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05.29.09

The Bogus Torture Coverup

Update and correction: Since this story posted Friday, Salon has accurately pointed out that the sexually explicit photographs focused on in my story were first published by Salon in 2006, and that all the Salon photographs have in fact been released by the government. The 44 photos subject to the ACLU law suit and reviewed by President Obama do not contain sexually explicit images. Read more from Scott Horton's update and correction.

Update and correction: Since this story posted Friday, Salon has accurately pointed out that the sexually explicit photographs focused on in my story were first published by Salon in 2006, and that all the Salon photographs have in fact been released by the government. The 44 photos subject to the ACLU law suit and reviewed by President Obama do not contain sexually explicit images.

But the story is far from over. Indeed, a senior Pentagon official involved in the ACLU litigation tells me that the 44 photographs in question are not the end of the controversy, stating that an internal process of review was still underway, reconsidering photographs that “may previously have been miscategorized.” The source declined to comment on the additional photographs. In addition, the official confirmed that:

There are a “substantial number” of unreleased photographs, past the 44 in question, potentially subject to the ACLU’s request. It remains to be seen what they are and what is in them.

Obama’s May 14 decision not to release these 44 photographs, after personally reviewing them, was a stall tactic: he intends to release them eventually, even if he prevails in court, once the situation on the ground improves.

The was a split between the top Centcom commanders, with General David Patraeus speaking in favor of release (specifically, “let’s lance this boil”), and General Raymond Ordierno coming out against, arguing that it could make a dangerous situation more dangerous.

The administration’s pushback on the disclosure story seems aimed to shift the focus of attention entirely to the group of 44 photographs which have taken a prominent role in this specific litigation. This is justifiable to the extent that the discussion turns on Obama’s personal decision not to release specific photographs, but not in the broader context of disclosure. Pressed to characterize the 44 photographs, a Pentagon official told me “these photographs, while disturbing enough, are relatively inconsequential compared to those which were already released in 2004 and 2006.” If so, why not release them?

Click Image Below to View a Gallery of Some Rarely Seen Abu Ghraib Torture Photos

torture-gallery

Original story below:

The Daily Beast has confirmed that the photographs of abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, which President Obama, in a reversal, decided not to release, depict sexually explicit acts, including a uniformed soldier receiving oral sex from a female prisoner, a government contractor engaged in an act of sodomy with a male prisoner and scenes of forced masturbation, forced exhibition, and penetration involving phosphorous sticks and brooms.

These descriptions come on the heels of a British report yesterday about the photographs that contained some of these revelations—and whose credibility was questioned by the Pentagon as well as the British newspaper's source, who claims he was misunderstood.

The Daily Beast has obtained specific corroboration of the British account, which appeared in the London Daily Telegraph, from several reliable sources, including a highly credible senior military officer with firsthand knowledge, who provided even more detail about the graphic photographs that have been withheld from the public by the Obama administration.

A senior military officer familiar with the photos told me that they would likely provoke a storm of outrage if released. The well-informed source confirmed, just as reported in the Telegraph, that many of the photographs are sexually explicit, including those mentioned above. The photographs differ from those already officially released. Some show U.S. personnel engaged in sexual acts with prisoners and each other. In one, a female prisoner appears to have been forced to expose her breasts to be photographed. In another, a prisoner is suspended naked upside down from the top bunk of a bed in a stress position.

The Telegraph article quoted retired Major General Antonio Taguba, who directed the official inquiry in 2004 into the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Taguba told the Telegraph that the “pictures show torture, abuse, rape, and every indecency.” The Telegraph reported: “At least one picture shows an American soldier apparently raping a female prisoner while another is said to show a male translator raping a male detainee. Further photographs are said to depict sexual assaults on prisoners with objects including a truncheon, wire, and a phosphorescent tube. Another apparently shows a female prisoner having her clothing forcibly removed to expose her breasts.”

In response to the Telegraph account, Bryan G. Whitman, a deputy assistant secretary of Defense, attacked the newspaper. “That news organization has completely mischaracterized the images," he said. “None of the photos in question depict the images that are described in that article.” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, later in the day, widened the assault to a general one against British journalism. “If I wanted to read a writeup today of how Manchester United fared last night in the Champions League Cup, I might open up a British newspaper,” Gibbs said. “If I was looking for something that bordered on truthful news, I'm not entirely sure it'd be in the first pack of clips I'd pick up.”

The photographs differ from those already officially released. Some show U.S. personnel engaged in sexual acts with prisoners and each other. In one, a female prisoner appears to have been forced to expose her breasts to be photographed.

In one withheld photograph, not previously described, Specialist Charles A. Graner, Jr., an Abu Ghraib guard, is shown suturing the face of a prisoner, a reliable source tells The Daily Beast. The suturing appeared to serve no ostensible medical purpose than perhaps Graner’s attempts to humiliate or terrorize the prisoner, the source suggested. Graner was court-martialed and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment in 2005 for charges that included prisoner abuse. A number of the withheld photographs, according to reliable sources, show Graner engaged in sexual acts with Specialist Lynndie A. England, another soldier assigned to duty at Abu Ghraib. She appears in some of the most notorious photographs disclosed so far, including one in which she walked a detainee on a leash—enacting a regimen later revealed as an authorized technique known as “walking the dog.”

Other suppressed photographs show a female prisoner assuming sexually suggestive poses in a chair, while a prison guard appears behind her in some frames. In another series, prisoners are shown hooded in a transport with open copies of pornographic magazines in their laps.

Still other withheld photographs have been circulating among U.S. soldiers who served in Iraq. One soldier showed them to me, including a photograph in which a male in a U.S. military uniform receives oral sex from a female prisoner.

The Obama administration’s decision to challenge the Telegraph account presents a dilemma because many of the photographs have already been leaked, and they match the very images that Taguba described and which Pentagon spokesman Whitman denied. The already leaked photographs can be seen at the Web sites of Salon.com, the Sydney Morning Herald of Australia, the Australian Broacasting Corp. Dateline program, and the Spanish newspaper El Mundo.

The suppressed photographs and videos are the subject of a Freedom of Information Act litigation brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU prevailed against government claims of secrecy both in the federal district court and in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. (Full disclosure: I supplied a legal expert’s opinion on the Geneva Conventions, which was cited by both courts in reaching their conclusions.) Yesterday, the Justice Department filed papers asking the court to reconsider its decision directing that the photographs be made public. In its papers, the Justice Department suggested it would seek to have the matter reviewed in the Supreme Court if its motion were to be denied.

The immediate pushback against the Telegraph story from the Pentagon, coupled with the decision of White House press secretary Gibbs to chime in, suggests the sensitivity of the issue. The full-scale strike against the Telegraph, the leading conservative quality newspaper in Britain, broadened into an offensive against the whole of British journalism, suggesting the precariousness of the public-relations effort.

The Pentagon spokesperson, Bryan G. Whitman, who came to prominence during the Bush administration, has drawn on standard operating procedures honed during the Rumsfeld era. Instead of offering correction of supposed factual inaccuracies, he has slammed the credibility of the publication itself. Yet his statement is both sweeping and extremely vague, and the claim that none of the photos reflect the descriptions in the article is immediately belied by an examination of the photos that have already been leaked.

Whitman has used this sort of bludgeoning attack on news organizations before. Ask Michael Isikoff at Newsweek. When Newsweek’s April 30, 2005, issue ran a brief Periscope piece referring to an internal report’s description of an incident in which a Quran was thrown down a toilet, Whitman launched a dramatic attack on the publication, pressuring it to retract and apologize. The report had, it later turned out, been correct. In 2007, the ACLU secured, through a Freedom of Information Act request, a copy of a 2002 FBI report which documented a prisoner’s charge that his Quran has been thrown in the toilet; five other cases of mishandling Qurans were reported, although the Pentagon insisted that none of them amounted to desecration.

The most prominent victim in the past of Whitman’s disinformation may have been none other than Barack Obama. On the campaign trail, in Austin, Texas, candidate Obama said he had gotten a message from an Army captain in Iraq who described how his unit had been shorted in munitions and equipment. I learned from reporters that Whitman started a whispering campaign with the Pentagon press corps telling them (not for attribution) that he didn’t believe Obama’s claims were true. Whitman’s game, however, was stopped by ABC reporter Jake Tapper, who tracked down the captain, interviewed him and fully verified the account.

Bryan Whitman remains on the job in the Pentagon today. But the effort to suppress the shocking photographs is already failing, as they leak to the public and reliable sources verify their authenticity. A senior military officer told me that in the months before the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, Pentagon officials engaged in strange maneuvers to avoiding viewing the pictures. That, he noted, didn’t make the photos any less real. But it apparently made it easier for Pentagon officials to dissemble about them. That process hasn’t stopped.

Scott Horton is a law professor and writer on legal and national-security affairs for Harper's magazine and The American Lawyer, among other publications.