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Stanford experiment foretold Iraq scandal

The San Francisco Chronicle, USA
May 8, 2004
Matthew B. Stannard, Chronicle Staff Writer • Saturday May 8, 2004

‘Inmates’ got abused in psychology study

To one Bay Area expert, the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison should have been predictable.

“The key is this: Once a prison has a veil of secrecy around it, which most do, it’s just open for corruption,” said Philip Zimbardo, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University. “If you know nobody can get in, nobody can know what you’re doing.”

Zimbardo said the report on Abu Ghraib prepared by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba describes a prison that was the perfect petri dish in which the culture of guard violence could flourish.

It was a culture that Zimbardo said should have been well understood, based on decades of psychological research and his own famous — some would say infamous — Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971.

In that experiment, Zimbardo randomly divided 24 normal students into groups of guards and prisoners and placed them within a simulated prison.

Within days, all hell broke loose, as the faux guards turned to abuse to control the faux prisoners, stripping them, hooding them and ultimately forcing them to simulate sodomizing one another.

Zimbardo finally shut down the two-week experiment more than a week early. That type of research ultimately fell out of favor among social scientists, although the exercise was the inspiration of both an English reality program and a German motion picture, “Das Experiment.”

It also became a chapter in many psychological textbooks — and 30 years later, Zimbardo said, the phenomenon of the Stanford Prison Experiment is so well understood that officials should have seen how it was being duplicated in Abu Ghraib.

At the top, he said, was a weak leader — Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, sharply criticized in Taguba’s report — whom Zimbardo compared with himself in the Stanford experiment.

Beneath Karpinski, according to Taguba’s report, were the interrogators, guards and detainees in the “hard site,” the secret prison within Abu Ghraib that the report says even Karpinski rarely visited.

The report said the military police within that site were part of a unit that was not properly trained for internment operations, lacked discipline and standard operating procedures, had been on duty in Iraq for far longer than its members had expected and were under constant threat of random attack by insurgents outside the prison walls.

The soldiers lacked even the minimal luxuries of Army life in Iraq — like a barbershop — and were grossly understaffed, Taguba wrote. The lapses of discipline that occurred as their morale plummeted — escapes, poor documentation, failures of military protocol — were never punished. They did not share a common language or culture with their prisoners.

The final ingredient to the cauldron described by Taguba, in Zimbardo’s view, was the request by a military or civilian contract interrogator that the military police “set conditions” for interrogation.

“Now you have a situation where people give you permission, sanction, you can do whatever you want,” Zimbardo said.

What happened next, he said, was practically inevitable:

“This was over a two-month period. This was not one day. I bet it was like my study, where each day it escalated, it got worse and worse and worse. Here’s where hell becomes the ordinary situation.”

So ordinary, Zimbardo said, that those involved apparently felt comfortable taking trophy-like pictures of their abusive actions — actions that apparently seemed acceptable to them until the photos appeared on television.

As in his own study, Zimbardo said, the evil spell of circumstance wasn’t broken until somebody inside — at Stanford, another researcher; in Baghdad, a soldier — pointed out the egregious nature of the practices taking place.

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