The road to Abu Ghraib – part two

Part two of two. [Part one].

A week or two passed. And then the other photographs appeared. They were of Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib jail on the outskirts of Baghdad. A 21-year-old US reservist called Private Lynndie England had been snapped leading a naked man across the floor on a leash. She featured in many of the photographs. It was she who knelt laughing behind a pile of naked prisoners. They had been forced to build themselves into some kind of human pyramid. The pictures could hardly have been more repulsive. Here were young Muslim men – captives – being humiliated and overwhelmed by what looked like grotesque US sexual decadence. It struck me as an unhappy coincidence that Lynndie England and her friends had created a tableau that was the epitome of what would most disgust and repel the Iraqi people, those people whose hearts and minds were the great prize for the coalition forces – and also for the Islamic fundamentalists.

The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, flew to the jail. He told the assembled troops that the events shown in the pictures were the work of “a few who have betrayed our values and sullied the reputation of our country. It was a body blow to me. Those who committed crimes will be dealt with, and the American people will be proud of it, and the Iraqi people will be proud.”

Lynndie England was arrested. By then she was back in the US, five months pregnant, performing desk duties at Fort Bragg. Then word got out through Lynndie England’s lawyers that her defence was that she had been acting under orders, softening up the prisoners for interrogation, and that the people giving the orders were none other than Military Intelligence, the unit once commanded by Major General Albert Stubblebine III.

It was sad to remember all that nose-banging and cutlery-bending, and see how General Stubblebine’s good intentions had come to this. I called the general and asked him, “What was your first thought when you saw the photographs?”

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The Men Who Stare At Goats

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“My first thought,” he said, “was ‘Oh shit!'”

“What was your second thought?”

“Thank God that’s not me at the bottom of that pyramid.”

“What was your third thought?”

“My third thought,” said the general, “was ‘This was not started by some youngsters down in the trenches. This had to have been driven by the intelligence community.’ Yep. Someone much higher in intelligence deliberately designed this, advocated it, directed it, trained people to do it. No doubt about it. And whoever that is, he’s in deep hiding right now.”

“Military Intelligence?” I asked. “Your old people?”

“It’s a possibility,” he said. “My guess is no.”

“Who then?”

“The Agency,” he said (meaning the CIA).

“In conjunction with PsyOps?” I asked.

“I’m sure they had a hand in it,” said the general. “Sure. No doubt about it. You know, if they’d just stuck to Jim Channon’s ideas … “

“By Jim Channon’s ideas, do you mean the loud music?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said the general.

“So the idea of blasting prisoners with loud music,” I said, “definitely originated with the First Earth Battalion?”

“Definitely,” said the general. “No question. So did the frequencies.” Frequencies, he said, dis-equilibrate people. “There’s all kinds of things you can do with the frequencies. Jesus, you can take a frequency and make a guy have diarrhoea, make a guy sick to the stomach. I don’t understand why they even had to do this crap you saw in the photographs. They should have just blasted them with frequencies!”

Jon Ronson

Jon Ronson is a writer and documentary film maker. His book, Them: Adventures With Extremists, was a UK bestseller and is now available in the US in paperback. His five part Channel 4 series the Secret Rulers of the World was broadcast on Channel 4 throughout May 2001. […] In the US, he is a contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and This American Life.

On May 12, 2004, Lynndie England gave an interview to the Denver-based TV reporter Brian Maas:

Maas : There’s a photograph that was taken of you holding an Iraqi prisoner on a leash. How did that come about?

England : I was instructed by persons in higher rank to “stand there, hold this leash and look at the camera”. And they took a picture for PsyOps and that’s all I know … I was told to stand there, give the thumbs-up, smile, stand behind all of the naked Iraqis in the pyramid [have my picture taken].

Maas : Who told you to do that?

England : Persons in my higher chain of command … They were for PsyOps reasons and the reasons worked. So to us, we were doing our job, which meant we were doing what we were told, and the outcome was what they wanted. They’d come back and they’d look at the pictures and they’d state, “Oh, that’s a good tactic, keep it up. That’s working. This is working. Keep doing it, it’s getting what we need.”

I was beginning to wonder whether the scenarios had, in fact, been carefully calculated by a PsyOps cultural specialist to present a vision that would most repel young Iraqi men. Could it be that the acts captured in the photographs were not the point, and that the photographs themselves were the thing? Were the photographs intended to be shown only to individual Iraqi prisoners to scare them into cooperating, rather than getting out and scaring the whole world?

Joseph Curtis (not his real name) worked the night shift at the Abu Ghraib prison in the autumn of 2003. When I talked to him he had been exiled by the army to a town in Germany. The threat of a court martial hung over him. He had previously given an interview about what he had seen to an international press agency, thus incurring the wrath of his superiors. Even so, against his own better judgement, and against his lawyers’ advice, he agreed to meet me, secretly, at an Italian restaurant in June 2004.

We sat on the balcony of the restaurant and he pushed his food around his plate. “You ever see The Shining?” he said.

“Yes,” I said.

“Abu Ghraib was like the Overlook Hotel,” he said. “It was haunted.”

I assumed Joseph meant the place was full of spooks: intelligence officers – but the look on his face made me realise he didn’t.

“It was haunted,” he said. “It got so dark at night. So dark. Under Saddam, people were dissolved in acid there. Women raped by dogs. Brains splattered all over the walls. This was worse than the Overlook Hotel because it was real.

“It was like the building wanted to be back in business,” he said.

Joseph remarked that he couldn’t believe how much money was floating around the army these days. These were the golden days, in budgetary terms. This was not a side issue. In January 2004, the influential think tank and lobbying group, GlobalSecurity, revealed that George W Bush’s government had filtered more money into their Black Budget than any other administration in American history. Black Budgets often just fund Black Ops – highly sensitive and deeply shady projects such as assassination squads, and so on. But Black Budgets also fund schemes so bizarre that their disclosure might lead voters to believe their leaders have taken leave of their senses. Bush’s administration had, by January 2004, channelled approximately $30bn into the Black Budget – to be spent on God knows what.

“Abu Ghraib,” Joseph was telling me, “was a tourist attraction. I remember one time I was woken up by two captains. ‘Where’s the death chamber?’ They wanted to see the rope and the lever. When Rumsfeld came to visit, he didn’t want to talk to the soldiers. All he wanted to see was the death chamber.”

Joseph took a bite of his food.

“Yeah, the beast in man really came out at Abu Ghraib,” he said.

“You mean in the photographs?” I asked.

“Everywhere,” he said. “The senior leadership were screwing around with the lower ranks … “

I told Joseph I didn’t understand what he meant.

He said, “The senior leaders were having sex with the lower ranks. The detainees were raping each other.”

“Did you ever see any ghosts?” I asked him.

“There was a darkness about the place,” he replied.

Joseph was in charge of the super-classified computer network at Abu Ghraib. His job didn’t take him into the isolation block, even though it was just down the corridor, but on one occasion he was invited to see the model planes someone had made – and also to take a look at the “high values”. (The “high values” were what the US army called the suspected terrorists, insurgent leaders, rapists or child-molesters.) He accepted the invitation.

The isolation block was where all the photographs were taken – the human pyramid, and so on. Joseph turned the corner into the block.

“There were two MPs there,” he told me. “And they were constantly screaming. ‘SHUT THE FUCK UP!’ They were screaming at some old guy, making him repeat a number over and over.

“‘156403. 156403. 156403.’

“The guy couldn’t speak English. He couldn’t pronounce the numbers.


“‘156403. 156403.’


“Then they saw me. ‘Hey, Joseph! How are you? I CAN’T FUCKING HEAR YOU. LOUDER.’ “

Joseph said that the MPs had basically gone straight from McDonald’s to Abu Ghraib. They knew nothing. And now they were getting scapegoated because they happened to be identifiable in the photographs. They just did what the Military Intelligence people, Joseph’s people, told them to do. PsyOps were just a phone call away, Joseph said. And the Military Intelligence people all had PsyOps training anyway. The thing I had to remember about Military Intelligence was that they were the “nerdy-type guys at school. You know. The outcasts. Couple all that with ego, and a poster on the wall saying ‘By CG Approval’ – Commanding General Approval – and suddenly you have guys who think they govern the world. That’s what one of them said to me. ‘We govern the world.’ “

An aide to Condoleezza Rice, the White House national security adviser, visited the prison, to inform the interrogators sternly that they weren’t getting useful enough information from the detainees. “Then,” Joseph said, “a whole platoon of Guantanamo people arrived. The word got around. ‘Oh God, the Gitmo guys are here.’ Bam! There they were. They took the place over.” Perhaps Guantanamo Bay was Experimental Lab Mark 1, and whatever esoteric techniques worked there were exported to Abu Ghraib.

Perhaps this is the way it happened: in the late 1970s Jim Channon, traumatised from Vietnam, sought solace in the emerging human potential movement of California. He took his ideas back into the army and they struck a chord with the top brass who had never before seen themselves as New Age, but in their post-Vietnam funk it all made sense to them. Then, over the decades that followed, the army, being what it is, recovered its strength and saw that some of the ideas contained within Jim’s manual could be used to shatter people rather than heal them. Those are the ideas that live on in the war on terror.

© Jon Ronson, 2004.

• This is an edited extract from The Men Who Stare At Goats, by Jon Ronson, published by Picador on November 19 at £16.99. To order a copy for &#16316.14, with free UK p&p, call 0870 836 0875. Jon Ronson’s three-part television series, The Crazy Rulers Of The World, starts on Channel 4 on November 7.

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The Guardian, UK
Oct. 30, 2004
Jon Ronson

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday October 30, 2004.
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