American Treatment of Iraqi & Afghan Prisoners: Who is to Blame?

Two readings and accompanying activities explore whether the torture of prisoners is the result of a few individuals acting alone or of broader government decisions.

By Alan Shapiro

To the Teacher:

American treatment of Iraqi and Afghan prisoners has created an international scandal and raised profound questions for the citizens of our country. The two readings and accompanying activities below explore whether these events are the result of a few individuals acting alone or are the result of broader government decisions. You may want to begin the class exploration of this issue with another lesson from this website, American Treatment of Iraqi and Afghan Prisoners: An Introduction.

Student Reading 1:

The actions of a few?

In the spring of 2004, a series of photos of American soldiers and Iraqi prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison came into public view. President Bush called the photographs "disgusting" and said "...there will be a full accounting for the cruel and disgraceful abuses of Iraqi detainees....they are an affront to the most basic standards of morality and decency." He also said that Abu Ghraib "became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, "These events occurred on my watch. As secretary of defense, I am accountable for them and I take full responsibility....I feel terrible about what happened to these Iraqi detainees....It is important for the American people and the world to know that while these terrible acts were perpetrated by a small number of U.S. military, they were also brought to light by the honorable and responsible actions of other military personnel." He also said, "My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture."

But are more than "a few" or "a small number" of low-ranking American soldiers shown in the photographs responsible for "disgraceful conduct" and "terrible acts"? According to newspaper and magazine reports as well as human rights groups, similar behavior took place elsewhere in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where hundreds of Afghan fighters were sent after the U.S. overturned Taliban rule in Afghanistan in December 2001.

  • The Washington Post reported on December 25, 2002 that prisoners held in the CIA interrogation center at Bagram air base, Afghanistan "are sometimes kept standing or kneeling for hours in black hoods or spray-painted goggles....At times they are held in awkward, painful positions and deprived of sleep with a 24-hour bombardment of lights-subject to what are known as 'stress and duress' techniques."
  • Other techniques approved for use at Guantanamo by its commander Major General Geoffrey Miller included: "the use of harsh heat or cold; withholding food...naked isolation in cold, dark cells for more than 30 days." (Newsweek, 5/24/04)
  • Amnesty International, a worldwide human rights organization, says that in July 2003 it reported "allegations of torture and ill-treatment of Iraqi detainees by U.S. and Coalition forces" to the U.S. Government and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq. The allegations included beatings, electric shocks, sleep deprivation, hooding, and prolonged forced standing and kneeling. It received no response nor any indication from the administration or the CPA that an investigation took place." Amnesty International added, "Numerous people held in the U.S. Air Bases in Bagram and Kandahar in Afghanistan say they were subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in U.S. custody." (Amnesty International press release, 5/7/04)
  • On January 31, 2003 the executive directors of human rights groups wrote to President Bush demanding statements by him and his cabinet officers that "torture in any form or manner will not be tolerated."
  • In mid-January 2004 Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Red Cross, complained about prison abuses in a meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
  • In February 2004 the Red Cross reported that its investigators had made 29 staff visits to 14 places of detention in Iraq between March 31 and October 24, 2003, and that they had reported about 200 allegations of abuse to the U.S. military as early as May 2003. In July it reported 50 allegations of abuse at a detention center called Camp Cropper, Iraq. The report called some of the treatment "tantamount to torture." (New York Times, 5/11/04)
  • In the past, military lawyers have supervised prisoner interrogations to ensure that they are conducted humanely and in accordance with the Geneva Conventions (international rules about the fair treatment of prisoners). But in Iraq they have been kept away, said a human rights lawyer, Scott Horton, who met with senior military lawyers. "Mr. Horton said the officers who met with him were disturbed by what they called the administration's disdain for international law." (New York Times, 5/19/04)
  • Army officials are now investigating the deaths of at least 40 prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, for there is evidence that at least several died during or after interrogations of "blunt force injuries" or "asphyxiation." In a number of cases of deaths under suspicious circumstances, the military did not perform autopsies.

After U.S. treatment of Iraqi prisoners became public, a New York Times reporter wrote the following (5/5/04): "Across the Arab world and beyond, the tormenting of Iraqi prisoners by their American guards shredded already thin support for Washington's invasion of Iraq and its vow to install democratic values and respect for human rights." The article's survey of worldwide reaction included the following:

  • Abdelmonem Said, the director of Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, Egypt, said, "Saddam was a butcher who tortured people; now the United States is torturing people."
  • A headline in Al Quds al Arabi, a London-based Arab newspaper, read "Abu Ghraib's pictures disclose America: torture, sexual abuse against Iraqi prisoners."
  • France's most popular daily newspaper said, "Countries like America that exempt themselves from international rules are vulnerable to such excesses."

So where does the responsibility lie for the treatment of Iraqi and Afghan prisoners?

In August 2004 the results of two investigations into American treatment of prisoners were made public.

1. "The abuses were not just the failure of some individuals to follow known standards, and they are more than the failure of a few leaders to enforce proper discipline. There is both institutional and personal responsibility at higher levels." There were about 300 reported incidents of mistreatment and "66 substantiated cases." ("Independent Panel to Review Department of Defense Detention Operations," headed by James Schlesinger, Defense Secretary under President Nixon)

The panel found that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers; and the Commander of the Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid should have known about and responded to "the serious limitations of the 800th Military Policy Brigade at Abu Ghraib" and recognized the need for more and better-trained military police. (New York Times, 8/25/04)

According to one member of this panel, Tillie Fowler, a Republican and former congresswoman from Florida, "We found a string of failures that go well beyond an isolated cellblock in Iraq. We found fundamental failures throughout all levels of command, from the soldiers on the ground to the Central Command and to the Pentagon. These failures of leadership helped to set the conditions which allowed the abusive practice to take place."

2. "This investigation identified 44 alleged instances of events of detainee abuse committed by M.P. [Military Police] and M.I. [Military Intelligence] soldiers, as well as civilian contractors....This investigation found that certain individuals committed offenses in violation of international and U.S. law to include the Geneva Conventions.... leadership responsibility and command responsibility, systemic problems and issues also contributed to the volatile environment in which the abuse occurred. These systemic problems included: inadequate interrogation doctrine and training, an acute shortage of M.P. and M.I. soldiers, the lack of clear lines of responsibility..., the lack of a clear interrogation policy for the Iraq campaign, and intense pressure felt by the personnel on the ground to produce actionable intelligence from detainees....What started [at Abu Ghraib] as nakedness and humiliation, stress and physical training carried over into sexual and physical assaults by a small group of morally corrupt and unsupervised soldiers and civilians."

"At Abu Ghraib, isolation conditions sometimes included being kept naked in very hot or very cold, small rooms, and/or completely darkened rooms, clearly in violation of the Geneva Conventions." This report also criticized Army medical staff members who did not prevent or report abuses and torture."

("Investigation of the Abu Ghraib Detention Facility and 205th Military Intelligence Brigade," headed by Maj. Gen. George Fay and Lt. Gen. Anthony Jones)

At a Pentagon press conference, General Fay told reporters, "There were a few instances when torture was being used."

Some comments on these reports:

"When you put these reports together, the clear message is that the system failed in a widespread manner." (Senator Lindsay Graham, Republican, South Carolina, member of Senate Armed Services Committee, reported in the New York Times, 8/26/04 )

"The Fay-Jones report has further widened the circle of accountability. What is still missing is any sort of accountability in Washington for the policies and incompetence that gave rise to the abuses." (Representative Martin Meehan, Democrat, Massachusetts, member of House Armed Services Committee, reported in the New York Times, 8/26/04)

"The (Independent Panel) report talks about management failures when it should be talking about policy failures. The report seems to go out of its way not to find any relationship between Secretary Rumsfeld's approval of interrogation techniques designed to inflict pain and humiliation and the widespread mistreatment and torture of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo." (Reed Brody, special counsel with Human Rights Watch, reported in the New York Times, 8/25/04)

Additional reports continue to be made public:

Confidential reports by the International Committee of the Red Cross that became public in late November 2004 revealed that the Red Cross had charged the American military with intentionally using psychological and physical coercion "tantamount to torture" on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. After an inspection team visit there that lasted most of June 2004, the Red Cross reported treatment of prisoners that included "humiliating acts, solitary confinement, temperature extremes, use of forced positions." In what it called "a flagrant violation of medical ethics," the report also charged that some doctors and other medical workers were participating in planning interrogations and disclosing to interrogators personal information about prisoners' mental health and weaknesses. Rejecting these charges, a Pentagon spokesman said, "The United States operates a safe, humane and professional detention operation at Guantanamo that is providing valuable information in the war on terrorism." (New York Times, 11/30/04)

In FBI documents released in December 2004, one reported such treatment of civilian prisoners in Iraq as "strangulation, beatings, placement of lit cigarettes into the detainees' ear openings and unauthorized interrogations." An FBI agent who witnessed treatment of these prisoners stated: "On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more....On another occasion, the A/C had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room probably well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out throughout the night."

In its coverage of this report, the New York Times said, "the newly disclosed documents are the latest to show that such activities were known to a wide circle of government officials." (12/21/04) The release of this and other information about prisoner abuse and torture was the result of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. A press release about its findings includes the report of an FBI agent's conversation with Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, Guantanamo's commander, "who defended the use of interrogation techniques the FBI regarded as illegal on the grounds that the military 'has their marching orders from the Sec Def'" [Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld].'" (, 12/24/04)

According to a report in the New York Times, in late December 2004 the U.S. Justice Department "broadened its definition of torture, significantly retreating from a memorandum in August 2002 that defined torture extremely narrowly and said President Bush could ignore domestic and international prohibitions against torture in the name of national security....'Torture is abhorrent both to American law and values and to international norms,' said the new memorandum....

"Michael Ratner, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has sued the administration over its interrogation policies, said...that the redefinition 'makes it clear that the earlier one was not just some intellectual theorizing by some lawyers about what was possible. It means it must have been implemented in some way. It puts the burden on the administration to say what practices were actually put in place under those auspices.'" (New York Times, 1/1/05)

For Discussion

1. What questions does this reading raise for students? Can they be answered? How?

2. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says he is "accountable" and takes "full responsibility" for prisoner treatment. What do "accountable" and "full responsibility" mean to you? If, for example, you admit accountability and responsibility for something you have done that is wrong, what, if anything, do you expect to do or to happen as a result?

3. Based on what you have read and perhaps seen on TV, would you describe the prisoner treatment as "abuse"? "torture"? something else? Why?

4. Reports and complaints about prisoner treatment were made by responsible organizations months before the photographs became public late in April. The army assigned Major General Taguba to investigate Iraqi detention centers. The military also launched investigations into the behavior of individual soldiers shown in the photographs. Should anything else have been done by the President, the Pentagon, or army officials in Iraq? If so, what and why? If not, why not?

5. What is your tentative response to this question: Who is responsible for the treatment of Iraqi and Afghan prisoners?

6. Senator James Imhofe of Oklahoma, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is investigating the treatment of prisoners, said he was "more outraged by the outrage" over the photographs than by what the photos show. "These prisoners, you know they're not there for traffic violations....these prisoners, they're murderers, they're terrorists, they're insurgents. Many of them probably have American blood on their hands, and here we're so concerned about the treatment of these individuals." Do you agree with the senator? Why or why not?

Student Reading 2:


October 2001

A month after the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. The U.S.'s stated purpose was (1) to capture or kill as many Al Qaeda fighters as possible and (2) to overthrow the Taliban government in Afghanistan that supported Al Qaeda. Soon the U.S. had hundreds of Afghan prisoners.

January 2002

On January 29, 2002, John Yoo of the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel co-authored an advisory memo. Its chief conclusion: neither the laws of war nor the Geneva Convention applied to the war in Afghanistan.

White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales in a memo advised President Bush to declare the prisoners in the "war on terror" to be outside the protections of the Geneva Conventions (for a description of the Geneva Conventions, please see American Treatment of Iraqi and Afghan Prisoners: An Introduction). "As you have said," he wrote to the President, "the war against terrorism is a new kind of war. The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians...."

This new situation, he concluded, "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions." Gonzales also argued that declaring that the Geneva Conventions did not apply would avoid the possibility of American officials being subject to war crimes prosecution. A 1996 U.S. law forbids "war crimes," which are defined to include "any grave breach" of the Geneva Conventions.

February 2002

The White House announced that the U.S. would apply the Geneva Conventions to the Afghan prisoners but that they would not be given prisoner-of-war status. Administration officials called these prisoners "unlawful combatants." From the Pentagon's point of view Al Qaeda followers have no rights under the Geneva Conventions that it is bound to follow. But Geneva Convention III states: "Should any doubt arise," all fighters are covered by the rules of the Geneva Conventions until "a competent tribunal" decides they are not. To date, no tribunal has been created because the Bush administration "insists that there is no doubt that those it has detained are not entitled to prisoner-of-war status." (Ronald Dworkin, "Terror and the Attack on Civil Liberties," The New York Review, 11/6/03)

The Pentagon decision, however, "set the stage for the new interrogation procedures ungoverned by international law," according to Newsweek magazine (5/24/2004). Some time after February 7, Bush "signed a secret order granting new powers to the CIA. According to knowledgeable sources, the President's directive authorized the CIA to set up a series of secret detention facilities outside the United States, and to question those held in them with unprecedented harshness....The administration also began...delivering terror suspects to foreign governments for interrogation." Newsweek says it was informed by "Congressional sources" that CIA Director George Tenet had suggested that "it might be better sometimes for such suspects to remain in the hands of foreign authorities, who might be able to use more aggressive methods."

Newsweek charged that the new policy allowed the administration to "sidestep the historical safeguards of the Geneva Conventions, which protect the rights of detainees and prisoners of war....and they left underlings to sweat the details of what actually happened to prisoners in these lawless places. While no one deliberately authorized outright torture, these techniques entailed a systematic softening up of prisoners through isolation, privations, insults, threats and humiliationsmethods that the Red Cross concluded were 'tantamount to torture.'"
(All quotes above, Newsweek, 5/24/04)

December 2, 2002

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorized such interrogation techniques as the following for suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban members who were captured in Afghanistan and imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba: "hooding prisoners, using dogs to terrify them, forcing them into 'stress positions' for long periods, stripping them, shaving them and isolating them. All this was prohibited by the Geneva Conventions, but President Bush had already declared on Feb. 7, 2002 that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to Al Qaeda." (New York Times editorial 8/26/2004)

After Navy criticisms, Secretary Rumsfeld directed in January 2003 that these interrogation techniques could be used only with his approval. But not until April of that year did he issue a final list of approved methods for use at Guantanamo. (An independent panel appointed to review them stated in August 2004 that these changes "were an element contributing to uncertainties in the field as to which techniques were authorized" and that the harsher techniques "migrated to Afghanistan and Iraq where they were neither limited nor safeguarded.")

January 2003

In his State of the Union address, President Bush tried to make a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda: "Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications, and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of Al Qaeda." (Bush later clarified that the administration has not, however, discovered any link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11.)

February 2003

In his February 6 radio address President Bush declared: "Saddam Hussein has longstanding and continuing ties to terrorist networks. Senior members of Iraqi intelligence and Al Qaeda have met at least eight times since the early 1990s. Iraq has sent bomb-making and document-forgery experts to work with Al Qaeda. Iraq has also provided Al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training. And an Al Qaeda operative was sent to Iraq several times in the late 1990s for help in acquiring poisons and gases. We also know that Iraq is harboring a terrorist network headed by a senior Al Qaeda terrorist planner. This network runs a poison and explosive training camp in northeast Iraq, and many of its leaders are known to be in Baghdad."

These remarks by Bush appear to be in conflict with a report of investigators for the commission investigating the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Released publicly on June 16, 2004, this report states that a senior Iraqi intelligence officer met Osama bin Laden in Sudan in 1994. "Bin Laden is said to have requested space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded. There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda also occurred after bin Laden had returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship. Two senior bin Laden associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between Al Qaeda and Iraq. We have no credible evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States."

March 2003-May 2003

In a March 2003 legal memorandum, Bush administration lawyers wrote: "In order to respect the President's inherent constitutional authority to manage a military campaign" the prohibition against torture "must be construed as inapplicable to interrogation undertaken pursuant to his commander-in-chief authority." This memorandum also discussed how torture is to be defined: "...a defendant is guilty of torture only if he acts with the express purpose of inflicting severe pain or suffering on a person within his control," and the use of the adjective "severe" "makes plain that the infliction of pain or suffering per se, whether it is physical or mental, is insufficient to amount to torture...." If an interrogator "has a good faith belief his actions will not result in prolonged mental harm, he lacks the mental state necessary for his actions to constitute torture...." and an interrogator who uses techniques that cause pain might be immune from prosecution if he "believed at the moment that his act is necessary and designed to avoid greater harm."

On March 20, the U.S. launched its invasion of Iraq .

On May 1 Bush declared "major combat operations" over. During this period and in the following weeks, American troops captured and imprisoned thousands of Iraqis.

Despite overall U.S. control of Iraq, by the summer of 2003 American troops were being ambushed, hit by rocket-propelled grenades and surprised by roadside bombs that exploded under army vehicles. A growing resistance seemed to include a number of Iraqi militias that had not been disarmed, loyalists to Saddam Hussein and a small number of foreign fighters.

More than a year after the completion of "major combat operations" in Iraq, Bush tried to link Iraqi fighters with "terrorism": "Iraq is now the central front in the war on terror....elements of Saddam's repressive regime and secret police have reorganized, rearmed and adopted sophisticated terrorist tactics. They've linked up with foreign fighters and terrorists." (5/25/04)

September 2003

The U.S. Defense Department and the military were eager to get more information from prisoners to help the military in its continuing conflict with Iraqi fighters. A decision was made to send Guantanamo commander Major General Geoffrey Miller to Iraq in September 2003. His job was "to review Iraqi Theater ability to rapidly exploit internees for actionable intelligence," according to Major General Antonio Taguba, who was charged by the Army with investigating "detention and internment operations" by the 800th Military Police Brigade (which had been assigned to the Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad).

According to the Taguba report, Miller's recommended that "Detention operations must act as an enabler for interrogation." Miller also briefed military commanders in Iraq on interrogation methods used at Guantanamo: sleep deprivation, exposure to extremes of cold and heat, and placing prisoners in "stress positions for agonizing lengths of time." (Seymour Hersh, "Chain of Command," The New Yorker, 5/17/04)

September-October 2003

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top commander at the time in Iraq, on three occasions issued and revised interrogation rules approving harsh methods intended to be limited to Guantanamo detainees and confusing interrogators. (According to high-level Army investigators in a report of August 2004, a result was that interrogators acted in ways that violated the Geneva Conventions, which they did not understand well, though they should have.)

November 2003

Colonel Thomas Pappas, commander of the 205th Intelligence Brigade, took charge of interrogations of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib during November. He "was under enormous pressure from his superiors to extract more information from prisoners there, according to senior army officers." (New York Times, 5/19/04)

Taguba's investigatory report included evidence from sworn statements to Army investigators, one of whom stated, "he had heard MI [military intelligence] insinuate to the guards to abuse the prisoners. When asked what MI said he stated: 'Loosen this guy up for us.' 'Make sure he has a bad night.' 'Make sure he gets the treatment.'" (Seymour Hersh, "Torture at Abu Ghraib," The New Yorker, 5/10/04)

Since the publication of the photos from Abu Ghraib in the spring of 2004, there has been intense discussion about who was responsible.

"The roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal," Seymour Hersh wrote in The New Yorker magazine, "lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists but in a decision, approved last year by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to expand a highly secret operation, which had been focused on the hunt for Al Qaeda, to the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq....According to interviews with several past and present American intelligence officials, the Pentagon's operation...encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in an effort to generate more intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq."

The chief spokesman for the Pentagon, Lawrence Di Rita responded to such charges: "No responsible official in this department, including Secretary Rumsfeld, would or could have been involved in sanctioning the physical coercion or sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners." (New York Times, 5/16/04)

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, told Hersh: "Since September 11th...the military has systematically used third-degree techniques around the world on detainees....'We're giving the world a ready-made excuse to ignore the Geneva Conventions. Rumsfeld has lowered the bar.'" ("The Gray Zone," The New Yorker, 5/24/04)

President Bush, however, gave Secretary Rumsfeld strong praise, saying he has done "a superb job."

"We were dealing here with a broad pattern, not individual acts. There was a pattern and a system," said the Red Cross's director of operations, Pierre Krahenbuhl, in a Geneva news conference. The Army Times, the weekly trade journal of the uniformed military wrote: "This was a failure that ran straight to the top. Accountability here is essentialóeven if that means relieving top leaders from duty in a time of war." (Both quotes are cited in The New Yorker, 5/24/04)

A number of investigations by U.S. officials, both military and legislative, are underway. The New York Times reports, however, that "No investigation completely independent of the Pentagon exists to determine what led to the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison." (June 6, 2004). John D. Hutson, who was the Navy's judge advocate general from 1997 to 2000, said of the current investigations: "I think in a very narrow sense we'll see that justice was done for the seven low-level soldiers, or whatever number it ends up being. Whether justice is done for the more senior people implicated remains to be seen. I don't hold out great hope that any of these investigations are going to result in that." (New York Times, 6/6/04)

So who is responsible for the abuse and torture of Afghan and Iraqi prisoners? The New York Times declared in an editorial (5/14/04): "Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld should...stop trying to dump the blame on the shoulders of America's enlisted men and women. The entire chain of command in Iraq must be part of the investigation." That chain of command includes:

  • Colonel Thomas Pappas, commander of a Military Intelligence Brigade. Pappas was placed in charge of interrogations at Abu Ghraib in November 2003 and supervised those who questioned prisoners
  • Major General Geoffrey Miller, the Guantanamo commandant and advisor on Iraqi prisoners
  • Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, Commander, Combined Joint Task Force Seven (in Iraq)
  • General John Abizaid, Commander, United States Central Command (Middle East)
  • General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, who said that he was "accountable" and takes "full responsibility" for the treatment of prisoners
  • George Bush, President of the United States and, according to the Constitution, the commander-in-chief of the nation's armed forces

For Discussion

1. What questions do students have about this reading? Can they be answered from the reading? If not, how? Does this reading help students to answer any of their earlier unanswered questions?

2. Why do you think that White House Counsel Gonzales concluded that as a result of the "war on terror" the Geneva Conventions are "obsolete" and "quaint"? What was his concern about war crimes trials?

3. It appears as if the Bush Administration chose to ignore Geneva Convention. Why?

4. Why would the U.S. send "terror suspects" to some other country for interrogation? What do you think of this procedure and why?

5. Why were officials so eager to get information from Iraqi and Afghan prisoners?

6. How has the President connected the war in Iraq with the war on terror? What evidence is there that Iraq is or isn't "the central front in the war on terror"?

7. What do you understand General Miller to mean by: "Detention operations must act as an enabler for interrogation"?

8. According to Newsweek and Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, what are the "roots" of the prisoner treatment scandal? Do you agree? Why or why not?

9. Why do you suppose that Bush and Roth disagree about the quality of Rumsfeld's service as defense secretary?

10. What tentative conclusions do you reach about responsibility for the prisoner treatment scandal? Why?

Additional Classroom Suggestions

Obeying orders: A Microlab

"On the one hand, the military's manual for courts-martial says orders requiring the performance of 'a military duty or act' are lawful and are 'disobeyed at the peril of the subordinate.' On the other, it says this 'does not apply to a patently illegal order, such as one that directs the commission of a crime.' A lawful order must 'be a specific mandate to do or not do a specific act.' Rather than a regulation or policy, such an order 'must be directed specifically to the subordinate.'" (New York Times, 5/16/04)

A lawyer defending one of the soldiers shown in the photographs says: "Our defense says he was following orders and that he believed the orders were lawful." One defendant, Private Lynndie R. England, the soldier shown pulling a dog leash attached to a naked prisoner, said on a Denver radio program, "I was instructed by persons in higher ranks to stand there and hold this leash." (New York Times, 5/16/04)

Divide students into groups of three or four for a microlab. A microlab allows participants to deepen their understanding of an issue through speaking and listening. It is not a time for dialogue. Each student, in turn, is given 45 uninterrupted seconds to respond to the following question:

Assuming that Private England was, in fact, ordered by a person in a higher rank to hold the leash attached to the naked prisoner, should she have refused to obey the order? Why or why not?

After 45 seconds let the groups know that it is time for the next person to speak. Continue until each student has had a chance to respond. Then invite students to participate in a whole-class discussion.

Some students may be aware that the issue of obeying unlawful orders is not new. The defense of many of the Nazi defendants on trial for war crimes in Nuremberg after World War II was similar to Lynndie England's. So was the defense of Adolf Eichmann, who was responsible for organizing transportation for Jews from all of Eastern Europe to the Nazi death camps. Similar defenses continue to this day in places like Bosnia and Rwanda where genocidal acts were committed. If students do not know about these events, the teacher may find it useful to bring them up for consideration in class discussion.


Organize a classroom debate on the following:

Resolved, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should resign or be fired from his position because of his responsibility for the abuse and torture of Afghan and Iraqi prisoners.


Write a well-organized essay on one of the following subjects:

  • "To refuse to call what took place in Abu its true name, torture, is...outrageous."
    Susan Sontag, "The Photographs Are Us," New York Times, 5/23/04
  • Most people will say they don't support torturing prisoners. But what if there were reason to believe that torturing a prisoner could produce information that would save many lives? Would you then support torture? Why or why not?
  • "...torture is torture. It permanently scars the victim even when there are no visible marks on the body, and it leaves other scars on the lives of those who perform it and on the life of the nation that allowed and encouraged it."
    Adam Hochschild, New York Times, 5/23/04

For further inquiry

Obedience to orders.

During the Civil War thousands of Union soldiers were held at a prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia and treated so inhumanely that many of them died. Saul Levitt's play, The Andersonville Trial, is about the 1865 trial of Andersonville's commander, Henry Wirz, and focuses on the following question: Did Wirz have a moral duty to disobey the orders of his superior, General Winder? Students might read this play and respond to that question in writing or in a presentation to the class. Similar assignments might focus on the Nuremburg trials or on the trial of Eichmann.

War Crimes.

An inquiry might pursue one or more of the following questions:

  • What is a "war crime"?
  • How is it defined in U.S. law?
  • Is that law relevant to the Afghan and Iraqi prisoner abuse and torture scandal?
  • Was the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War a war crime?
  • Who was held accountable and responsible for My Lai? How?
  • Who was not held accountable or responsible? Why not?

Other inquiries.

  • Why is the U.S. holding prisoners indefinitely without charge or access to lawyers at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba? What are the arguments pro and con for this kind of imprisonment?
  • What evidence is there that Saddam Hussein was associated with and supported Al Qaeda or any other international terrorists? What evidence is there for President Bush's assertion that Iraq is now "the central front in the war on terror"?
  • What are the origins of and reasons for the International Committee of the Red Cross?
  • What are the origins of and reasons for the Geneva Conventions?

Opportunities for student citizenship

  • Letters. Students might write letters expressing their views on the treatment of Afghan and Iraqi prisoners and what, if anything, should be done about this treatment. The letters could be sent to President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld, Senator Warner (chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee that is investigating what happened in Abu Ghraib) or to the students' own senators and representatives.
  • Investigatory Committee. Students might form an investigatory committee to learn as much as they can about U.S. treatment of prisoners. Students could consider the moral and ethical implications of prisoner abuse or torture for our country. The committee could also conduct a continuing study of the results of official investigations, determinations of responsibility, courts-martial, etc. It could prepare presentations for school assemblies and PTA meetings, promote similar studies and programs by students in other schools and create links with such groups for other activitiesófor example, visiting representatives and senators to make their views known and creating publications to distribute in their schools.

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: