Monday, January 17, 2005

Abu Ghraib: who is really to blame?

Back in October, I wrote a post titled "Abu Ghraib: waiting for the other shoe to drop" where I spoke about the upcoming trials of some soldiers who had pleaded not-guilty to the charges of abusing prisoners in Abu Ghraib. In that post, I had suggested that some of the techniques that were being used in Abu Ghraib seemed just a bit too sophisticated to be dreamed up by a simple and uneducated corporal.

Let's not make any mistake, Charles Graner is far from innocent, and he deserves every day of jail-time he got sentenced to. He has a sordid history of sadistic abuse, and insensitivity towards other ethnic groups (as I detailed in a previous post), and his conduct at Abu Ghraib was an absolute disgrace. But, Charles Graner is just one person, and the buck did not stop with just him.

In any normal prison environment, a bad apple like Graner would have been quickly isolated and removed from the environment. However, at Abu Ghraib, not only did this not happen, but Graner was able to convince other presumably sane individuals to go along with these sick actions.

How was this possible?

In my opinion, there are three significant factors, each stemming from the same root cause, that I believe played a contributing role in the development of this fiasco.

Factor #1: Understaffing

The ratio of guards to prisoners in Abu Ghraib at the time of the abuse was approximately 1 to 75. To put this in perspective, the ratio of guards to prisoners in most normal prisons in the United States is about 1 to 5, and in Guantanamo Bay is about 1 to 1.

The ratio of guards to prisoners is an important factor, since it has a direct impact on the guards' ability to maintain order in the prison. As the ratio of guards to prisoners drops, the psychological power balance shifts towards the prisoners: prisoners become more cocky, and guards become more edgy. Prisoners may feel more like they can get away with things, and may be more inclined to employ civil disobedience or rioting to get their way. To push the power balance back, guards may be more inclined to make inmates afraid of them; punishing even minor infractions harshly, and showing greater use of brute force.

Even here in the United States, low guard-to-prisoner ratios in prisons have led to problems such as riots and inmate abuse. It should have come as no surprise to the commanders of Abu Ghraib that such a low guard to prisoner ratio was a recipe for trouble.

Factor #2: Egging on by interrogators

One would be justified to wonder how a man of simple means like Charles Graner got the ideas for the torture techniques that were used. One definite possibility that has not been adequately discussed by the mainstream news media are the military and civilian interrogators.

Major General Antonio Taguba in his report on the Abu Ghraib abuse paid particular attention to the role of interrogators:

I find that contrary to the provision of AR 190-8, and the findings found in MG Ryder’s Report, Military Intelligence (MI) interrogators and Other US Government Agency’s (OGA) interrogators actively requested that MP guards set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses.

It does not take much imagination to suggest that interrogators may have egged on Graner et al and perhaps even given some helpful hints on torture techniques.

Factor #3: Lack of Training

General Taguba's report states:

I find that prior to its deployment to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 320th MP Battalion and the 372nd MP Company had received no training in detention/internee operations. I also find that very little instruction or training was provided to MP personnel on the applicable rules of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, FM 27-10, AR 190-8, or FM 3-19.40. Moreover, I find that few, if any, copies of the Geneva Conventions were ever made available to MP personnel or detainees.

In the summer of 1971, a now famous experiment was conducted by the Stanford University psychology department. This experiment, which later came to be known as the Stanford Prison Experiment sought to simulate how a prison environment can warp the minds of even normal people. In the experiment, the researchers built a mock prison out of the basement of the psychology building, and took a group of normal college students and randomly assigned them to be "guards" or "prisoners". In the experiment, the guards quickly started to become sadistic and cruel, and the prisoners started to show emotional distress, causing the experiment to be aborted after just six days.

The one major parallel with Abu Ghriab was the lack of guard training: guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment were not given any specific training on how to be guards - they were free to make up their own rules, which resulted in gross cruelty towards the prisoners.

What the Stanford experiment showed was that many humans have a cruel streak in their basic nature, and that this cruel streak may come to the surface in the unique combination of power and nervousness that a prison environment creates. Prison guards need thorough training to learn to suppress this cruel streak within themselves and to treat the prisoners under their care in a humane, respectful, and professional manner.

The Root Cause: Leadership Failure

All of these three factors point to a systemic failure in the leadership of the Abu Ghraib prison. Commanders should have been aware of the inadeaquate guard/prisoner ratio and failed to do anything about it. Commanders were responsible to set guidelines for interrogators and failed to do so. And, commanders were responsible to correctly identify the training requirements for guard duty and ensure that their staff were appropriately trained - they failed miserably at that also.

A commander may delegate tasks to subordinates, but a basic rule of delegation is this: it is possible to delegate the execution of a task, but it is never possible to delegate responsibility for it, and along with that responsibility comes accountability for failure. If one's subordinate fails in executing a task effectively, the failure is still the commander's responsibility. A commander may say that he was unaware of the abuses taking place under his watch, but this still points to his failure as a leader: failure to ensure that subordinates were qualified (trained) for the tasks they were performing, and failure to adequately supervise them and monitor their progress.

In the private sector, a manager who failed as miserably as the ones in Abu Ghraib did would be summarily fired. Why, then, have we not heard of any real disciplinary action being taken against the commanders of Abu Ghraib? Is it that the US military is more tolerant of poor leadership, more accepting of dereliction of duty, and more forgiving of shoddy performance? It seems so.

Soldiers have one of the toughest jobs out there - they risk their lives every day, and are tasked with making life and death decisions for themselves, their subordinates, and those around them. Military commanders have an even greater responsibility - being entrusted with the lives of the people working for them - and thus should be held to a higher standard than managers in the private sector. Why, then, is this not the case?

The US military is arguably the best in the world, and did not get this way through the actions of incompetent fools. American soldiers are, in general, a very professional, well-trained, and well-disciplined group, and there should be no tolerance for gross incompetence at the magnitude of the Abu Ghraib fiasco. It is time to take the trash out, to separate the wheat from the chaff, to hold military leaders up to the same standards of accountability as leaders in the private sector. The commanders responsible for Abu Ghraib need to be held accountable and punished for this gross failure of leadership on their part.