Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

Rory Kennedy’s new documentary examines the plight of torture victims in Iraq and stirs political passions at home.


Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, a new documentary by Rory Kennedy, is raising hell in the nation’s capital. Sparks flew at a February 12 screening of the film for Beltway bigwigs–among them Rory’s uncle, Senator Ted Kennedy, and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham–when Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski–who was demoted for her role in the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison–said during a panel discussion that she had been “scapegoated.” Karpinski then called Graham “a coward” to his face, “as cowardly as Rumsfeld, as [Lieut. Gen. Ricardo] Sanchez and [Maj. Gen. Geoffrey] Miller.” Her comment came in response to Graham’s assertion that Karpinksi should have been court-martialed, not demoted.

The confrontation will come as no surprise to anyone who sees Ghosts when it premieres on HBO February 22. Shot between February and December 2006, the film, in which Karpinski plays a leading role, documents the now-infamous torture of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad and raises pointed questions about who was ultimately responsible for the abuse. Through extensive interviews with nine military police and military intelligence corpsmen and five Iraqi prisoners involved in the torture, Kennedy asks: Was this a case of grunts gone wild, an “animal house on the night shift,” as former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger claimed? Or was it something more systemic, spurred on by post-September 11 Bush Administration policy?

I recently spent more than an hour with Kennedy in the back seat of a taxi– caught in rush-hour Manhattan traffic–talking about her film, the soul of America and the ghosts of US foreign policy.

What was a typical day at Abu Ghraib for the Iraqi detainees you interviewed?

Well, one of the things that struck me was that this type of abuse was an everyday thing, it was occurring day in and day out. Sleep deprivation, stress positions–they were constant. Any notion that this was just “happening on the night shift,” or that it was a case of a few bad apples, was immediately dispelled by the Iraqis themselves, as well as the overwhelming amount of evidence that suggested that wasn’t the case.

The use of family members was also horrific–the guards would make constant threats that they would bring the detainees’ children in and sexually and physically abuse them. In one case, a man was made to watch his brother being physically abused. There was also some suggestion by some of the Iraqis that they experienced sexual abuse.

Then there was what we saw in the photographs, being put in stress positions for hours and hours, with your arms handcuffed behind your back, tied up high, with underwear over your head, women watching the men take showers, laughing at them. Encouragement to sexually humiliate the prisoners was pervasive. The humiliation factor was horrendous and disturbing.

Was the abuse at Abu Ghraib worse than you’d expected?

I found that, particularly when I was interviewing the detainees, the photographs were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the extent of the abuse at Abu Ghraib that occurred in the fall of 2003. We talked to one man, one of the Iraqi detainees we interviewed, who told us a story of how his father was tortured over and over again. Later, this man became sick, and the son said he begged the Americans for medical attention. His father was getting sicker and sicker, he couldn’t walk, he was feverish and getting worse. [The son] was really desperate to get help for his father. The American response was to threaten the son, and they ultimately pointed a gun at him and said, “If you ask us again we’re going to kill you.” And shortly after, his father died in his arms.

There are also a number of cases of people who were tortured to death by the interrogators. I think that what we saw in the photographs involves the military police who were preparing the detainees for interrogation by “softening” them up. We don’t know exactly what happened in the actual interrogation rooms, but in talking to interrogators, the level of the abuse and the torture that occurred in those rooms was almost certainly much more extreme.

Unfortunately, it seems, from as much information as we can gather at this point, those types of abuses continue to occur today.

Do you think there were any heroes in this story?

There are some heroes in this story, people like [MPs and MIs] Israel Rivera, Ken Davis and Joseph Darby who stood up and said, “We’re not going to take this, this is wrong,” and saw it for what it was, and went against the grain. But unfortunately, people like Joseph Darby, as a result of being whistleblowers, have been isolated, and many people now are not considering them heroes.

And of course I have so much respect for the Iraqi detainees who were involved. They had fears about filming in Iraq, so we originally tried to fly them to Jordan, but when they got to the airport they were on a no-fly list and were not allowed to board. So then we got them visas and tickets to Turkey, but when they arrived they were immediately detained. By some miracle, we got them out of detention and filmed the interviews in a hotel in Istanbul.

The dignity with which they presented themselves and their stories, despite the horrific humiliation they suffered, really humbled me. The fact that they were willing even to speak to me, let alone so honestly and in such great detail, an American, given all that America has done to them, was really powerful.

Why were they afraid of being filmed in Iraq?

They were afraid of Americans, of an American retaliation.

Eleven low-ranking soldiers have been court-martialed and sentenced for their roles in the abuse–has justice been done?

To me, given all the evidence, what happened at Abu Ghraib is absolutely indicative of a systemic policy that has been put into place and authorized by people very high up the chain of command.

And not only was the kind of abuse we saw at Abu Ghraib clearly standard operating procedure–we have a huge amount of evidence that this was standard throughout many prisons, in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantánamo. When you have it coincidentally happening in all these prisons at the same time it indicates that you don’t have a bunch of rogue soldiers bizarrely operating in the same way, making prisoners be naked, depriving them of sleep, putting them in stress positions, [but rather] operating according to procedures that have actually been authorized and that we have memos documenting.

When I was doing the interviews with the Iraqis, I remember thinking, I cannot believe that America did this to these guys, how could we have gotten to this point in our country that we would allow this to happen? I’ve done a number of projects that deal with human rights abuses that have taken place in the worst dictatorships you can imagine, and what I heard from these Iraqis was on par or even worse than any of that.

And the people who created these policies have almost all gotten off scot-free or been promoted.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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