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May 8, 2004

New General, Old Methods at Iraq Prisons


by Mark Rothschild

"Banned" methods of prisoner interrogation were approved at the highest levels of US command. Methods authorized include so-called pain-inducing "stress positions" in which detainees are bound to stand or squat until they are unable to comply, or until they break.

The use of these techniques was confirmed in a press conference at the Pentagon. Although the spotlight Friday was on Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld's testimony before Congress, the focus of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal has started to shift onto Major General Geoffrey Miller, the former commander of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Miller left Guantanamo and was put in charge of Abu Ghraib prison, near Baghdad, after Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski was quietly sacked at the end of March. Gen. Janis Karpinski has not been charged in connection with the investigation.

She has subtly implied that Miller encouraged questionable practices by introducing his "Gitmo" (Guantanamo) prison practices into Iraq. She is reported to have said that Miller "Gitmo-ized" the Iraq system. The circumstances under which prisoners were interrogated in Cuba have been roundly criticized, especially in the foreign press.

In September, before Miller assumed command of Iraqi prisons, he paid a special visit to Abu Ghraib at the behest of the top commanders. They asked Miller to assess the Iraqi prisons with an eye to increasing the flow of intelligence information from detainees.

As some within the Pentagon are distancing themselves from Miller's assessment report, accusations have circulated that Miller's recommendations introduced questionable interrogation methods into Abu Ghraib. The same "Cuban" interrogation methods were used at Guantanamo Bay.

Critics have claimed that the conditions in Guantanamo amount to torture. According to reports, Miller has denied these charges, saying, "The United States never tortures anyone "

Miller's recommendations for speeding up the interrogation process at Abu Ghraib were presented to the top commander in Iraq, Brigadier General Ricardo S. Sanchez. In part they stated, " it is essential that the guard force be actively engaged in setting the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees."

The phrase, "setting conditions for interrogations" is a euphemism.

On Tuesday, Miller defended the recommendations he made, "Every recommendation that we made was in the bounds of what was authorized by the theater and was within standard practices."

Miller, an experienced officer with "22,000 interrogations" under his belt, took over command of Guantanamo in the fall of 2002. The first prisoners at Guantanamo arrived in Jan 2002. There were about 600 prisoners in Miller's detention facility at Guantanamo. By Oct. 9, 2003 there had been 32 reported suicide attempts.

During Miller's tenure at Guantanamo, prisoners underwent interrogation almost every other day. Interrogations could begin anytime and last 10 hours. While interrogated, prisoners were shackled to the floor.

Charges of overt torture at Guantanamo cannot be verified because the prisoner detention area at Guantanamo is off limits to the press.

Miller claims that during his September assessment visit, he did not witness any abuses at Abu Ghraib, "the team saw no evidence of abuse during our stay".

One notorious incident that came to light in the leaked Taguba Report was a sexual assault using a broomstick. Miller tried to assure reporters on Tuesday that the abuses and chaos that have made the name Abu Ghraib notorious are now safely in the past. However, Miller was unable to answer reporter's questions about whether the person accused of that sexual assault was still working in the prison.

Responding to questions on Tuesday about what techniques are routinely used during interrogation, Miller said, "For example, sleep deprivation and stress positions and all that could be used."

Miller seemed to do no better at public relations this week than Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, whose clumsy appearance at a Pentagon briefing on Tuesday set the stage for a humiliating encore on capital hill Friday.

Miller, like Rumsfeld, may not weather the storm surrounding the Abu Ghraib prison. But, unlike Rumsfeld, Miller is only implementing policy, not making it.

The Abu Ghraib prison scandal has the potential to destroy lives and careers. But it does not need to do so. Justice demands that all allegations be examined. Justice also demands that lives spent serving this country be respected.

Fairness demands that everyone in the entire chain of command be given the opportunity to demonstrate that they have acted honorably. Demanding, accepting, or offering any resignations before a thorough investigation has taken place will do an injustice to the reputations of those concerned and to the honor of the United States.


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Mark Rothschild lives and writes from Los Angeles, California. Comments or questions are welcome.

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