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Reforms in Place at Abu Ghraib

Months after the prison abuse scandal, officials say objectionable methods have been banned and detainees are treated fairly.

September 04, 2004|Mark Mazzetti | Times Staff Writer

ABU GHRAIB, Iraq — In a stark room with plywood walls, a prisoner in a yellow jumpsuit sits in a plastic chair, eyes fixed on his interrogators. He is telling a long story, stopping occasionally to drink from a Coke can on the table next to his chair, then resuming his tale.

Watching the interrogation through a closed-circuit television, Army Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Adkins, an interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison, says the quality of information from Iraqi detainees often does not match the quantity.

"They're always very chatty," he says. "It's just that the subject of what they like to talk about is not always what we're looking for."

More than four months after photos documenting abuse of detainees and harsh interrogation methods at Abu Ghraib burst into public view, sparking an international scandal and more than a dozen official investigations, the work of trying to glean useful intelligence from prisoners continues 20 hours a day at this 260-acre compound west of Baghdad.

But officers and enlisted personnel insist that the prison has righted itself.

After a period of leadership failures, overcrowding, murky chains of command, and vague orders to "get better intelligence" from detainees, U.S. officials say management has been improved and prisoners are being treated fairly.

Techniques such as depriving prisoners of sleep, putting hoods over their heads, forcing them to stand naked and using dogs to intimidate them have been banned. Crowding has been eased.

It is a very different picture from the one presented in two major reports on prisoner abuse released last week. The investigation into the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade by Army generals and the independent report chaired by former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger both documented a badly managed prison that degenerated into chaos last year while the Iraqi insurgency grew deadlier by the day.

The generals found that 41 intelligence officers, CIA officials, military police and civilian contractors committed or condoned abuses, in addition to seven MPs already charged. Schlesinger's panel said the abuses resulted from a climate of neglect, overcrowding and command failures.

In contrast to those grim portraits, Camp Ganci, a makeshift tent city on the prison grounds once inhabited by 5,200 detainees, now houses only 523 inmates. Most of the remaining 1,400 inmates at Abu Ghraib have moved to a newer encampment, Camp Redemption, where they are segregated based on the level of perceived security risks.

The drawdown, says Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, who assumed responsibility for U.S. prisons in Iraq in April, has been made possible in part by cutting the time prisoners wait to appear before the Review and Release Board, where many are judged to be of little intelligence value and are set free.

The current average wait is about 40 days, down from more than 200. Also, far fewer detainees are being funneled into the prison now.

Miller also says he has established clear lines of authority between military police -- who are in charge of maintaining order at the facility -- and interrogators. Pentagon investigators cited poorly defined chains of command at Abu Ghraib and a decision to put MPs under the "tactical control" of interrogators as factors that contributed to the abuse of prisoners.

Although MPs now play no active part in interrogations, Miller argues that it is essential for the guards to take part in "passive intelligence gathering." Once a week, MPs meet with interrogators to share intelligence about how specific prisoners behave, whom they interact with, and what they may have revealed during their daily routine.

Miller has brought in a team of officers with experience in Army corrections, hoping to create a uniform system of detention practices and training for MPs and interrogators.

Each three-person interrogation team now receives two hours of extra training each week, and interrogations are constantly monitored by officers. MPs at Abu Ghraib now undergo a training regimen that didn't exist last year.

Yet even maintaining order can still be problematic. On Aug. 18, a large fight erupted, involving more than 200 detainees. According to a statement from the military, guards intervened using lethal force, and when it was all over, two detainees were dead and five were injured.

"It's a constant monitoring process to keep them from beating each other up," says an MP who gives his name as Sgt. Osbeck. "You have Shias on one side, Sunnis on the other, and other people in the middle that nobody likes."

Few international human rights organizations have been able to independently judge the reforms at Abu Ghraib firsthand. The International Committee of the Red Cross has visited the prison, but it does not make its reports public.

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