March 18, 2008
Photographer wanted to expose 'what the military was allowing to happen'
Some of the most iconic images of the Iraq war came not from photojournalists on the front lines, but US soldiers carrying point-and-shoot digital cameras. In its latest issue, the New Yorker profiles the woman who snapped many of the photos depicting abuse at Abu Ghraib prison that the same magazine revealed nearly four years ago.
Like many of the soldiers in charge of the detained Iraqis at Abu Ghraib, Sabrina Harman had little experience running a prison. As Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris report, she and others in her Army Reserve unit didn't stick out at the prison, "where almost nothing was run according to military doctrine."
The low-ranking reservist soldiers who took and appeared in the infamous images were singled out for opprobrium and punishment; they were represented, in government reports, in the press, and before courts-martial, as rogues who acted out of depravity. Yet the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was de facto United States policy. The authorization of torture and the decriminalization of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of captives in wartime have been among the defining legacies of the current Administration; and the rules of interrogation that produced the abuses documented on the M.I. [Military Intelligence] block in the fall of 2003 were the direct expression of the hostility toward international law and military doctrine that was found in the White House, the Vice-President's office, and at the highest levels of the Justice and Defense Departments.
The article, which appears in the March 24 issue of the New Yorker, has not been posted online, but the magazine has posted additional photos and videos to augment the report.
Gourevitch and Morris trace Harman's evolving reactions to the horrors she witnesses -- "ricocheting from childish mockery to casual swagger to sympathy to cruelty to titillation to self-justification to self-doubt to outrage to identification to despair" -- through interviews and excerpts she sent home from the prison. In one October 2003 letter to Kelly, the woman Harman called her wife, the young MP writes what could now be seen as a grim foreshadow to the war in which American soldiers are still fighting and dying.
"These people will be our future terrorist," she writes one night after witnessing interrogators poking one detainees genitals with a stick and handcuffing another to his top bunk. "Kelly, its (sic) awful and you know how fucked I am in the head. Both sides of me think its (sic) wrong. I thought I could handle anything. I was wrong."
Harman and other soldiers told of taking prisoners' blankets and leaving them naked in bare cells while temperatures dipped near freezing. The New Yorker writers relay witness accounts of bones being found inside Abu Ghraib incinerators and prisoners being submerged in ice-filled trash cans.
She also told of women and children being held at the prison, according to the magazine.
The youngest prisoner on the tier was just ten years old -- "a little kid," she said. "He could have fith through the bars, he was so little." Like a number of the other kids and of the woman there, he was being held as a pawn in the military's effort to caputre or break his father. ...
She didn't like seeing children in prison "for no reason, just because of who your father was," but she didn't dwell on that.
The photos, Harman said, were intended to "expose what was being allowed ... what the military was allowing to happen to other people."
One of the most iconic images from Abu Ghraib is actually among the most innocuous, Harman tells the magazine. It shows a hooded prisoner wearing a prison blanket with arms outstretched and attached to wires. The wires were not live, so there was no danger of electrocution for the prisoner, known as Gilligan to the soldiers guarding him.
Subsequent investigations revealed that Gilligan was not who the Army's Criminal Investigative Division thought he was -- he was simply an innocent cab driver. His interrogators appeared to have little regard for how he was treated before that information came to light, though, Gourevitch and Morris report.
Staff Sergeant Chip Frederick later told Army investigators that the asked the C.I.D. man -- whom he identified as Agent Romero -- about Gilligan, and that Romero said, "I don't give a fuck what you do to him, just don't kill them."
Another of Harman's photos shows her smiling and giving a thumbs-up gesture next to the body of a dead Iraqi man, a suspected insurgent named Manadel al-Jamadi, wrapped in ice. Harman was told the man died of a heart attack, but a subsequent autopsy revealed he died of "blunt force injuries" and "compromised respiration," presumably at the hands of a CIA interrogator.
After the photos were made public, Harman and several of her fellow low-ranking reservists faced courts martial and were punished with reductions in rank and bad-conduct discharges. Only one person ranked above staff-sergeant faced charges, but was acquitted of criminal wrongdoing. No one has ever been charged with abuses that were not photographed, and charges against Harman related to her al-Jamadi photographs were thrown out (the CIA interrogator never faced charges, either).
Harman became increasingly unnerved by what she witnessed, and said she would simply try to forget whatever had happened the day before with each new morning. She was asked how the other MPs could participate in the abuses without similar reservations.
"They're more patriotic," is all she could say.