Joshua E.S. Phillips, a writer, journalist and author of None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture, is this week’s guest. The conversation was recorded after Phillips’ story in The Nation, “Inside the Detainee Abuse Task Force,” was published. We discuss this task force that was created after the Abu Ghraib scandal to, as he writes, investigate “abuse cases that occurred in and around Victory Base Complex—a huge area of responsibility that included the heaviest concentration of detainees.” In his story, he highlights a retired officer, who claims it was a “whitewash.”
Throughout the podcast, I connect our discussion to the incident in the “Collateral Murder” video. I ask Phillips to address questions that provide answers, which might explain why a soldier wouldn’t bother to be a military whistleblower who goes through the established avenues to raise grievances and simply releases information to WikiLeaks. We discuss the widespread abuse and torture of Iraqi detainees, which WikiLeaks uncovered details on through the release of the Iraq War Logs. And, we also get into a discussion on the Obama Administration’s continued blocking of the release of photos of detainee abuse and torture. [cont’d.]
To listen to the recording, go here. [*Note: Recording will be embedded here in the next few hours.]
This is Part 1. Part 2 will be posted in the coming weeks.
GOSZTOLA: Go ahead and introduce yourself and then talk about this story you came to. You authored for The Nation a few weeks ago an article called, “Inside the Detainee Abuse Task Force.” Over at WLCentral.org, I placed your story in the context of previous information that was known about the Iraq War that had come out from WikiLeaks. We saw that there were these Iraq War Logs and we got this look at it and now through your story we have another look at how things were being handled in the Iraq, particularly with detainees. Go ahead and talk about how you came to this story.
JOSHUA E.S. PHILLIPS: I actually learned a little about the Detainee Abuse Task Force when I was reporting on my book, None of Us Were Like This Before, and in the course of doing the reporting for the book I met many detainees and soldiers, who complained from two different vantage points. They had difficulty reporting abuse and having their cases of abuse, either from the whistleblower’s point of view or the victim’s point of view, being investigated by military investigators. And I think it was in 2006 or so I met an attorney who was representing several hundred detainees, Susan Burke. She’s an American attorney. She’s involved in a class action lawsuit against military contractors and in the course of her research, in putting together he case, she came across hundreds of detainees, who she alleges have never been interviewed by military investigators. And in fact she met with two military agents with the Detainee Abuse Task Force and, even in the course of meeting with these agents in Kuwait over the course of two or three days, she too offered her clients to the military investigators and nothing ever happened. There was no follow-up. She contacted the Department of Defense in various ways, as well as the Department of Justice, and nothing went forward. So, based on her experiences and the other experiences with the detainees and the whistleblowers, I had the sense that there were other cases, many other cases ostensibly in which military investigations were falling down and not being advanced in terms of thorough investigations and holding the perpetrators accountable.
GOSZTOLA: And then when you went to do this story and started to really do investigating, what were some of the details that you ended up finding that stick out in your mind right now?
PHILLIPS: One of the things I found most distressing—the agents themselves, the investigators from the Criminal Investigative Command (CIC), those investigators said that hundreds, thousands of cases of detainee abuse and torture that never got to them. And so that means in addition to the cases they worked on and the cases that faltered at their level, there could be far more widespread detainee abuse and torture then we are even aware of.
GOSZTOLA: Now, what you were looking at, how does this match up to the official story the US government likes to present? Regardless of whether it’s the Obama Administration or the Bush Administration, what were these agencies describing and then how did this differ?
PHILLIPS: The narrative that was spun by the Bush Administration was after Abu Ghraib it was just the abuses that we saw in the shocking photographs were simply the product of a “few bad apples.” That was the story that was spun and I think somewhat effectively. There was a myopic focus on some of the perpetrators such as Lynndie England and Charles Graner and apart from a certain segment of the population there wasn’t as much attention to other detainee abuse cases that occurred elsewhere in Iraq, as well as in Bagram and Guantanamo and so forth.
Now, with respect to the Obama Administration, they have tried to have it both ways in a way. On the one hand, Obama did make certain gestures to curb many interrogation and detainee policies that were carried over by the Bush Administration. At the same time, however, he has repeatedly said that he is looking forward not backward and one of the ways that expressed itself very clearly was in 2009 when the ACLU petitioned to get the release of photographs that contained fresh images of detainee abuse, Obama, his administration, basically said they were not going to allow that release. They were going to use the pressure of their office to stop the release of those photographs. And he gave two reasons for that. The first was that in his view the release of those photographs would have inflamed anger against US forces and put them in danger. And, the second reason was that these investigations, the photographs themselves, were part of investigations and those investigations had been thoroughly conducted and that the people who had been involved had been held accountable and summarily punished. Now, we have heard from the troops and the detainees that is not the case. Now, for the first time, we’ve heard from the investigators themselves.
GOSZTOLA: I would like to ask you about the psychology of this idea that you can’t release the photos for that reason. To a certain extent, you have this argument being used to suppress the release of any Osama bin Laden photos that would have been taken by the Navy SEALs team. How do you react to this as a journalist who values having the record available so you can put together stories?
PHILLIPS: It’s a complicated question and a very good and important one. I’m conflicted about it because I’ll tell you what—When I was reporting on my book in the Middle East, one of the things that I repeatedly came across while being in the Middle East and Afghanistan was the power of the Abu Ghraib photos. And one of the things that came up not just anecdotally through meeting people and hearing their reaction to the photos and how much anger it instilled in the local population but we now know from hearing from the Senate Armed Services Committee that the images from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo were the number one and number two greatest sources of insurgent recruitment and therein led to coalition deaths. So it’s not as if these pictures are without impact and I think this is an important question to debate back and forth. I think it’s a legitimate debate. But, what I object to is the second part of what Obama stated in terms of the reasoning he gave, that is that they were a kind of redundancy—that these pictures had already been sort of out there to begin with and that they were part of cases that had already been thoroughly investigated. And, there would be no point to releasing them. So, in that regard I do take issue to that line of thought.
GOSZTOLA: Another issue with the photos would be that if you are saying we can’t release them because it’s going to inflame terrorism that then perhaps you should stop the action that is inflaming the terrorism in the first place. So, how do you handle or confront that contradiction that comes along with the justification for not releasing such information?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, I agree with you. Especially in the case of torture, there is actual value to looking at and examining those photos, not just in terms of having a prurient interest. I mean we’re not talking about a congressman exposing him or her self. We’re talking about understanding what kinds of detainee abuse or torture were occurring in US custody and that has a kind of journalistic and forensic value in terms of understanding who was involved and implicated, the kinds of techniques that were used and if those techniques were linked to training or other torture methods and techniques that are carried over and copied by other regimes and so forth. So, I do think they are important. They do have a value. Yes, absolutely.
What was troubling when the Abu Ghraib photos came out was there were senators and other US leaders who were basically condemning the release of the photographs and what that meant in terms of US policy and they were also saying what happened under Saddam Hussein was much worse. Basically, it amount to a kind of diversion of the issue, which is what you are speaking to. Why shouldn’t we stop the action itself or policies that enable this action to take place? So, yes, I certainly agree with the point that you’re making.
GOSZTOLA: A lot of this story to me can fit into what I think a lot of writers in the world of opinion writing and people who are covering foreign policy, people who are covering national security issues. I am seeing this thing picked up and in different articles that are produced a lot of people are now suggesting that we might live in a sort of post-legal society here. And your piece brings out that it seem, while there may have been violations going on, while somewhere you might be able to point to that violation, the people involved were not under any threat of action. They weren’t going to be held responsible. I guess this is comparable to the soldiers who appear in the “Collateral Murder” video who are firing on a Reuters journalist without following the rules of engagement so to speak. So, I guess, how are you processing this? Do you see your story in this context? What is the bigger context for your story?
PHILLIPS: It’s an immediate context, first of all, which is important. What the US has consistently been putting forward is that they went to great lengths to thoroughly investigate torture, detainee abuse and so forth and that the matter has been settled and put to rest. This is a dead issue. We’ve dealt with the gravest atrocities and we’ve moved on. But, I think that the fact that we now have the agents themselves essentially admitting that they tanked hundreds of cases of detainee abuse and that there could be thousands of more speaks to maybe a kind of institutional malaise on a certain or that you can follow a certain protocol and if you’re just sort of going through the motions what looks good on paper can look sufficient, a sort of papering over a series of atrocities. And, that’s deeply troubling. That speaks more to greater institutional failings and a very sort of cynical outlook about how we deal with or don’t deal with issues of this sort.
For example, the DoD boasts that it opened 842 criminal investigations and inquiries into detainee abuse and torture. Who was held accountable? Who was punished—legitimately punished? Human Rights First has just found, I think, 184 detainee-related deaths for detainees in US custody since 2001 and yet no one has served more than five months of jail time. That is the outcome of that kind of apathy and cynicism. We’re willing to go along with the institutional program and not seriously pursue meaningful accountability.
GOSZTOLA: The other thing I have heard human rights organizations talk about is what happens with the victims when there isn’t any accountability or when you don’t actually do the investigation. You have individuals who suggest that they have been tortured or abused but there’s no official acknowledgment so it’s as if what happened to them never happened. Were you able to get deep and see how this was impacting people on a human level and were you able to talk to someone who was a victim of this detainee abuse?
PHILLIPS: Absolutely. I spent five and a half years doing the reporting for my book in which that was a greater component than the work I did for The Nation article. But, to your point—and it’s an important point, we’re just talking about the lack of accountability, the lack of serious justice and that is an important goal unto itself for a number of reasons. We want to restore the honor and dignity of the US armed forces and the US in general. That is important. We also want to do it as a preventative measure to ensure that we’re not seeing lapses in this kind of behavior, which have all kinds of deleterious effects operationally and we don’t want to be caught up in doing more kinds of detainee abuse & torture. But, to your point, yes, absolutely there is a very serious human cost as well. And, it’s complicated for the reason that one of the things that happened in the course of the US involvement with detainee abuse and torture was many US forces employed techniques that didn’t leave marks such as sleep deprivations, stress positions, dogs (that is being frightened by a barking, lunging dog), mock executions and water torture, including but not exclusive to waterboarding as well as electricity.
So, you have all these techniques. They don’t leave marks. Imagine what that does to someone. Not only are they going through the horrific experience of being abused or tortured but you have nothing to corroborate you have underwent those kinds of experiences and the denial of that experience further compounds and traumatizes the victims of torture. Now, the other thing about this is from the investigative point of view, the agents that I interviewed also admitted that the problem that they faced with doing investigations into these cases is if you do not have evidence, if you do not have physical and medical evidence, you do not have a case. And, that case will not go forward.
Here we have a situation where the US was employing various kinds of techniques that are deemed stealthy technique—techniques that did not leave marks, and because they did not leave marks, there’s no accountability. And, because there’s no accountability, there’s no acknowledgment. There’s no acknowledgment of the pain that these poor Iraqi and Afghan and other victims have suffered. And that means that their distress has worsened over time as a result. Now, one other quick point about this that is worth mentioning—not in the article but in the book, and that is that it also means that the people who are trying to report on the abuses, that is the military whistleblowers, because their cases in many situations faltered. They didn’t advance, either because they had trouble as whistleblowers or after filing a report it went nowhere or because it faltered on the investigative level, that too distressed many of the soldiers that I interviewed as well. The sense of helplessness that they experienced was a great source of trauma.
GOSZTOLA: You’ve now brought into our conversation the idea of a military whistleblower and I wonder how difficult for the people in the military to take on these investigations and even bring reports to their superiors. What do you find happening to these people who want to get truth? Where does most of this frustration end or does it die? Do they just no longer pursue any investigation? Is this the frustration that ultimately leads someone to blow the whistle?
PHILLIPS: I’m going to answer your question in two ways. First of all you have to understand what it takes to actually be a military whistleblower especially when you are reporting on something as serious as detainee abuse and torture. Most troops do not want to betray their fellow soldiers. They do not want to feel like a traitor. And, there are a whole host of reasons for that but mainly they include that you have a bond with the people you are in combat with. You do not want to fracture that bond for the most part so you feel an enormous amount of pressure. It takes an enormous well of courage to step beyond the sense that you could be imperiling. If you were in a war situation and if you were reporting your fellow soldiers to an officer or if you have any sense that you want to have a military career, chances are you want to go along with the program. You don’t want to make waves because that means you could be usurping your own career. Added to that, there are many cases in which I found that soldiers and officers who did become whistleblowers were ignored. They were threatened in some cases. And, in other cases, they were harassed.
Joseph Darby, for example, who was the Abu Ghraib whistleblower, the guy who basically took the photographs of Abu Ghraib torture and he gave them to CID. Once Donald Rumsfeld named him in the Senate Armed Services Committee meeting publicly on TV, the next day Joseph Darby’s sleeps with a pistol underneath his pillow and his house was vandalized. That sent very serious message to other people who may have had the same incentive to step forward and report detainee abuse and torture they had come across or other kinds of grave misconduct and atrocity and so forth. That was certainly a factor also in terms of what the investigators themselves experienced, namely, for example, I interviewed one of the military investigators for the Detainee Abuse Task Force who admitted that when she had a case of detainee abuse—and this is on a troop level, not with special forces, not with black ops, not with military investigators or anything just troops who were beating up detainees— She went down to the base to conduct her investigation. The medic reported the abuse and not a single one of the soldiers would corroborate the account and as a result the case faltered.
GOSZTOLA: One of the things I have to mention is the fact that there is a soldier who in this “Collateral Murder,” Ethan McCord, who goes to his superior and says he was not happy with this situation when the military open fired and then the officer turns around on him and tells him to quit being a “pussy” and suck it up. He even used really raw language and told him to get the “sand out of his vagina” and go back to his barracks. It really didn’t sit well with him for what he was doing. In your coverage of this story, one element that might be lost on people is the trauma that’s caused to a military soldier who is not able to actually follow these investigations through. I sort of see this with McCord on an individual level—that his conscience is terribly shaken. This is the kind of thing that brings a person post-traumatic stress disorder. Would you say that some of the people that you talked to in the aftermath of their investigation had indications they had developed some kind of mental problem?
PHILLIPS: I would say, absolutely, the soldiers involved in or exposed to abusive violence experienced terrible post-traumatic stress. Those who feel any sense of remorse or guilt for their involvement in this on any level, that is seeing it or being a participant in it, it’s a very grave source of post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, and this is one of the main themes of the book that I wrote—There’s a study on Vietnam veterans. It’s probably one of the longest, longitudinal comprehensive study of Vietnam veterans that was ever produced. It’s called the National Vietnam Veterans Re-Adjustment Study, and it took four years of research. It included interviews with over three thousand veterans. And, one of the things this study found was that abusive violence, which includes but is not exclusive to detainee abuse and torture, had the highest correlative with post-traumatic stress disorder.
So, here we are. Fast forward to the “war on terror,” especially the early part of the “war on terror” in which there was fairly pervasive detainee abuse and torture that was the defining hallmark in terms of the kinds of abuses that we saw as a result of the conflict for a whole host of reasons. This is something that haunts many soldiers that I interviewed over the course of several years and yet it is not something that is often acknowledged or discussed. But, it is a very real trauma.Now, as far as the investigators go, I would say there were certain investigators and military personel in general, who brushed up against detainee abuse in torture, who tried to halt it either by blowing the whistle on it in Guantanamo or elsewhere or trying to investigate it.
One of the main sources in the article of “Inside the Detainee Abuse Task Force” is the former operations commander for the Criminal Investigative Command in Iraq during 2005. Before she was the operations commander—that is, the person in charge of filing all investigations in Iraq, before she had that role she was the principal investigator for the Bagram torture case in which two Afghan detainees were basically suspended by the arms and beaten on their legs until they died. This woman, Angela Birt, a chief foreign officer, she spends months investigating this case with her partner producing thousands of pages of detailed research, interviews and so forth, collecting all kinds of evidence. They got eighteen military personnel to admit to their involvement in this and not a single person served more than five months of jail time for the beating deaths of two Afghan detainees. And that case so upset her that she ended up leaving the military. So, yeah there are all kinds of toxic dividends produced as a result of our involvement with detainee abuse and torture. It happens in terms of the traumatic experience, not just of the detainees themselves, which is important and frankly very poorly recognized, but there’s also this component of the destructive capacity it had on the troops themselves and then there’s this loss of people who are principled, who are driven, who are serious military people, people who we want involved in the military and they dropped out. And, that’s a massive loss of institutional memory as well.
GOSZTOLA: One of the things that occurs to me is many of the people who do in fact get these stories out like the photos from Abu Ghraib—perhaps anything else where we are just getting a piece of what’s going on, there’s usually this meme that comes out that this was an isolated incident. That’s what happens with the “Collateral Murder” video that Ethan McCord has to constantly confront, people finding this to be an isolated incident. But, for him he says I was in this war. I know that we are doing this on a daily basis. This is just the day in the life of an Iraqi civilian or a day in the life of a US soldier. These are regular things. And, I think for the people in those Abu Ghraib photos, they might have said before these photos were taken these types of things were going on. How do you react to this thing that is put on a lot of releases that this is an isolated thing? I guess through your journalist work you’ve been able to show that this isn’t an isolated something.
PHILLIPS: Alas, it is not, with the caveat that there is far, far less detainee abuse and torture now than what occurred during the early part of the “war on terror.” However, in 2006, the Department of Defense said they opened over 842 criminal investigations and inquiries into detainee abuse. That is in 2006 in which they said that so I expect the number is probably much larger. Let’s just say it’s 200 or 150. Well, what about the cases they didn’t open? There are, for example, just with the case of Susan Burke, the American attorney that we mentioned, who is representing these clients, former Iraqi detainees who are coming forward and telling her and her investigators that they were very gravely abused and tortured. She is representing 337 detainees. Her colleagues have corroborated that these detainees were never approached by military investigators. She’s just one attorney. Who knows how many other cases have not been located? Added to that, of course, there are many other soldiers and mid-level officers who have reported on instances that they have experienced, either as people who have seen the abuse that occurred or either as people who have been directly involved in abusing and torturing detainees. And they have said those cases were never investigated before. As I said, one of the most shocking revelations was to hear the actual military investigators that there were, for a whole host of reasons that I’d be happy to explain to you, hundreds if not thousands of cases of detainee abuse and torture that never got to them. So, it was hardly isolated unfortunately. And more than that, we’re talking about the fact that the military opened 13 inspector general reports, the CIA did a report, the FBI did a report and in all those cases there are disparate cases other instances of detainee abuse and torture. Sadly as I said this is not an isolated incident, not by a long shot.