In the period immediately following the publication in 2004 of photographs from Abu Ghraib, the Department of Defense pledged to fully investigate every allegation of prisoner mistreatment. By 2006, the department was asserting that it had opened some 842 inquiries or investigations. The reports it went on to produce were as thorough and professional as possible under the circumstances, but only a handful resulted in further action. Moreover, their existence obscured the relationship between the alleged abuses and Pentagon policymakers.
Joshua E.S. Phillips’s recent report for The Nation and PBS’s Need to Know suggests that the Rumsfeld Pentagon was keen to open a large number of investigative files on Abu Ghraib primarily to create the impression of diligence. President Obama furthered this illusion in 2009 when, in reversing his earlier position against releasing photographic evidence of torture and prisoner abuse, he insisted that “Individuals who violated standards of behavior in these photos have been investigated and held accountable.”
In other words, Obama was suggesting, the perpetrators had been punished and it was time to move on. But interviews conducted by Phillips with people at the core of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command’s efforts on Abu Ghraib show persuasively that the bulk of incidents were never actually investigated or acted on. Among Phillips’s more alarming findings:
- The five CID agents who were interviewed for the article, four of whom worked on the agency’s Detainee Abuse Task Force (DATF) during 2005, said there was no consensus over what constituted abuse, especially with respect to interrogation techniques. They also said the case files they received were often missing key pieces of evidence, that they hadn’t had access to competent Arabic translators, and that they were rarely able to track down victims who had been released from detention. They further added that they were overwhelmed by the hundreds of abuse cases they’d been ordered to reopen—orders one agent speculated were given so the military could duck Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from the ACLU.
- John Renaud, the retired Army warrant officer who headed DATF for the first half of 2005, now says of the task force, “It didn’t accomplish anything—it was a whitewash.” Neither he nor his fellow agents could recall a single investigated case advancing to a court-martial hearing.
- Some of the most serious accusations focused on covert interrogation units, which were effectively shielded from inquiry. An investigator named Julie Kuykendall (formerly Julie Tyler) recalled DATF’s attempts to follow up with one such unit, based out of Fort Bragg: “We wouldn’t get the interrogators’ real full names,” she said. “We would get their made-up, pseudonym names. Pretty much every case we had with that group of interrogators all went the same way…. We had to close them because there just wasn’t enough information to go forward.”
Fort Bragg is also the headquarters of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which maintains its own detention facilities in both Iraq and Afghanistan. JSOC operations at Camp Nama in Iraq and at the Tor or “Black” prison in Bagram have been the subject of particularly detailed and gruesome allegations of torture and prisoner abuse. A sign posted at Camp Nama read “No Blood, No Foul,” suggesting, as the New York Times noted when the story first broke, an official policy of impunity: “If you don’t make them bleed, they can’t prosecute for it.”
When I discussed the issue with Phillips, he highlighted this point: “One thing that shocked me was that the CID/DATF agents that I interviewed said there could be hundreds, if not thousands, of allegations of detainee abuse and torture that likely didn’t reach them.” The quantum of claims that led to further action and the specific problems that frustrated the DATF investigation—particularly the sense that authorized practices could not be deemed “abuse” no matter how brutal or harmful they were to a prisoner, and the widespread use of security classifications to obstruct inquiries—point to prisoner abuse as a matter of official policy. Today, curiously, the Pentagon even denies the existence of DATF. But the Phillips report amounts to a strong case that “No Blood, No Foul” was more than just a sign on the wall at Camp Nama—it was Pentagon policy.