One of my initial reactions to the Abu Ghraib story was a vague, irrational feeling that the place itself was evil; that we should have blown it up; that we never should have used it for our own detentions.
We probably should blow it up, and follow the rest of John Quiggin's suggestions. But this NY Times article reminded me that it doesn't take an evil place or a foreign country for prisoners to be brutalized during interrogations. It can also happen in a federal detention center in Brooklyn.
I knew that some of the people detained in the sweeps after September 11 had been kept in horrible conditions for months, abused badly, and then deported on flimsy charges unrelated to terrorism. The DOJ's inspector general's office did a pretty thorough report on it last December, which the leadership of the Justice Department promptly dismissed, denied, and ignored. After all, there were no pictures on 20/20 or al Jazeera.
Now two of the detainees have come forward and are suing the U.S. government over this. And, as with the Arar case--it does not hit you until you have living, breathing people telling you what happened to them.
One of the men is named Ehab Elmaghraby.
The lawsuit charges that the men were repeatedly slammed into walls and dragged across the floor while shackled and manacled, kicked and punched until they bled, cursed as "terrorists" and "Muslim bastards," and subjected to multiple unnecessary body-cavity searches, including one during which correction officers inserted a flashlight into Mr. Elmaghraby's rectum, making him bleed.
At that point, the papers charge, he was confined without blankets, mattress or toilet paper to a tiny cell kept lighted 24 hours a day, and was denied adequate medical care or communication with his public defender. He said his attempts to pray or sleep were disrupted by guards banging on his door.
"I was in life and I went to hell," Mr. Elmaghraby, 37, said in the interview. He spent almost a year in the special unit of the Metropolitan Detention Center, where the detention and treatment of hundreds of Muslim immigrants have since become the focus of concerns about the constitutionality of the Justice Department's counterterrorism offensive.
The other is named Javaid Iqbal.
"Before I go to prison, the America that I know is a beautiful country and Americans are such beautiful, kind, humble people," he said. "When I go to prison, I see there a different face of the United States of America."
His introduction to the nation's new detention policy was abrupt. Unlike Mr. Elmaghraby, who spent his whole detention in the maximum-security unit, Mr. Iqbal was housed with the general inmate population for the first two months after his arrest. But on the evening of Jan. 8, 2002, he was told that he had a "legal visit" in a room on another floor.
Instead of a lawyer, he found more than a dozen federal officers waiting for him. As he and the lawsuit tell it, several officers picked him up and threw him against the wall. He said he heard one ask a senior person, "He's the one?" and when the reply was affirmative, an officer pressing Mr. Iqbal's head into the wall turned it around, looked him in the face and said, "Welcome to hell, buddy."
At that, he was dragged to the floor, kicked in the stomach with steel-toed shoes and punched in the face, he said, and the officers screamed death threats and curses as they beat him up. "Then the senior person said, 'Just take him out of my sight.' "
Hatred seemed to determine the rules on the unit in ways large and small, the men said. On cold days when it rained, Mr. Iqbal was left outside for hours without jacket or shoes. When he was returned to his cell drenched, officers turned on the air-conditioning, he said. At one point, the lawsuit said, Mr. Elmaghraby was mockingly displayed naked to a female staff member.
And yes, responsibility for this extends very high. I'm pretty sure Ashcroft did not authorize beatings, but he wanted the power to detain any immigrant indefinitely and in complete secrecy--it was in the original draft of the Patriot Act. When Congress refused to grant that power, the D.O.J. bent if not broke the rules about how long it could hold people:
The inspector general's report said last June that Mr. Ashcroft's policy was to hold detainees on any legal pretext until the F.B.I. cleared them, even though such clearances turned out to take months, not days, because they were given low priority. It said little effort was made to distinguish between legitimate terrorism suspects and the many people picked up by chance during the investigation.
The attorney general is a smart man. He should know what happens when you give prison guards and officers, who are angry about murders in their hometown, complete authority over the lives of invisible people for as long as possible. And if he did not know before the inspector general's report, he knew afterwards. This was the DOJ's response:
"We make no apologies for finding every legal way possible to protect the American public from further terrorist attacks," a Justice spokeswoman said in a statement.
Shortly after this, videotapes showing abuse of detainees were uncovered, and the DOJ's civil rights division & Brooklyn U.S. Attorney's office launched an investigation. But they've decided not to prosecute anyone, according to today's Times story.