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The Final Act of Abu Ghraib

Exclusive: A front-row seat at the military scandal's farcical last trial

There is a phenomenon, known in the film industry, that after getting comfortable in their uniforms, extras on the sets of war movies exhibit a peculiar behavior: Actors suited up as officers refuse to eat lunch at the same table with those playing enlisted men. It doesn't matter that yesterday they were all ordinary men or that today their circumstance is actually the same; the illusion of power is so fully assumed, and so necessary, that it translates into action with barely a second thought. I was reminded of this watching Colonel Robert Norton, retired, arrive at the judicial center at Fort Meade, Maryland, last summer. He might have been any man who'd got lost on his way to the senior center, weedy and dressed to disappear in off-white casuals, frail almost, except that he was carrying a uniform, and in no time that dark green costume and a pair of shiny high-laced black boots would remake him into a spanky figure, striding toward the witness chair to testify on behalf of Lt. Colonel Steven Jordan.

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This was the last court-martial that the Army would convene in the most notorious scandal of the Iraq War, the end of the road from Abu Ghraib that began in the spring of 2004 when photographs of naked, humiliated prisoners and smiling GIs first flashed around the world. Jordan had been the highest-ranking officer living at the prison when those photos were taken, and he was the only officer the Army chose to prosecute. Earlier that day he was acquitted of all charges connected with prisoner abuse, but he faced sentencing for disobeying a general order from a superior officer during the Abu Ghraib investigation. Of the charges he had confronted, this one carried the stiffest penalty—up to five years in prison, as opposed to one year for maltreatment of a fellow human. Like other character witnesses for Jordan, Colonel Norton had made a career depending on orders given and carried out: Special Forces, Vietnam, Haiti, General Dynamics. Like them, he was unfazed by Jordan's offense. "He's a man I'd go to war with, in a heartbeat," Norton told the jurors, nine colonels and one brigadier general, on the panel. "He was a team player." By then even the prosecutors seemed to agree. The government had begun its pursuit of Jordan more than three years earlier, at one point piling on charges that could have put him away for almost 48 years. Now its lawyers concluded, sighing, "What is a fair and just punishment?...A fine is certainly appropriate"—$7,373.10, one month's pay—"a reprimand is certainly warranted." A reprimand is all that Lt. Colonel Jordan got. It's what he could have got without the expense of a trial and the jury's affirmation that the authority invested in rank doesn't carry much responsibility after all, that an officer might just be an empty suit.

There will be no record of Jordan's conviction. In courts-martial, a jury's decision may be negated by the convening authority, and in January it dismissed both verdict and sentence. Jordan was given, instead, an administrative reprimand. It is as if the court-martial never happened. For most people, that was no doubt true even before the latest twist. Among the press at trial, the Associated Press, a German wire service, Agence France-Presse, and I were the only regulars, joined some days by reporters from the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun. It was the end of August, dog-day hot when not weirdly dank, and Abu Ghraib was a spent scandal. The news of the week, Alberto Gonzales resigning as attorney general, closed a circle that had begun in January 2005, when the Senate held his confirmation hearings on the eve of the first full Abu Ghraib trial. In conversation among the reporters watching Jordan's trial and with the soldiers there to watch us, escort us, and provide us doughnuts, the old lines came easiest—and so it ends "not with a bang but a whimper." No one had expected a bang from the trial, exactly, but nor had we expected farce. "You'd think that if they went to all the trouble to go to trial they'd have had some evidence," one of the soldiers said after the prosecution rested. Yet it was perfect in a way, the final act in a drama so sordid that travesty was its only honest end.

In retrospect, the story of Abu Ghraib was never clearer than in the spring of 2004, when the photos emerged and a leaked internal report by Maj. General Antonio Taguba concluded that soldiers in the 800th Military Police Brigade, officially responsible for prison security, had been "actively requested" by Military Intelligence and others to deny prisoners sleep, safety, clothing, and humanity so as to "set the conditions" for interrogation. That was Act I of the scandal, the panic phase. General Taguba had described Lt. Colonel Jordan, an MI officer who directed the prison's Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center (jidc), as evasive and untrustworthy, and recommended rebuking officers across the MP and MI chains of command who had failed their soldiers and flouted the law. Taguba would later say that he thought a full and serious inquiry was what his superiors desired. As Act I concluded, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sputtered to Congress that he was dumbfounded about what had happened in the prison; the prospect of broad accountability was sunk; and Taguba's career was effectively over.

MI, MPs, who was in control of Abu Ghraib? It was always the wrong question—they both were, in a relay initiated from above—but throughout 2004-05 a passel of government documents, human rights reports, journalistic accounts, sundry self-exculpations, and court actions piled detail on one side of the ledger or the other. This was Act II, the narrative phase of the scandal. An internal Pentagon investigation by Maj. General George Fay into the role of the 205th MI Brigade, which was in charge of interrogations at Abu Ghraib, made it plain that U.S. forces had begun torturing detainees in Afghanistan in 2001, that barbarism was routinized in 2002 at Guantanamo, and that the techniques for breaking prisoners had migrated from one theater to the next until they became standard procedure at Abu Ghraib. General Fay attributed much of the cruelty to "confusion" on the part of interrogators, who just couldn't be sure what "techniques" could be used at what time on which detainees, and faulted Lt. Colonel Jordan, among others.

The backstory seemed straightforward: There was a memo posted outside an MI office at Abu Ghraib with a list of approved techniques that any rational person would consider torture if he or his child had to endure them; at the bottom, according to the commander in charge of the 800th MP Brigade, was Rumsfeld's signature, and at the top a message in the same handwriting: "Make sure this happens!" But who read this, and what did they infer from, say, sleep adjustment or isolation or pride and ego down, and did they order it? Did they execute or even witness it? And if they hadn't, could they be responsible if, as the International Committee of the Red Cross reported, prisoners subjected to someone's interpretation of these techniques presented "signs of concentration difficulties, memory problems, verbal expression difficulties, incoherent speech, acute anxiety reactions, abnormal behavior and suicidal tendencies"? The Red Cross compiled its report in October 2003, before the infamous photos were even shot, and regarded what was going on at Abu Ghraib as "tantamount to torture." The Fay report never called it that, just as the Bush administration didn't. In the jousting of definitions throughout this phase of the drama, postmodernism beheld its triumph.

Trials, naturally, depend on shared definitions, the narrow, proven correspondence of actor to act. In January 2005 the clanging, multisource narrative of Abu Ghraib was reduced to a single source with a single purpose. Army prosecutors won convictions of Corporal Charles Graner and, as the year progressed, of Specialist Sabrina Harman and Private First Class Lynndie England, members of the 372nd MP Company who featured prominently in the photographs. The story the government told in trying them and making deals with six others was essentially the one that Pentagon public affairs chiefs and a clutch of professionals from large PR firms had formulated in the panic phase of the scandal. It went like this: MPs were in sole control of the prison; MI and interrogation procedures were irrelevant because prisoners in the photographs entered into evidence were not "MI holds" but mostly common criminals; chain of command was irrelevant because no one ordered the naked pyramid, simulated fellatio, etc.; claims that soldiers were disoriented by a "climate of abuse" were nonsense because the MPs didn't look confused or traumatized in the pictures—and a small, select group of pictures was all that concerned prosecutors. "Who can think of a person who has disgraced this uniform more?" the prosecutor thundered against Lynndie England. She had posed for the cameras; for that, and for neither stopping nor reporting her comrades, this lowest-ranked defendant got three years in prison.

Then came Act III, and the government changed its story. With Lt. Colonel Jordan the target, the prosecutor, Lt. Colonel John Tracy, argued, in effect, what defense teams had argued in those earlier proceedings: that MPs may have controlled the keys, but MI called the shots on Tier 1 of the Hard Site, the concrete cell block within Abu Ghraib's vast compound where the worst abuses took place; that nudity and sensory deprivation were common; that untrained MPs fell to their own devices when asked to soften up detainees; that a climate of abuse resulted, for which one man, an MI officer and the top commander living at the prison, bore responsibility. Jordan, 51 but appearing older, a pincushion of a man, bald and straining the seams of his dress uniform, was being tried for dereliction of duty, failure to obey a regulation, cruelty and maltreatment, and willfully disobeying an order. There was no talk of disgrace from prosecutor Tracy, though; it was all terribly polite.

I arrived the day after jury selection, and while waiting for the bomb-sniffing dogs in the parking lot, the AP's David Dishneau filled me in that the previous day prosecutors had dropped charges of lying under oath to an investigator; General Fay, it seems, had had a last-minute failure of memory as to whether he'd read Jordan his rights before interviewing him. Similar charges were dropped in July with respect to General Taguba, who insisted he had read Jordan his rights. Dishneau and I speculated whether General Fay's findings—that, for instance, Jordan "became fascinated" with the cia operating at Abu Ghraib, gave its spooks a free hand in the prison, and oversaw a phony medical evacuation of the corpse of a man who died during cia interrogation, so as not to alarm Iraqi guards on site—would all go unmentioned at trial. (They did.) It was raining, and the dogs were snuffling at our cars. Having been acquitted by the canines, we followed an Army public affairs team along Ernie Pyle Street to the ad hoc media center at the post chapel.

Fort Meade specializes in public-relations training and intelligence. The National Security Agency is a tenant organization there. It wasn't the site of the court-martial for those reasons, but its leafy grounds, Georgian brick buildings, and generally gracious campuslike atmosphere provided an apt setting for this final, normalization phase of the drama. Inside, the courtroom evoked the banquet hall of a federalist-themed motel, pale green resin columnettes glued to white walls, a pale, thickly carved eagle hovering over the witness stand, prints of famous portraits of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln behind the jury box, the overall effect a match for the prosecuting attorneys—undistinguished but not without pretensions. Between proceedings, reporters were mustered in the chapel's Room of Memories. Sentimental pictures joined robust classics from the life of Jesus on the walls outside. The Last Supper, and a little girl offering a carrot to a wolf. One afternoon as we waited for the jury's verdict, the murmuring of supplicants upstairs floated down to the hallway outside our room: "...and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."

An Army reservist, Lt. Colonel Jordan began his career in Military Intelligence and had spent most of it in the civil affairs division doing administrative work. Before volunteering for Iraq and being posted to Abu Ghraib, he worked for the Intelligence and Security Command at Fort Belvoir, which collects intelligence from conventional and other sources. He did "just the mundane, admin stuff you have to do to run an organization," his old boss, retired Colonel Charles Lurey, testified. They shared an office with people involved in Special Operations and Special Access Programs, called "the dark side" by regular military because of the creep that comes with black budgets, covert missions, and structural deniability. There was a lot of "us and them," Lurey said, but "Colonel Jordan was able to come in and befriend the folks on their side, work with the folks on our side"; pretty soon, "we were going to parties together."

It was that experience, "not just in human intelligence but in all-source intelligence," and that familiarity not just with the Army but also with oga, or other government agencies, a term most commonly denoting the cia, that prompted Colonel Steven Boltz to tap Jordan to take charge of the interrogation center, or jidc, in September 2003. The insurgency had erupted that summer, and U.S. troops were kicking in doors across Iraq, hauling people in. Rumsfeld had dispatched a team from Guantanamo to jack up the occupying forces' interrogation system. In General Fay's and others' assessments, this "Gitmoizing" of Iraq—advancing techniques used against detainees Bush had declared undeserving of Geneva protections, and transforming MPs from simple jailers to torturers—was a big reason for so much "confusion" at Abu Ghraib. In the Fort Meade courtroom, however, witnesses spoke of the Gitmo team almost as efficiency experts. They "provided for us lessons learned," said Boltz, and the jidc was "designed to mirror what was successful at Guantanamo Bay," said another witness.

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