Some of the enlisted men and women who took the blame for the torture of Iraqi detainees are beginning to speak out.
Stepping into the Abu Ghraib prison for the first time, Megan Ambuhl was stunned. There were naked men in dusty cells, male prisoners wearing women’s underwear, others hooded and shackled in contorted positions to metal railings.
An enlisted officer giving her a tour of the U.S. facility in October 2003 pointed to a group of detainees chained to a cell. He said the bars had often “been decorated like a Christmas tree,” with prisoners as ornaments.
“He explained it was a military intelligence tactic,” Ambuhl said in a recent interview, speaking publicly for the first time since the Abu Ghraib prison abuse was disclosed nearly two years ago. “He said it was to break the detainees that were being interrogated. It was clear it was a military intelligence facility. As I saw it, I thought that if they were doing it, it must be all right for them to be doing it.”
One of the original seven military police soldiers singled out by the Pentagon for their roles in abusive techniques, Ambuhl is speaking out because she believes the truth has been obscured by high-ranking officials intent on covering up a policy of abuse. Though her defense differs little from the arguments made previously by the defendants’ attorneys, Ambuhl’s first-person description of the macabre world of Abu Ghraib provides a vivid perspective on how things went out of control at the prison outside of Baghdad, a place where there were few rules and little guidance. Her account also shows that some of the abusive tactics were in place when the MPs arrived at the prison.
Now out of the Army, punished with a reduction in rank and a fine for dereliction of duty but no prison time, Ambuhl says the military’s top brass have dodged responsibility for what was going on at the prison by scapegoating her and other low-ranking soldiers.
Ambuhl says she and other MPs used aggressive techniques against detainees because that is what military intelligence soldiers and civilian interrogators told her to do.
She described a “roster board” that included which military intelligence “treatment” to give to certain detainees and said trainers from the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, taught the MPs how to put detainees in “stress positions.” She said military intelligence officials told them to keep detainees naked, embarrass them or make them exercise until they reached exhaustion.
“We were told to handcuff people in uncomfortable positions, to put people on [Meals Ready to Eat] boxes, to pour cold water on them, to make them do physical training,” said Ambuhl, who worked the night shift on Tier 1B. “We did what we were told to do.”
Military officials “have been trying to conceal that it was a policy that spiraled out of control,” Ambuhl said, a rare moment of anger rising in her voice. “They made us out to be the cause of every ill in Iraq.”
Ivan L. “Chip” Frederick II, who worked in the prison’s higher security facility — called the “hard site” — and was also convicted of abusing prisoners, told investigators after his conviction that he, too, was shown the aggressive tactics on his first tour of the prison.
“He didn’t say anything about the detainees, how to treat them, etc., but when we went in 1A, I did see detainees handcuffed to the bars and naked,” according to Frederick’s sworn statement. “I asked him about it and he told me MI ran the section, they didn’t want the detainees talking to one another and that was their punishment.”
Ambuhl’s unit arrived just weeks after Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, then Guantanamo Bay’s commander, made a visit to Iraq to help set up the Abu Ghraib operation. She said some of the tactics her unit employed — such as stress positions, the use of dogs, and nudity — came from teams Miller later sent over. Pentagon investigations have shown that such tactics were in use on high-value detainees held in Cuba almost a year earlier, but also determined that there was no policy of abuse.
Ambuhl said some of the images seen in the photos depicted events that occurred every day.
“At the very least, there were a whole slew of people who knew about it,” Ambuhl said. “These pictures were in no way hidden. We didn’t sneak around pretending this wasn’t going on.”
Members of Other Government Agencies (OGA) — a euphemism for the CIA — were all over the hard site, keeping as many as 100 detainees there for interrogations. Once, two men with OGA had finished interrogating a detainee in a shower room and asked her to go get him.
“They said it would be funny if I burned him with my cigarette,” Ambuhl said, adding that she tossed her cigarette before releasing the detainee, who was shackled to a window.