I took some time this evening to read the newly-released International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) report on prison conditions in Iraq. The report is dated February of this year and covers visits to various prisons and detention centers from March to November of last year.
What does it show?
Over recent days we've gotten accustomed, I think, to an escalating rate of shame and outrage each day. It just keeps getting worse and worse. With such heightened, or as the case may be, lowered expectations, I think it's possible to read the report and conclude it's not quite as bad as one might have expected. But in the process of not being quite as bad as one might expect, it actually deals a pretty devastating blow to any claim that the infamous pictures are examples of low-level jailers run amok.
In brief, the report argues that many innocents were arrested in dragnet type operations. Initial arrests were often rough and frightening to the people whose houses were broken into. And the military had no good system of notification for the families of detainees. This resulted, as the report terms it, "in the de facto 'disappearance' of the arrestee for weeks or even months until contact was finally made." (p.8)
The sense I got from the report was that this was as much as anything a matter of disorganization and poor planning. Still, the net effect was to have people's family members simply disappear with no idea of what had happened to them for weeks or even months.
Descriptions of initial arrest and detention are often harrowing and brutal. But, for better or worse, many of them don't seem that different from what you might see on an episode of Cops. That's not meant to make light of it -- just to give a sense of what we're talking about.
Once you were arrested, and after you went through a period of interrogation, you were usually placed in a standard detention facility run by military police that was reasonably well run and complied with standard Geneva Convention standards. To the extent there were problems they were due to personality conflicts between particular prisoners and guards or individual bad apples. And those problems were usually cleared up pretty quickly by higher-ups in those jails. That's the conclusion of the report.
The key is what happened during interrogation to high-value detainees.
The key passages come early on. For instance, on page 7, "In most cases, the allegations of ill-treatment referred to acts that occurred prior to the internment of persons deprived of their liberty in regular internment facilities, while they were in the custody of arresting authorities or military and civilian intelligence personnel." Once prisoners were transferred to "regular internment facilities, such as those administered by the military police, where the behavior of guards was strictly supervised, ill-treatment of the type described in this report usually ceased."
Even more to point, on pages 3 and 11, the report states that "ill-treatment during interrogation was not systematic, except with regard to persons arrested in connection with suspected security offences or deemed to have an 'intelligence' value." (itals added)
Look further into the report and you see that the kind of "ill-treatment" they're talking about is pretty much like the stuff we've been seeing in those pictures. The fact that this only seemed to happen while most prisoners were in the interrogation phase, and then generally to the ones who Military Intelligence thought might have really choice information, tells you that this wasn't a matter of a breakdown of authority or rogue sadists (though those were probably in the mix too) but rather a matter of organized policy.
I don't think there's any other way to make sense of what the report contains. Why else would the pattern of 'ill-treatment' be so focused and consistent?
In the crudest terms, it makes sense. What the ICRC termed "threats and humiliations [and] both physical and psychological coercion, which in some cases was tantamount to torture" (pp. 3-4, 11) was reserved for use as an aide in interrogations, and mainly for the interrogations of detainees thought to have particularly valuable information.
The key passage is probably on page 11 where it states that "methods of physical and psychological coercion used by the interrogators appeared to be part of the standard operating procedures by military intelligence personnel to obtain confessions and extract information. Several military intelligence officers confirmed to ICRC that it was part of the military intelligence process to hold a person deprived of his liberty naked in a completely dark and empty cell for a prolonged period [,] to use inhumane and degrading treatment, including physical and psychological coercion, against persons deprived of their liberty to secure their cooperation." (itals added)
The list of frequently used methods of 'ill-treatment' is on page 12 and among other things includes beatings of various sorts, threats of various sorts -- including further 'ill-treatment', "reprisals against family members, imminent execution or transfer to Guantanamo" -- being paraded around naked, being photographed in humiliating positions, etc.
On page 13 and 14 there is again the use of threats of execution, mock execution, threats of reprisals against family members, etc. Through the report, we hear again and again the threat of being sent to Gitmo.
(As bad as all this was, the one thing you really wanted to avoid was falling into the hands of the Iraqi police where the sort of treatment described above was seemingly more intense and boundless and mixed with corruption. So, for instance, you might undergo mock execution and threats to have your wife and daughters raped. And then if you didn't pay the bribe, they'd turn you over to the Americans with claims that you were some sort of hardened terrorist who surely had prized information, etc., perhaps bin Laden's valet or videographer or something.)
In short, the ICRC report doesn't state in specifics the sort of stuff we've seen so far in pictures. But it does describe this sort of stuff in general terms and argues that this was standard procedure used to extract information from the sort of people we'd most want to get information from -- people suspected of being insurgents and others deemed to have 'intelligence value.'
As much as the low-level folks who did the humiliating and the 'softening up' should be held to account, you can certainly see why they and their families would be outraged beyond imagining that all of this was being blamed on them.
The president's stylized expressions of outrage and disgust are further revealed, I believe, as play-acting, like his feigned outrage over the outing of Valerie Plame by one of his top advisors and his pretended efforts to discover the culprits.
More echoes of the search for the 'real killers'.