Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Feature: Philip Gourevitch on "Standard Operating Procedure"

The Stain of Abu Ghraib

by Dylan Foley

In May 2004, the world was horrified by photographic images of Iraqi detainees being tortured and humiliated by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad. The atrocities sparked an international outcry and soul searching over the mistreatment of prisoners, but only a handful of low-ranking soldiers were convicted of wrongdoing.

In their damning and engrossing new book Standard Operating Procedure (Penguin Press, $26), Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch and filmmaker Errol Morris have linked the Bush administration’s attempts to strip prisoners in the “war on terror” of all protections under Geneva Conventions and to sanction a broad range torture techniques and humiliation during interrogations, to the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. The book is a companion to the Morris documentary of the same name. Gourevitch’s stark and fluid prose brings alive the events behind the infamous photos of the seven months in 2003 at Abu Ghraib, where “standard operating procedure” meant nude Iraqis being menaced with dogs, beaten, stacked in human pyramids, and chained in stress positions.

“Abu Ghraib is a very charged address,” said Gourevitch in an interview from the New York offices of the Paris Review. “In the spring of 2003, American soldiers were coming into a prison which had been a symbol and synonymous with the worst of Saddam’s torture chambers. Then the Americans decided to use the prison. Prison contractors were told to set up a prison in a month. They found Abu Ghraib and said this is the only real prison in Iraq. It had been built with American blueprints.”

In the book, Gourevitch first lays out the Bush administration’s work at the highest levels to remove post-September 11th detainees out from the protections against physical abuse.

“You have the slow substitution of the ‘war on terror’ laws rules and policies in the place of what had been a conventional war between states,” said the 46-year-old Gourevitch. “In the Justice Department, with the president’s legal counsel, in the vice president’s office and in the Defense department under Donald Rumsfeld, you have a consistent and coherent strategy to dismantle the laws against torture and against cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, and to allow a great deal of abuse.”

Torture techniques were imported from Afghanistan to Iraq. “Captain Carolyn Wood had run the interrogation center at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan,” said Gourevitch, “where they used dogs, nakedness, sleep and sensory deprivation, constant abuse and beatings. Three prisoners were murdered under her watch. She was transferred to Iraq and promoted. Nobody gave her any rules. She said, ‘I’ll bring the rules from Afghanistan.’”

Gourevitch’s writing shines when he recreates the concrete hell of the cell blocks of Abu Ghraib. Several hundred undertrained MPs were guarding up to 9,000 Iraqi detainees. They were shelled every day by Iraqi insurgents. The MPs were stressed and terrified.

Eventually, it was discovered that more than 75 percent of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib were innocent. Most of the rest were common criminals and people who had been arrested for looting.

On the ghoulish military intelligence cell block, prisoners were kept naked and were routinely beaten and humiliated. Gourevitch reconstructs the infamous Abu Ghraib night shift of Charles Graner, Jamal Davis, Sabrina Harmon and others, where their brutality and callous disregard towards detainees was encouraged and fostered by Army and CIA interrogators,and one prisoner was beaten to death by an interrogator.

“The soldiers at Abu Ghraib did not get a standard operating procedure or a rules of interrogation,” said Gourevitch. “The rules got totally confused. If you set out to create a muddle of instructions which would lead to anarchy, abuse, and minimal accountability for the higher ups, you could not have designed things better.”

Gourevitch refers to Graner and the other MPs as amateur photographers and amateur torturers. “To put it simply, it was obvious they were never read into the program. They were never told, ‘This is a black operation and you are sworn to secrecy,’” said Gourevitch. “That is why, in part, the book is called ‘Standard Operating Procedure.’ There is an absurdity about including people who weren’t even told, ‘You have to keep your mouth shut.’ It was amateur hour all the way. They were amateur torturers.”

The tragedy and the sick joke of Abu Ghraib was that the intelligence obtained through beatings and abuse was worthless. “In the end, Abu Ghraib actually turned out to be a useless.

When Saddam’s battle-hardened general and colonels from Saddam Hussein’s regime were brought into Abu Ghraib, they faced inexperienced interrogators.

“You think of one of Saddam’s generals, who’d survived wars and several putsches in the regime,” said Gourevitch. “He’s survived in a cutthroat government. Into the cell walks a 19-year-old interrogator, straight out of boot camp. He’s no match for an Iraqi general who is playing for keeps.”

Gourevitch dismisses the idea of atrocities being inevitable in war.
“There is the idea that terrible things go on in war, but this is not the horror of war,” said Gourevitch. “This was a deliberate reversal of policy on torture.”

The book was intentionally published without the iconic photographs of Iraqis being menaced by dogs or nude men stacked in a pyramids. Without the photos, the book has a timeless quality, where seven months of atrocities at Abu Ghraib become a war story of American troops acting out tortures that have been approved from the highest levels of the American government.

In the end of the day, the photographs documenting the abuse damned the people in them and allowed the higher ranks to escape prosecution.

“The photographs from Abu Ghraib provided a frame that made it seem like the abuse were the actions of a small group of rogue soldiers,” said Gourevitch. “It allowed people to say, ‘Oh, it’s these kinky, weird, messed up group of hillbillies who were alone of the night shift, who created these pornographic images and disgraced us all.’ There was an investigation, but it was bagged early on. (cut three begins--75 words) The photographs seemed ended up limiting the damage to those soldiers in the photographs. In the Washington spin rooms, the master framers were able to say, ‘Wait a minute, no one is going to find a document signed by Donald Rumsfeld saying, “Stack these naked people into a pyramid.”’ Therefore, there is no connection to the abuse. I believe the soldiers convicted were scapegoats in the end.” (cut three ends)

Gourevitch writes that Abu Ghraib is a stain on America, a stain that remains because U.S.-sanctioned torture is still being committed in the “war on terror.” His book asks the searing existential question, if we can be indifferent to torture in our name, what kind of country are we becoming?

“Now we have congressional approval of waterboarding,” said Gourevitch. “We have the second national election since Abu Ghraib and no one is making an issue of torture, in either party. There must be an idea that people are willing to make their peace with torture, which is a very disturbing discovery.

“There is a big difference between saying, ‘There are times in the republic where dark and dirty things must be done,’” added Gourevitch, “and saying ‘These aren’t dark and dirty things. These things are who we are and we do these things with our eyes wide open, and we do not pretend to be embarrassed.’ This has been the policy of this administration.”

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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