Wed, May 19, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Troops, torture and the politics of ambiguity

A former interrogator believes the images of abuse from the Abu Ghraib prison are just the beginning of worse

By Michael Manning

Each new revelation of physical abuse, maltreatment and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by American and British soldiers shocks international public opinion, leaving officials to scramble desperately to contain the damage. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warns that more documentary evidence of wrongdoing at Abu Ghraib prison lies in store, evidently in the pre-emptive hope that the outrages stopped there.

As a former US military intelligence interrogator, I am convinced that the images from Abu Ghraib are just the beginning. The wanton cruelty there is all too clearly symptomatic of a systemic failure.

But what system failed? Was it a failure of discipline and training -- the result of sending inexperienced and unworldly reservists into poor conditions, abruptly extending their deployments, and then leaving them understaffed in the face of a growing influx of captured insurgents? Or did the pattern of abuse amount to so many orders from superiors to "soften up" prisoners for interrogation?

The answer is most likely both and neither.

Ultimately, what gives rise to abuses such as occurred at Abu Ghraib is a policy of deliberate ambiguity concerning how to handle detainees. The pressure in a war setting to get information that could save lives is immense. But, just as understandably, senior political and military officials -- particularly in democracies -- prefer to avoid any association with torture. Ambiguity is thus a political strategy that encourages the spread of implicit, informal rules of behavior, thereby shifting accountability onto the lowest ranking, least powerful, and most expendable soldiers.

I completed the US Army's three-month basic interrogation course in the late 1980s, after studying Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. The course was rigorous -- only seven of 33 students finished it -- as it required mastering the technical minutiae of collecting, crosschecking, stand-ardizing and reporting masses of information.

But the curriculum was much less meticulous concerning interrogation techniques. An interrogation, we were instructed, should begin with polite, direct questioning, because a certain number of detainees simply want to unburden themselves. If more persuasion was needed, we could offer rewards for cooperation -- anything from cigarettes to political asylum.

Beyond this, we were taught that we could "apply pressure." The term was never defined in any formal setting, but the concept was not difficult to decipher. As US Army General Antonio Taguba's report on the abuses at Abu Ghraib puts it, the "guard force" was "actively engaged in setting the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees."

This obvious violation of the Army's rule prohibiting participation by military police in interrogation sessions does not surprise me. I was never taught that military police came under a separate chain of command. On the contrary, between classes, during breaks in field training, and in other informal settings, some of our instructors -- typically older, more experienced interrogators -- let it be known through insinuation and innuendo that we could have the guards beat uncooperative subjects.

This was never said in the classroom, but even there, it was made clear that the role of military police was to serve the interrogators. After all, an interrogator's effectiveness depends on convin-cing the detainee of his power. If an interrogator promises better food or an extra blanket, the guards must provide it; if an interrogator wants the detainee's cell to remain brightly lit all night, that must happen too. The detainee simply must believe that his fate is entirely in the interrogator's hands.

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