The Abuse of Iraqi Prisoners is a Product of Deep Seated and Long-standing Issues

By image - May 17, 2004

While many Americans are expressing shock and outrage at the recently exposed abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers, these practices are in fact part of a long-standing history in America.

Not only are the techniques of abuse and humiliation a long standing institutional part of American military and intelligence gathering practices, but many in America have been trying to draw attention these practices for over 30 years. During this time the they have often been dismissed on this issue as ridiculous or even "un-American".

But, there is more to this story than just that, in fact, prior to the launch of "Operation Iraqi Freedom", extreme concerns were raised by many about the character and fitness of those in charge, and all along warning flags were being put up, only to be dismissed, denounced, or ignored by the American mainstream.

For some the nature of abuse of Iraqi prisoners is not news at all, but there is a relief that the truth has finally, after too many years, been exposed.

What are some of the issues that have been raised related to the prisoner abuses in Iraq? There are many, and I will go over a few of the most directly related here.

Operation Artichoke and MKULTRA - The Cheney/Rumsfeld Connection

After World War II the American CIA began a program with the help of "former" Nazi war criminals to study and develop mind bending interrogation techniques using mind-altering drugs such as LSD and other potential "truth serums."

Operation Artichoke began in 1947 and was later expanded to become Operation MKULTRA in 1953 by CIA director Allen Dulles.


In this program the CIA conducted experiments that included the use of torture and attempted brainwashing techniques in order to see how much information could be extracted from individuals.

The majority of the information on these programs was destroyed in 1972 shortly before deeper public investigations into the program began, however a few records still remain and have been made public via the Freedom of Information act.

In these programs radiation, LSD, heroin, mescaline, psilocybin, scopolamine, marijuana, alcohol, and sodium pentothal were used to try and induce the subjects to reveal their deepest secrets and tell information that the CIA felt they could not otherwise extract from people.

Sensory deprivation, physical torture, and hellish mind games often accompanied the sessions while the subjects were under the influence of mind altering drugs, most often LSD.

Who were the subjects in these experiments?

The subjects ranged from completely innocent civilians who were drugged without their knowledge to suspected Soviet spies, often in West Germany.

The CIA also setup and ran its own prostitution houses where "clients" were drugged by the prostitutes without their knowledge and were then left in the rooms and observed by the CIA through two-way mirrors.

Other experiments included keeping subjects on LSD continuously for many days at a time; the longest recorded duration was 77 days straight. In other case subjects were put in straight jackets in sensory depravation chambers and given high doses of LSD, or were forced to listen to degrading statements looped in tape recorders for hours on end while on LSD and other drugs.

Needless to say these experiments resulted in the death of some subjects and the permanent psychosis of many others.

One of the most well known deaths resulting from these programs is the death of military biochemist Frank Olson. Frank Olson died in November 1953 after having jumped out of a 13th story window a week after having been given a dose of LSD without his knowledge by members of CIA. The official version of the story, that was eventually given in 1973, is that Dr. Olson suffered a mental breakdown over the event, but no reason was ever given as to why he had ever been drugged in the first place.

The suspicion by Olson's son is that his father was planning to leave the military and it was suspected that he might divulge secret information about the American use of biological weapons in the Korean War, and thus the CIA used their interrogation techniques on him to determine what he knew and what he planned to say. His son then suspects that his father did not suffer a breakdown, but was in fact intentionally killed by the CIA. Frank Olson was in fact being watched by a CIA doctor that was assigned to observe him and, supposedly, insure his safety. The official story is that the doctor was asleep when Frank Olson jumped.

Frank Olson's death remained a mystery for many years after this, but in 1973 evidence of these experiments began to surface in the public, and Congressional investigations followed. In 1975 limited details about the nature of the experiments were made public by the Rockefeller Commission and President Ford then apologized to the Olson family for Frank Olson's death.


There is more to the apology though than first meets the eye however.

In 1975 both Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were members of the White House Chiefs of Staff in the Ford administration. After the public revelations about Frank Olson's supposedly drug induced suicide his family began perusing a lawsuit for damages. After the family announced that they would sue for damages and more information, the CIA met with the family and gave them some files about their fathers death, mostly just related to autopsy information and the like. These files didn't tell the family why their father was ever drugged in the first place. The Olson family was then advised that their lawsuit would not succeed and instead the Ford administration gave them $750,000 to drop the suit.

Rumsfeld and Cheney agreed that the administration should apologies to the family, offer the payoff, and advise them that the lawsuit would not be successful in order to prevent a lawsuit against the government which could result in more evidence about the programs having to be revealed, and in order to prevent the need to disclose exactly why Frank Olson was drugged in the first place. On July 11th, 1975 White House Deputy Staff Director Dick Cheney wrote to his then boss, Donald Rumsfeld, that:

There (is...) the possibility that it might be necessary to disclose highly classified national security information in connection with any court suit or legislative hearings.

The Iraqi Abuse Scandal is certainly not the first time that either Rumsfeld or Cheney have been involved in covering up State secrets related to torture and illegal conduct, and furthermore the involvement of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in these events was exposed in 2002 in both a documentary that ran on WorldLink TV, and in a Mercury News article; Scientist's death haunts family.

Fort Benning and the School of the Americas

During the Cold War the United States created a military training facility known as the School of the Americas for South Americans, where South Americans were instructed on insurgency, counter-insurgency, and guerilla warfare techniques. In 1984 the School of the Americas was moved to Fort Benning Georgia, where the training program continued, and in 2000 the training facility was closed due to protests, but was re-opened in 2001 under the name Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

All told, the school has  graduated more than 64,000 soldiers. Of these 64,000 graduates an inordinately high number of them have been directly linked to assassinations, torture, attacks on civilians, and general human rights abuses.  This has been going on for some 50 years.

As reported in 2001 by the Guardian in the article Backyard terrorism, some of the actions of SOA graduates include:

Colonel Byron Lima Estrada, once a student at the school, was convicted in Guatemala City of murdering Bishop Juan Gerardi in 1998. Gerardi was killed because he had helped to write a report on the atrocities committed by Guatemala's D-2, the military intelligence agency run by Lima Estrada with the help of two other SOA graduates. D-2 coordinated the "anti-insurgency" campaign which obliterated 448 Mayan Indian villages, and murdered tens of thousands of their people. Forty per cent of the cabinet ministers who served the genocidal regimes of Lucas Garcia, Rios Montt and Mejia Victores studied at the School of the Americas.

In 1993, the United Nations truth commission on El Salvador named the army officers who had committed the worst atrocities of the civil war. Two-thirds of them had been trained at the School of the Americas. Among them were Roberto D'Aubuisson, the leader of El Salvador's death squads; the men who killed Archbishop Oscar Romero; and 19 of the 26 soldiers who murdered the Jesuit priests in 1989. In Chile, the school's graduates ran both Augusto Pinochet's secret police and his three principal concentration camps. One of them helped to murder Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffit in Washington DC in 1976.

Argentina's dictators Roberto Viola and Leopoldo Galtieri, Panama's Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos, Peru's Juan Velasco Alvarado and Ecuador's Guillermo Rodriguez all benefited from the school's instruction. So did the leader of the Grupo Colina death squad in Fujimori's Peru; four of the five officers who ran the infamous Battalion 3-16 in Honduras (which controlled the death squads there in the 1980s) and the commander responsible for the 1994 Ocosingo massacre in Mexico.

More on the School of the Americas can be found at School of the Americas Watch

Iran-Contra and members of the Bush cabinet who were involved in Iran-Contra

When I wrote This War is About So Much More I included a profile of the Bush administration, and in that profile I included information on John Negroponte and others who have a history of being involved in human rights violations. In the section Introducing the Bush Administration I stated:

US Ambassador to the UN

John Negroponte: Negroponte has had a long career as a US diplomat.  What he is most known for though is his time as Ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985.  During that time Negroponte helped to cover up human rights violations, including torture and executions, committed by the US supported Honduran army.  Negroponte also played a role in the Iran-Contra affair where he helped to funnel money from arms illegally sold to Iran to the Contras in Honduras.

In 2001 FAIR reported that Negroponte and others involved in the Iran Contra scandal were being  nominated for positions in the Bush administration in their article: Scandal? What Scandal? Bush's Iran-Contra appointees are barely a story. It was known that three men involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, and covering up of human rights abuses, were being pulled into the Bush administration then, yet again the warning bells were not being paid attention to by the American mainstream.

Not only did Negroponte become the US Ambassador to the UN in 2001, but on May 6 2004, just a few days ago and shortly before the prisoner abuse scandal broke, he became the American Ambassador to Iraq. Negroponte, a man who has been found guilty of overseeing human rights abuses and covering them up, will be the civilian overseer in Iraq when Paul Bremer leaves his post and power is officially handed over the to Iraqi governing counsel.

The exemption of Americans from International War Crimes Court

In 2000 the Bush administration began its efforts to exempt Americans from the newly created International War Crimes Court. In a 2002 article, U.S. Presses for Total Exemption From War Crimes Court , the New York Times reported that:

John R. Bolton, the under secretary of state for arms control and international security and the administration's point man for the court, traveled to London and Paris last week to urge those governments to sign broad exemption clauses before the United States takes any military action against Iraq.

But expectations for immediate success are muted, especially after the United States failed in a recent attempt to have American peacekeepers automatically exempted during the annual review of NATO's rules of engagement for the Balkan peacekeeping operations.

After weeks of tense negotiations at the United Nations last summer, the United States won a year's exemption from prosecution by the international court for American peacekeepers.

Alone among the industrialized nations, the United States has refused to sign the treaty, saying the court might stage politicially motivated trials of Americans, especially senior leaders, who could be deprived of Constitutional protections.

Earlier in 2002 President Bush had signed into law a measure allowing the US to completely withdraw all military aid to any country that refused to take advantage of the International War Crimes Article 98 clause that allows individual countries to individually negotiate for immunity for their forces on a country by country basis. In other words Article 98 allows an individual country to grant immunity to another particular country for specific reasons. The law signed by Bush effectively put virtually every country on the spot to grant immunity to the US because the US is involved with some form of military aid with almost every country in the world, aside from a few countries like Cuba and North Korea.

These measures were widely condemned as coercing nations that were considered our allies and causing unnecessary friction between already straining international relations at the time.

The use of Private Military Contractors

Prior to the beginning of the war in Iraq concerns were also raised about the growing use of private military contractors and their status as civilians or military personnel, and how exactly they would be viewed legally, and the potential of military contractors to engage in abuses without reprimand.

In 2002 the New York Times published an article detailing concerns about the increasing role of private military corporations in America and their use by the Pentagon. Evidence was put forward about the increasing role of private "contractors" as well as examples of how private contractors have been known engage in criminal activities in the past and escape prosecution for their acts.

America's For Profit Secret Army for example stated:

With the war on terror already a year old and the possibility of war against Iraq growing by the day, a modern version of an ancient practice - one as old as warfare itself - is reasserting itself at the Pentagon. Mercenaries, as they were once known, are thriving - only this time they are called private military contractors, and some are even subsidiaries of Fortune 500 companies.

The Pentagon cannot go to war without them.

Often run by retired military officers, including three- and four-star generals, private military contractors are the new business face of war. Blurring the line between military and civilian, they provide stand-ins for active soldiers in everything from logistical support to battlefield training and military advice at home and abroad...

In the House, Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, led the battle against a Bush administration effort to remove the cap that limits the number of American troops in Colombia to 500 and private contractors to 300.

"American taxpayers already pay $300 billion a year to fund the world's most powerful military," Ms. Schakowsky said. "Why should they have to pay a second time in order to privatize our operations? Are we outsourcing in order to avoid public scrutiny, controversy or embarrassment? Is it to hide body bags from the media and thus shield them from public opinion?"...

The two employees made similar accusations: that while working in Bosnia, where DynCorp was providing military equipment maintenance services, DynCorp employees kept underaged women as sex slaves, even videotaping a rape. Among the charges was that while the DynCorp employees trafficked in women - including buying one for $1,000 - the company turned a blind eye. Since the DynCorp employees involved were not soldiers, their actions were not subject to military discipline. Nor did they face local justice; they were simply fired and sent home...

Incidents like these - sex rings, deals with dictators, misused military training and tragic accidents - raise questions about the use of contractors. To whom are they accountable: the United States government or their contract? When such incidents occur, who bears the responsibility?

Now, as evidence of abuses and torture are coming out in relation to the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, sure enough, private military contractors are involved, and sure enough, the body bags of those killed are also being hidden and not counted as a part of the total US casualties of war in Iraq. 

As a recent FindLaw article, Private Contractors Who Torture, discusses, there are a number of problems associated with the prosecution of private contractors for their involvement in human rights violations, which of course, is one reason why the military prefers to contract out these positions in the first place.

But what of the civilian contractors who worked hand in glove with the military at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison? Will the atrocities they committed be, at most, bad for their careers - a source of negative letters in their employment files? Or will the civilians who shared responsibility for the criminal abuse meted out to detainees at Abu Ghraib be tried, convicted, and sent to prison?

The most likely option, under the rules crafted by the U.S. occupation authority, is prosecution in U.S. civilian courts. Although the victims of abuse were Iraqi, the civilian contractors will probably not be punished in Iraq. Under an order issued last year, civilian contractors enjoy protection from local criminal prosecution, even for crimes such as murder, torture, and rape.


As you can see, these are examples of just some of the numerous red flags that have been thrown up on this issue over the years. As these issues have been brought to light and as faithful activists have tried their best to call attention to these problems, the issues have been largely ignored by the mainstream, or worse, those raising the issues have been denounced as "un-American", ridiculed, or in the case of elected officials, had their fitness for office challenged. However, the concerns are real, they have always been real, and it is a tragedy that, instead of dealing with the reality of these problems domestically and in a pro-active manner, we are now faced with international ridicule, outrage, demoralization, and the fact that these disturbing acts, which were preventable had the public been paying attention, took place.

What is clear is that these acts of torture and abuse that have been taking place in Iraq are not some off the wall case of rogue or poorly trained soldiers who were going against the rules, these acts are part of a pattern of behavior that extends far back in American history, and the Bush administration in particular, as new evidence is continuing to show, was not only involved in covering up these abuses as they were taking place, and lying to the American public about what was taking place in Iraq, but in fact, the Bush administration has intentionally facilitated these actions and members of the Bush administration have a clear history of this type of behavior. Not only that, but these facts were made public prior to the start of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" and concerns continued to be raised during the war as well, yet all of these warning signs (and more) were dismissed and ignored by the majority of people until the harsh reality came and struck them in the face. 

At this point, no one should be surprised by these actions. The real blame here falls on American citizens for not being diligent and for choosing to turn a blind eye to the mountain of facts and warning signs until, tragically (for all of those involved, ourselves as well as the Iraqis), it was too late.

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