February 16, 2005

Causal Factors for Abu Ghraib

Analysis of the factors that lowered the barriers against torture at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere

Now that all the reports are out and Abu Ghraib has faded from the news, I wanted to look back at what was learned. Understand this, helps better understanding what should be changed and how well the causes of Abu Ghraib have been addressed.

I am most concerned about the torture by the military that occurred in and around interrogation and incarceration. I find this type of torture the most disturbing because I believe it was the most routine (happening over and over in a location) and the most influenced by the government and military.


The overall impression from media and government reports is torture was not widespread in the military but was a very serious problem that sometimes occurred. The most egregious examples were at Abu Ghraib and all of the factors below occurred there. In addition, there were cases of torture related to interrogration in both military intelligence and the military police.

The factors are loosely grouped by the levels (or groups) at which they occurred, not by who was responsible for them. Some factors appear to be widespread in the military and are indicated with an asterisk.

List of Factors

The following list gives many factors that helped make it easier for individuals at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere to decide to practice torture.

  • Administration – no clear leadership against torture
    • The rights of detainees “enemy combatants” in the war on terror are not firmly established.
    • They changed policy to allow more aggressive interrogation techniques.
    • Current policy allows some captured individuals to be “interrogation” (read tortured) by foreign agencies.
  • DoD – *unclear standards on interrogation
    • There were multiple changes in standards within two years. It was sometimes unclear what standard to follow and how to interpret it.
  • Military intelligence –
    • *Standards of interrogation just short of torture on torture were allowed. With the lack of clarity and training on these standards, a few individuals interpreted the standards to allow behaviors generally considered torture. Some of these individuals later stated their beliefs that their techniques were approved.
    • *There was a lack of separation between military intelligence and police. Military police commonly asked military police to help set favorate conditions for integration. This did not necessary mean torture but at some facilities like Abu Ghraib it clearly did. (This also it asks military police to both manage the prisoners and help interrogate them, two jobs that are in conflict)
  • mid level command –
    • There was a failure to significantly address any of the factors below that were within their control. At least two factors were noted in a November 2003 investigation at Abu Ghraib.
  • low level command (Prison officers up to brigade level) –
    • Failure to address or be a squeakly wheel for the problems of their soldiers.
    • There was poor overall leadership including not establishing, explaining, or enforcing standards for allowable behavior.
  • individual factors –
    • The chain of command at one area in Abu Ghraib was unclear. Military integrator were (partially?) responsible for the guards in the area at Abu Ghraib where nearly all of the abuses occurred.
    • *Many soldiers received little training for their job of working with prisoners.
    • Facilities were not well designed for the job of holding prisoners
    • The number of staff was inadequate for the job.
    • *Soldiers work in a dangerous combat zone guarding individual who may be responsible for injury and death in their unit. They were guarding individuals who may be part of the same group responsible for the ongoing violence against (and deaths in ) their unit.
    • *Individual belief or personal knowledge that the CIA and its employees was practicing torture.
  • general factor –
    • *The possibility that the individual has knowledge that could save many lives.
  • final factor –
    • The choices of each individual to engage or not engage in behavior viewed as torture.It must be remembered that many other soldiers present in situations where most of these factors occurred did not engage in torture.


various newpaper articles (I should have bookmarked them.)

Schlesinger Report – general review of DoD abuses during the war on terror

Taguba Report – army investigation into the abuses at Abu Ghraib

NGO summaries about prisoner abuse like this report at the Center for public integrity

Did I miss any?

Since this entry is very long, another entry will discuss what I believe should be changed to reduce and help prevent more torture. Feel free to answer the questions, what you believe should be done, now or on that post.Eventually, I hope to discuss how well those items have been reformed.


  • It is very hard for me to comment on this situation...I'm one of the 'over sensitive types' who gets really disturbed by things like Abu Ghraib and I am unable to look at it locally (usually because I'm too busy crying)...maybe this will explain why I wish I was 'cold' (your first comment on my xanga was a reaction to my desire to be cold) but cold to me is not indiffrent, it's maybe...dispassonate? anyhow...I'm glad I can post to you now! Have you posted on my blogger? Yours does not look familiar to me, so I wonder how you found me on Xanga?

    Faith (aka theleastofthese)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:02 PM  

  • I found your blog completely by accident. I was clicking on random blogs in the religious category of a directory and I found a blog by a young monk (I forgot the name). I don't prefer his stream of consciousness style but I clicked on the top link in his blogroll and found your blog.
    I even remember why I posted that entry. That day, I was very pleased with my sensitive side, empathy had helped me see things I couldn't otherwise. (I think I wrote the California train crash story that day.) When I saw your comment on a desire to be cold, I knew that not being cold had allowed some the best things that happened to me that day to occur. That self-knowledge drove my response.

    However, a different day and I would have been in much stronger agreement with you.

    By Blogger lars, at 9:25 AM  

  • Interesting...and normally I love the fact that I am very sensitive, and compassonate...it's normally one of my fav. things about myself...but I had been bullied by some insensitive people around me, and I was wishing that day that I could be cold to such things...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:58 PM  

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