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The Final Act of Abu Ghraib

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

Testifying for the prosecution, Boltz did not project the air of someone who in August 2003, according to an infamous email from Captain William Ponce, "made it clear that we want these individuals broken." Boltz looked dolefully toward the lumpen figure of the man at the defense table whom he had first instructed in the basics of military intelligence 27 years earlier. According to the defense, Lt. Colonel Jordan served as a kind of "mayor" of Abu Ghraib, making sure soldiers had what they needed to do their jobs, and here was Boltz having to say he had expected a more directed leadership over intelligence. Boltz spoke as if every word grieved him. No, Jordan was not supposed to question prisoners; he was not an interrogator. But as commander of the intelligence-gathering operation, he was responsible for making sure that interrogations got done; that the interrogation rules of engagement, including those infamous "approved techniques," were being correctly followed; that the actions of MI, civilian contractors, cia, and others were coordinated; that people were trained and supervised; and most of all that the flow of "actionable intelligence" improved.

The flow did improve, Major Kris Poppe, Jordan's lead attorney, would declare throughout the trial. Abu Ghraib posted "a 50 to 70 percent increase in intelligence reporting between September and December 2003." For most of that period, until mid-November, Jordan was on the job, and in the end Saddam Hussein was captured. No one offered that most of that intelligence was garbage: Rumsfeld was getting weekly and sometimes nightly reports, but the insurgency only grew stronger. No one in a military courtroom was interested in impugning the war, certainly, or the system that gave Jordan meaning, the byzantine world of interrogators, private contractors, professional liars, political do-boys, and average MI sods like him. Jordan's lawyers would not, and the Army's lawyers could not—institutionally but also tactically. Some of the government's own witnesses were officers neck-deep in the muck who were never prosecuted.

So came Colonel Thomas Pappas to the stand, a feral-looking little man with a fixed, nervous gaze. As commander of the 205th MI Brigade, to which Jordan was attached, Pappas had allowed the use of dogs in interrogation, for which he ultimately was reprimanded and fined $8,000. More important, Pappas knew that gross abuses were going on at Abu Ghraib because he received Red Cross reports in 2003 saying so. He did nothing, just as Jordan did nothing, to inhibit the routine shackling, hooding, solitary confinement, sensory deprivation, distribution of women's panties to men, and more that the Red Cross had found. Since neither man was taken to task for countenancing those offenses (they were not on Jordan's charge sheet), both the prosecution and the defense had cause to avoid the subject of regularized abuse. On the stand, Colonel Pappas said Lt. Colonel Jordan had told him only that the Red Cross had found that some detainees didn't have clothes and weren't allowed to write letters home. Prosecutor Tracy did not pursue it. Instead, he asked Pappas deferentially about "sleep management" and "dietary manipulation," saying of the latter, "and sometimes it could be a good thing?" because cooperative prisoners would get food as a reward. Along with stress positions, those were the most common, debilitating tortures, but Jordan wasn't charged with performing or sanctioning those cruelties. No one was. Not even Charles Graner, the MP corporal and putative "ringleader" of the abuse. They were legitimate cruelties; though, as Tracy noted, there was a right way and a wrong way to implement them. Colonel Pappas described sleep management as "just managing the cycle, not actually depriving anyone of sleep." Next up for the prosecution, Captain Carolyn Wood noted that since questioning has to be conducted at 2 a.m. instead of 2 p.m., sleep deprivation is "a very demanding program on the interrogators as well."

Captain Wood was directly in charge of interrogators at Abu Ghraib. Before that, her MI unit was implicated in the death of two detainees under interrogation in Afghanistan. She drew up the first rules of engagement for interrogators at Abu Ghraib. General Fay had criticized Wood and her rules, and an Army lawyer had conceded to Congress that they possibly violated the Geneva Conventions, but Captain Wood has never been publicly punished, and none of the unappealing aspects of her biography came up in court. With the mien of a spoiled schoolgirl, she explained that Lt. Colonel Jordan had no oversight of her or her rules, which she made into posters, she said, like those the Army puts up reminding soldiers that "Sexual assault is a crime." Like Pappas, Wood was clear on procedure—on what were called "left and right limits"—and the managerial paperwork of plans drafted, initialed, logged. "Typically the direct approach is the first approach," she said with some jauntiness. If that didn't produce results, "then they'd [the interrogators] come up with a secondary approach, whether that would be incentives or 'fear up,' whatever."

Whatever. As yet another witness discussed the prison floor plan, as Pappas parsed each element of the bureaucracy of detention, the judge, Colonel Stephen Henley, struggled to keep his eyes open, the bailiff yawned and sagged, the president of the panel slunk into his chair squinting. Every day of Jordan's trial a strapping fellow in battle dress uniform sat in the gallery monitoring the proceedings for classified material. He held a small device, and at the merest slip toward the divulging of state secrets he was to press a button that would trigger a light on the bench of Judge Henley, who could promptly halt testimony. The soldier's hand remained still throughout the trial, except for one second that first day of testimony when, overcome by the billowing tedium, his head drooped, his fingers relaxed, and the device tumbled to the floor.

How unlike MP Charles Graner's trial, in 2005, when Roger Brokaw, a retired interrogator who served at Abu Ghraib, explained "fear up harsh" for the jury: "put[ting] the fear of the Lord in them...threatening to do something terrible to them." Graner mimed the technique before he was sentenced, cracking the still of the court with a growl from the witness stand and the sharp smack of fist into palm. During his sentencing, Graner evoked the realities of MI's sleep and food programs: "You're in isolation for 72 hours, and you have a restricted sleep regimen. You're allowed to have four hours of sleep within that period" without water or clothes, in a cell 3 feet by 10 feet, savagely cold or hot, with music or screaming all around at different times. "I would go in the cell [yelling, often in Arabic].... It's pitch black in the cell, and the first thing I do is shine a SureFire light into your eyes. Now you're temporarily blind." The prisoner is brought out naked, and set in front of a military-issue meal. The feeding plan says, "Give him five minutes, two minutes, thirty seconds to eat." And "the entire time you're eating," or trying to see, "I'm screaming at you. Someone else is screaming at you." If the prisoner doesn't eat, "a half-hour later we come back and do the same thing—'We gave you an opportunity to eat; you just didn't want to.'...We yelled and screamed a lot. MI comes on with throat lozenges, 'Hey, great job; keep it up.'"

Graner, demoted to private and now serving a 10-year sentence in Fort Leavenworth, was no one's witness at Jordan's trial. At least one expert witness, involved in Lynndie England's court-martial, called him a consummate liar. Maybe he is, and maybe it's not true that, as he said in 2005, Lt. Colonel Jordan praised his work and "knew everything I was doing." But at Graner's trial, Walid Mohanded Juma, an Iraqi collaborator with the Americans who ran out of luck and landed at Abu Ghraib, described the tag-team relationship between interrogator threats, MP violence (from Graner and others), and more interrogation. And once, after Graner busted a prisoner's face open against a wall, he did receive a "counseling statement" from his MP chain of command scolding him for the brutality but acknowledging that, otherwise, MI "says you're doing a fine job...continue to perform at this level and it will help us succeed in our mission."

Back at Jordan's trial, some of the MP witnesses stuck to the claim that when they arrived at Abu Ghraib in October they were told the nudity and stress positions they witnessed were interrogation tactics. But the MPs could be discredited, and some of them were treading carefully. MP Lt. Colonel David Dinenna, reprimanded for duty failures at Abu Ghraib but later promoted, said he witnessed nothing he would consider detainee abuse, and, though a prosecution witness, he laid the foundation for the defense claim that nudity was but a result of short supplies, inmate refusal, or insanity. Prosecutor Tracy didn't ask any witness if insane, naked detainees also shackled themselves to the bars, and he entered no photographs of abuse into evidence. Private (once Staff Sergeant) Ivan Frederick, who was sentenced to eight years in 2004 for crimes at Abu Ghraib but was anticipating early release in just a few weeks, said he met Lt. Colonel Jordan on Tier 1, but couldn't recall if prisoners were naked then. When encouraged by Tracy to review a statement he'd given previously to Army investigators, Frederick clarified: "I don't know if he personally saw nude detainees with his own eyes. If he'd walked through and looked, he'd have seen it. Whether he did, with his own eyes, I don't know."

Meanwhile, MI maintained a discipline of denial, as it has from the beginning. On the stand interrogators were asked if they had ever seen abuse, nudity for humiliation, physical violence, dogs as threats, anything that seemed wrong? No, no, no. Maybe once, but Lt. Colonel Jordan immediately put a stop to it, or wasn't present. Back when General Taguba began asking questions, Sergeant Sam Provance was the only MI soldier to volunteer a statement. He wasn't an interrogator but told Taguba what he'd heard from people who were; those people never broke ranks. After the scandal erupted, he was demoted for talking to abc and is now unemployed. Provance couldn't have been a trial witness. What he knew from interrogators was hearsay. But "Jordan was the man in charge," he told me. "It couldn't be more clear-cut." Colonel Jordan and Captain Wood were "the people running the show. They would be together. They were like the mom and dad. You had this feeling of family there. Everyone was so...friendly and loving. That's what freaked me out when I found out how they conducted themselves in interrogation. I didn't hear it through the grapevine; I heard it from people who were doing this stuff. It would be as if a murderer called you on the phone and said, 'I killed this woman.' I wouldn't want to dismiss that phone call. Everybody at Abu Ghraib, even the cooks, knew bad stuff was going on."

The defense deftly portrayed Lt. Colonel Jordan as a rube, active but incurious, a "soldier's soldier," who seemed to be everywhere at Abu Ghraib yet saw nothing. Defense attorney Poppe was everything the lead prosecutor was not: competent, sharp, likable, well tailored. He had sought mightily to make a deal to avoid trial. Two earlier prosecution teams had reviewed the government's evidence and concluded there was not enough to proceed; Lt. Colonel Tracy led the third, and when he insisted on trial, Poppe made him pay. Tracy made that easy. None of his witnesses testified that they considered Jordan to be their supervisor or placed him at the center of maltreatment. Jordan had seemed most vulnerable for emailing numerous interrogators, reminding them that they had never witnessed wrongdoing, allegedly after General Fay ordered him not to speak to anyone except a lawyer. But in court Fay, a small man already, shriveled under cross-examination. He was merely remembering that he had given Jordan an order, yet seemed incapable of remembering anything else in response to Poppe's crisp interrogatory. His assistant's somewhat firmer recollection and Jordan's emails barely rescued Fay and what remained of the prosecution case.

"Napoleon once said that leaders are dealers in hope," Major Poppe argued in closing, and that is exactly what Lt. Colonel Jordan was at Abu Ghraib. When soldiers were doing interrogations out in the open, he got them a wooden shed, and then a steel building. When MPs needed sandbags, he ordered them. When they needed body armor and Kevlar, he procured them. When the latrines were backed up, he ensured they were fixed. He set up an Internet café and a gym. He was always offering a kind word, doing all he could to transform Abu Ghraib from a dangerous rat hole to a functional machine. "He sets an example. He treats people right, so that when a baby is born to a detainee, an Army leader makes sure that baby has diapers and formula even if that means driving down that ied road and paying for them with his own money. That's what an Army leader does," Poppe said. The defense had called only two witnesses, one Stephen Pescatore, a civilian contract interrogator whose supervisors at caci have been implicated in (though not held accountable for) outrages at Abu Ghraib. Pescatore too knew his "right and left limits," though he sometimes wondered which detainees they applied to. He never sought advice on such matters from Jordan, who, he said, was most helpful providing extra tables and chairs, a TV, a vcr. His testimony presented Jordan as a great guy, "the only senior officer who really cared about the troops." Pescatore now teaches Guantanamo interrogation procedures at the Army's intelligence school at Fort Huachuca; he sailed through cross-examination.

Courts-martial, like other trials, are properly not broad morality lessons, and the prosecution deserved to lose this one. Jurors, moreover, had only to consider who hadn't been in the dock—from sergeants who neglected their troops, on up to the top of the Pentagon and beyond to the civilians—to recognize the disproportion. But in finding so mercifully for the defense, which argued that Lt. Colonel Jordan's rank implied only a vague authority, that he was a lone ranger because MI soldiers at Abu Ghraib had been gathered from various units and the chain of command was confusing, that key rules of engagement did not even apply to him, the jurors gave benediction to normalized mayhem. Inescapably, they would have done the same had they found for the prosecution. Either way their situation was absurd.

As we awaited the verdict in the Room of Memories, David Wood of the Baltimore Sun and I talked with one of the soldiers hovering around the media center about the popularity among soldiers of Robert Heinlein's 1959 Starship Troopers. A dystopian fantasy in which Earth, at constant war in space, is dominated by a small warrior caste that alone can vote and claim citizenship, the book spins on a dogma twinning ultimate authority and ultimate responsibility. Every officer is a trooper's trooper, and every trooper is prepared to die: "Everybody works, everybody fights." An "awesome book," the soldier glowingly called it, in which officers are revered not just because they take the same risks but because their eyes are everywhere, and, like stern fathers, they check underlings before they go wrong. Jordan says that he loves the Army, loves the troops, and he probably does, but in the Room of Memories, there wasn't a soldier who said that rank might count for as little as Jordan's attorneys claimed.

"This case is not about what the accused did at Abu Ghraib. It is about what he divorced himself from doing," Tracy argued in closing. The mistake is in limiting such responsibility to Jordan. The Army is broken more profoundly than can be measured simply by degrees of readiness. Lt. Colonel Jordan may be the know-nothing naïf his attorneys characterized him as, but there is hardly victory there—or duty, honor, or any other Army value. Act III of the Abu Ghraib drama wasn't really about him except superficially; it was about a crooked edifice of pain and gain of which even Abu Ghraib formed but a minor part. nsa, dia, oga, cia, inscom, the acronyms peppered the proceedings, and when the courtroom doors opened for the sentencing phase, in blew retired officers in the employ of some of those agencies, as well as Northrup Grumman, itt, General Dynamics, and other military contractors, extolling Jordan's team spirit and can-do-ism and describing their work in psyops or "humint" or special ops in the neutered syntax of company men. Jordan had once told the press that he was a scapegoat, and it was partly true, but he was protected, too—more than the convicted MPs, who all assumed more responsibility for their actions at sentencing than he did.

In the only statement he would make to the court, before his sentencing, Lt. Colonel Jordan stammered and blubbered and asserted that "I am still a good leader with much to offer." When it was all over, his lawyers said, Jordan was keen to get back to work. He had not succumbed to the convict's ritual expression of remorse. As the men who assigned him to Abu Ghraib might have said, and those who made the decisions that made what happened there inevitable, those who got away with it, and those who in large and small ways authored or accommodated to it—as anyone might have told him, remorse is for amateurs.

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