Few incidents have done more damage to America’s image in the world than the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. In late April 2004, Americans got their first glimpse of the haunting photographs of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad: scenes of naked, humiliated prisoners piled on top of one another, some forced to assume sexual positions, all while American soldiers posed nearby, smiling at the camera. The photos provoked an instant outcry around the world. In addressing the scandal, President Bush insisted that it was the fault of a few dishonorable soldiers, not a systematic problem with how the U.S. was managing the war in Iraq — but investigations suggest that the blame likely rises higher up the military’s chain of command. Some senior officials, such as General Janis Karpinski, who was in charge of military prisons in Iraq, were reprimanded and suspended. But the blame mainly fell on low-level soldiers, who were convicted and sent to prison for participating in sexual abuse, beatings, and other brutal acts.
Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said news of the abuse “stunned him.” But a military report by Major General Antonio Taguba found that the prison was overcrowded, undermanned, and short of resources, making accountability for prisoner treatment rare. Taguba also noted in 2004 that the Central Intelligence Agency had serious concerns about the kinds of interrogation techniques military forces used on detainees. But Taguba wasn’t permitted to delve much deeper; an article in The New Yorker in 2007 reported that military investigators were not allowed to look into the role of Rumsfeld and other Department of Defense officials. What is known is that the Pentagon found out about the existence of the photos in January 2004 and Taguba filed his report in March. President Bush knew about the abuses at Abu Ghraib at least by March, but he did not address the issue until the media publicized it in late April. Congress found out about the abuse the same day the American public did. “This is entirely unacceptable,” said Senator Richard Lugar, a Republican of Indiana and then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. The scandal, Lugar added, “pushed international resentment and distrust of the United States to levels unprecedented in recent times.” The biggest failure, according to watchdogs: the lack of accountability for military officials who failed to stop or prevent the abuses. The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment, but has previously stated that the administration and the military acted quickly “to hold people to account and bring them to justice, and to also take steps to prevent something like that from happening again.”
The Iraqi government assumed control of Abu Ghraib in 2006. Questions of U.S. military interrogation techniques and prisoner treatment, however, remain a major concern. In October 2008, The Washington Post reported that the Bush administration issued two secret memos to the Central Intelligence Agency in 2003 and 2004 that endorsed interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, which simulates drowning. The memos remain classified.