I’ll post here Mitchell’s article on this, which includes his May 1 2004 [after the Abu Ghraib photos came out and the scandal broke] interview with Hanley, followed by the original 2003 article. In the 2004 interview Hanley presciently said:
Imagine how history could have been different if more of the press had done their job instead of acting as conduits for military propaganda and US lies.
Four Years Later: Why Did It Take So Long for the Press to Break Abu Ghraib Story?
Charles J. Hanley, Pulitzer winner for the Associated Press, uncovered abuses at the infamous prison months before the scandal really exploded. Why were so many others so slow to act?
By Greg Mitchell
(May 08, 2008) — Four years ago this month, as May unfolded, each day brought fresh horrors, images, or details about the Abu Ghraib prison abuses in Iraq. Pictures of shackled and hooded prisoners gave way to detainees on leashes, cowering before snarling dogs, or just plain beaten and bruised.
On May 10, 2004, an Iraqi human rights official charged that American overseer Paul Bremer had been repeatedly informed about abuses at Abu Ghraib. The New Yorker revealed that Donald Rumsfeld personally okayed a set of procedures that led to the abuses. Several major newspapers called for Rumsfeld to quit.
At that time, in a column, I disclosed how Pulitzer-winning correspondent Charles J. Hanley at The Associated Press had actually “broken” the Abu Ghraib story months before it came out via The New Yorker and other outlets—but the rest of the media had paid it little mind. This led me to ask, Is the press trying to make up for lost time once again?
The media was now bursting with accounts of prison abuse at Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi prisons, but where were they the previous fall when evidence of wrongdoing started to emerge—when a public accounting might have halted what turned out to be the worst of the incidents? “It was not an officially sanctioned story that begins with a handout from an official source,” Hanley told me.
Hanley started looking into accusations of abuse when he returned to Baghdad for his latest tour of press duty (he had earlier broken several key stories and worked on AP’s early revelations about heavy civilian casualties). It led to a series of pieces, culminating in a shocking report on Nov. 1, 2003, based on interviews with six released detainees.
He was still amazed that apparently no one else quickly looked into the allegations, and no major newspaper picked up on his reporting after it appeared. Why? “That’s something you’d have to ask editors at major newspapers,” he said. “But there does seem to be a very strong prejudice toward investing U.S. official statements with credibility while disregarding statements from almost any other source—and in this current situation, Iraqi sources.”
The Hanley stories that fall told of detainees being attacked by dogs, humiliated by guards, and spending days with hoods over their heads, now familiar images in the American—and Arab—mind. Even after the Pentagon promised an investigation in January, and announced arrests in March, Hanley was “surprised there was not more interest and investigative reporting done. It’s hard to fault my colleagues in Baghdad considering the pressure and danger they feel. Many stories are missed—that’s the way it is in war. But clearly there is a mindset in the U.S. media that slows the aggressive pursuit of stories that make the U.S. military look bad. The greatest fall down, of course, was the uncritical and often ignorant swallowing of claims about weapons of mass destruction presented by often unidentified sources.”
A partial transcript of our discussion in may 2004 follows.
When did you get involved in the prison angle?
Last September I arrived in Baghdad for another tour. What sparked my interest was an obscure British Web site which cited Amnesty International saying it had gotten some information about possible abuses.
I set about trying to locate released detainees. I think my first approach was to defense lawyer-types from the Iraqi League of Lawyers. They gave me some secondhand information. While working on that, I talked to the military officer at the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] who was responsible for the prison program. He let out that they had just shut down Camp Cropper at Baghdad airport, which had the worst reputation for abuse at that time.
They did not announce it, they just told me that in passing. I can only surmise that they did not want to draw attention to Cropper.
I did that story on Oct. 5, mainly about the closing of Cropper but also cited Amnesty’s contention about physical abuse and their protests. Then on Oct. 9, I did a longer piece based mainly on the lawyers and what they were finding inside. The president of the Lawyers League was a former political prisoner under the Baathist regime. They had so many families coming to them saying husbands or sons did nothing, they had been held for months, and couldn’t even find where they were. Only a few of the lawyers had gotten inside. Of course we now know, from the Red Cross, that a large percentage of the inmates were mistakenly imprisoned.
What led you to the released detainees?
The key was finding the right person at the Iraqi equivalent of the Red Cross, the Red Crescent Society. Then they began leading me to released detainees. In the end, with my interpreter, we spoke to six of the former detainees and they were from all three major camps—Cropper at the airport, Bucca in the south, and Abu Ghraib. One of them might have been in all three. We spent hours talking to them. Nothing like what we found had been published at that time, as I found out in a check of our database.
After writing the big piece, we held it and presented the U.S. command in Baghdad with a list of specific questions: Were certain kinds of deprivation and physical punishment used against detainees, as we were told, and why? How many deaths had occurred, and what were the circumstances? What types of weapons were used to put down disturbances? How many cases had there been of discipline or prosecution because of abuse? We learned that the MP (military police) brigade had sent responses to the Baghdad command, but they were never released to us, and there was no explanation given. Around this time, the MP general, Janis Karpinski, told an Arab TV interviewer the detainees were treated humanely. We quoted her on that.
So what happened after your AP story came out on Nov. 1?
The play was very disappointing. A few papers ran it, like the Tulsa World and Akron Beacon Journal. It got wide use in Germany. None of the major U.S. newspapers published the story. And I was surprised to see that none of them followed up.
Why do you think no one else jumped on it?
One reason is simple and practical—it’s a difficult story to get, in a chaotic city like Baghdad. Although, in the end, simply realizing that the Red Crescent Society was the Red Cross liaison could have occurred to others. But the other thing is, there was no official structure to the story. It was not an officially sanctioned story that begins with a handout from an official source. A handout from CPA eventually happened in January, but even after that there was not much pursuit.
The story did not pop out at everybody. But there was a lot going on elsewhere. Clearly there is a lot of indiscriminate killing going on in Iraq in general and there’s little focus on that. It’s not like the only human rights story is behind the walls. But the one behind the walls is toughest to get out.
Why didn’t more papers just run your story, when it was handed to them, then?
That’s something you’d have to ask editors at major newspapers. But I do think there’s often disproportionate weight of credibility given to the statements of U.S. officials. There seems to be a tendency at times to discount the statements of others—people like Iraqi former detainees—if they’re not somehow supported by a U.S. source, or perhaps by photographs.
Rumsfeld said this week the military, not the media, reported the Abu Ghraib abuses.
This is strictly correct if you’re talking about the specific abuses shown in some of the photos. But the AP provided specifics on other abuses throughout the system many months earlier and at the time was unable to get the U.S. military command to comment on them.
What do you think will happen now?
My gut tells me the story will spread outward to Guantanamo and Afghanistan and to other prisons in Iraq. I guess it already is.
Greg Mitchell‘s new book “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits–and the President–Failed on Iraq” explores this and other issues related to the war. It includes a preface by Bruce Springsteen and a foreword by Joseph L. Galloway.
AP Enterprise: Former Iraqi detainees tell of riots, punishment in the sun, good Americans and pitiless ones
9:36 a.m. November 1, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq – In Iraq’s American detention camps, forbidden talk can earn a prisoner hours bound and stretched out in the sun, and detainees swinging tent poles rise up regularly against their jailers, according to recently released Iraqis.
In these secretive islands in a scorched landscape, “they don’t respect anyone, old or young,” Rahad Naif said of his U.S. Army guards. He and others told of detainees in wheelchairs, and of a man carried into a stifling hot tent in his sickbed. “They humiliate everybody.”
Naif, 31, is one of three brothers – butchers from the east Baghdad slums – who were thrown into the three biggest detention centers by the Americans in July after a nasty quarrel with an influential neighbor. They never faced charges; the last brother was finally freed Oct. 15.
The camps and prisons hold a mixed population: curfew-breakers and drivers who tried to evade U.S. checkpoints, suspected common criminals, anti-U.S. resistance fighters, and many of deposed President Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party leadership.
A Naif brother released in September, Hassan, 32, said there are “good people” among the U.S. guards, like an older man the Iraqis respectfully dubbed “al-Haji” – “Pilgrim.” Ex-detainees also say conditions improve at times, as new underwear, toothbrushes and other supplies arrive; some facilities are better than others, and none compares with Saddam’s bloody political prisons. On Oct. 1, the most notorious U.S. center, the Baghdad airport’s overcrowded Camp Cropper, was closed.
For the third brother, however, the bitterness is too fresh.
“They confined us like sheep,” the newly freed Saad Naif, 38, said of the Americans. “They hit people. They humiliated people.”
Although details cannot be otherwise confirmed, the accounts by a half dozen former detainees in Associated Press interviews corroborated each other on key points, and meshed with what Amnesty International has heard from released Iraqis. The human rights group has accounts of detainee uprisings, punishment by exposure to the sun, and other examples of what it calls “inhumane conditions.”
Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the U.S. Army commander of Iraq’s detention facilities, has said prisoners are treated humanely and fairly. Specific questions about AP’s ex-detainee accounts were submitted to the U.S. command on Oct. 18, but no response has been received.
Two pending U.S. military legal cases may offer a glimpse at problems in the detention system: In one, four soldiers are accused of beating Iraqi prisoners; in the other, two Marines are charged in connection with an Iraqi’s death in detention.
The number of prisoners is in dispute. The U.S. command says it holds 5,500, but some lawyers and other Iraqis believe the figure is higher. In toppling the Saddam government last April, the U.S.-British invasion force inherited a legal vacuum and began incarcerating ordinary criminals with prisoners of war and less well-defined detainees.
Iraq’s chief U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer, says he has moved to speed up release of unjustly held Iraqis, and Iraqi lawyers and judges are slowly taking on criminal cases. The International Committee of the Red Cross, responsible under international law for inspecting wartime prison camps, says the listing and processing of detainees has improved in recent weeks.
The Baghdad spokeswoman for the ICRC, whose representatives are the only outsiders allowed into the camps, said the organization’s policy does not allow any public comment on any abuse or other poor conditions detected. Nada Doumani noted, however, that the law – the Geneva Conventions – forbids all physical pressure on detainees.
The ICRC’s decision to reduce its Baghdad staff, because of the bombing of its headquarters, may limit its ability to visit detention sites.
Baathists deemed “high-value detainees” by the Americans have been concentrated at a detention site in southern Iraq called Camp Bucca.
Before he was moved to Camp Bucca, one of them, former Parliament speaker Saadoun Hammadi, shared a tent with more than 100 men at the Baghdad airport camp and “was in miserable condition, very thin,” said a former tentmate, Hassan Ali Muslim.
Hammadi, a man in his late 60s who once served as prime minister, “didn’t speak with anybody. In the morning and afternoon, he walked alone for an hour, back and forth along the fence,” Muslim said. The famous Baath politician was dressed in shorts, his dyed hair had gone white, and he’d grown a long beard, the freed detainee said.
At Camp Bucca, in the wastes near Basra, “we were suffering, sitting in the desert,” said one of the Naif brothers, Rahad, who was released from Bucca on Sept. 22.
Water was the first concern for internees everywhere, especially as summer temperatures topped 120 degrees. There was never enough to drink and wash with, they said.
“They’d give us hot water while we’d see them drinking cold water,” said Ra’id Mohammed Hassan, 41, freed from Bucca on Oct. 15 after two months’ detention for having a weapon in his car.
Rahad Naif said 1,000 men in his section at Bucca had to share just 10 water taps. “They would come, especially the Kuwaiti translators, and throw ice into the sand just to make us suffer psychologically,” Naif said.
At the airport’s Camp Cropper, Muslim, a 28-year-old factory worker, tried to keep a bottle filled and hidden from thieves. When the Americans finally erected a tank for showers, there was so little water the detainees got into vicious arguments over it, he said. Skin diseases became common, he said.
The ex-prisoners, uniformly, said the sick men among them were the camps’ saddest sight. “There were crippled people at Bucca. Some were in wheelchairs,” said Rahad Naif. He said two died in the next tent while he was there.
“At the airport, they brought in a chronically ill man in a bed and put him near me. He was very sick,” Hassan Naif said. One crippled man had to be carried up the steps to a toilet, he said.
The prisoners staged protests or hunger strikes demanding better care for their sick comrades. At other times, they would erupt in anger over their own plight.
“Twenty or so of us would start shouting, ‘Get us out! Let us go!’,” said Muslim, who was freed Sept. 20 after two months’ detention, accused of attempted carjacking.
“The demonstrations happened almost every day at Bucca,” said Rahad Naif, who described scenes in which military police countered with the tools of U.S. prison guards.
“Sometimes we’d fight the Americans with tent poles. The Americans would come at us behind riot shields, firing plastic bullets and electric pistols (stun guns). We can’t fight against that. We knew they’d win. We’d never manage to get out.”
The ex-detainees said the common punishment, even for such lesser infractions as shouting over to the next tent or stealing food, was “The Gardens” – a razor-wire enclosure where prisoners were made to lie face down on the burning sand for two or three hours, hands bound.
They said they would also be punished by having rations reduced or withdrawn, or by being denied two staples – cigarettes and tea. They were allotted two cigarettes a day.
At Camp Cropper, Muslim said, he endured four days in solitary confinement, in a dark, sweltering 3-by-6-foot cell, after a confrontation with a notoriously tough guard over cigarettes.
“It felt like my skin was melting,” he said of the heat in the cell. A doctor came on the second day to check on him, and the Americans apologized after he was freed, Muslim said. The guard responsible was moved elsewhere, he said.
“There are some good ones who don’t like to punish people,” Hassan Naif said of his time at Cropper. “There was an old black soldier we called ‘al-Haji’ who argued with the other Americans if they weren’t respecting our rights.”
But much of what detainees saw was intolerable, Naif said, “especially when we saw Iraqi women punished in the same way as men.”
When one detainee shouted to his sister in a nearby women’s tent, the guards punished the woman, Naif said. Seeing her lying bound in the sun, the brother angrily started to cross the razor wire ringing his tent, “and they shot him in the shoulder,” Naif said.
“The worst thing was their treatment of the women,” said Saad Naif, who spent time both at the airport and at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, where tents spread across the prison yards.
“Innocent women were kept for months in the same clothes,” he said. He said he remembered in particular an elderly woman “whose hands were tied up and she was lying in the dust.”
Saad Naif said he saw a prisoner shot dead at Abu Ghraib when he approached the razor wire.
Amnesty International says it has received credible reports of such shootings. AP queried the U.S. command here about deaths in the camps, but got no response.
Not knowing what they were charged with and when they might be released, detainees grew angrier and more depressed, said Ziad Tarik, 24, a friend who was swept up with the three Naif brothers after the fateful quarrel and spent more than a month at Abu Ghraib before abruptly being freed.
“They interrogated me about Saddam’s family, about al-Qaeda terrorists, about weapons markets – things I know nothing about,” he said. “I thought they’d ask me about my case. Why was I arrested?”
“There’s no law,” Rahad Naif said. “It’s up to them. It’s arbitrary.”
Tarik gave an example: An Iraqi colonel was released from Abu Ghraib, but the Americans still hold his wife and, according to Tarik, “she didn’t do anything.” That account could not be verified.
The Naif brothers’ mother, black-veiled Fawzia Ibrahim, 59, said she feels “like a bird” since their release, but she dreads the memory of the mid-July night when 16 U.S. soldiers, with Iraqi police, stormed into her house to take her sons away.
“Death would be better than the Americans again!” she said.
Ex-detainee Muslim says he knows of a worse fate – to have been imprisoned under Saddam Hussein, as his late father was for three months in 1995. Torture and summary execution became routine in the Baathist political prison system.
“Compared to Saddam, the Americans are better,” he said.