing the use of coercive interrogation techniques, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the commander of U.S. military forces in Iraq, specifically mentioned “Pride and Ego Down,” which he described as “attacking or insulting the ego of a detainee, not beyond the limits that would apply to an EPW [enemy prisoner of war].” (The Sanchez memorandum also offers a pertinent note of caution: “Other nations that believe detainees are entitled to EPW protections may consider this technique inconsistent with the provisions of Geneva.”)

Ten days later, the same civilian employee expanded on the first statement with a second deposition at Fort Huachuca, apparently to provide “relevant background information” about the conversation with the Abu Ghraib interrogator.

Again recounting that conversation, the civilian employee explained that they were discussing ideas about “how to get ‘these detainees to talk.’” Evidently certain prisoners were believed to know “the source of the incoming mortars” fired by insurgents at Abu Ghraib, but wouldn’t reveal anything.

“During the conversation I told [name redacted] about the Interrogation Rules of Engagement to ensure he knew of their existence … I told him of a story of an interrogator using a Pride and Ego Down approach. The interrogator took a copy of a Koran and threw it on the floor and stepped on the Koran, which resulted in a detainee riot … I never personally witnessed the above incidents but heard about them from other interrogation facility personnel.”

The civilian employee goes on to talk about other methods, including the use of “barking dogs in the prison” and photographs of “what appear to be [military police] in intimidating positions with detainees.” But the June 20 statement doesn’t clarify the earlier reference to the Quran-desecration incident, nor does it plainly state that such methods violate U.S. and international law.

Scott Horton, the president of the International League for Human Rights, has demanded full accountability for the military and civilian authorities responsible for abuses in U.S. prison facilities abroad. He has interviewed numerous detainees and examined the civilian employee’s deposition and other materials obtained by the ACLU.

“The newly released documents give us a deeper glimpse into the confusion created in Iraq when the Pentagon decided to dispense with the long-established approach mandated by the Army Field Manual and began to apply great pressure on the interrogators to get results quickly about the insurgency,” he says.

“The sworn statement of one DOD civilian in which desecration of the Koran is presented as a practice under the ‘Pride and Ego Down’ technique is especially troubling. If this were one isolated incident involving a single mistaken soldier, it wouldn’t be quite so bad. But there appear to be dozens of incidents stretching around the world — Guantánamo, Iraq and Afghanistan. And it fits in too neatly in a palette of techniques designed to use a prisoner’s religious beliefs to break him: forced grooming, use of menstrual blood, enforced nudity, use of military dogs, simulated sexual acts, acts of sexual humiliation. All of this suggests very strongly that techniques have been engineered that break the law, undermine our military effort and are at odds with our nation’s ethics and traditions.”

Individuals and institutions should be held accountable in proportion to their errors. Newsweek mishandled a news item and honestly accepted responsibility. The Bush administration and the Pentagon have made far worse mistakes — and keep trying to divert responsibility. Still, there’s no escaping the fact that by stupidly removing safeguards against the abuse of prisoners in the war on terror, they have done irreparable damage to the reputation of the American military and the international prestige of the United States.

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>