The Washington Post
It was before Saddam’s capture. I think it was November 2003. I remember I was out in the countryside in Ramadi, and I was working on a story about how the American military was arresting relatives of suspected insurgents as a way of pressuring [them]. And about the repercussions this was having on the fabric of villages there. And it had huge repercussions. It created vendettas that I don’t think the American military understood they were creating.
Anyway, as far as reporting, Iraqis were telling me just fantastic stories about abuse that I just kind of shook my head and blew them off. But I remember one guy was being so detailed about this stuff that I think I even wrote it down in my notebook — because it was remarkable and maybe the detail made me think: maybe there is something here. Like all of us, I didn’t follow up.
The Times Everyone I knew from the British press had heard stories of beatings, and fairly severe. People would show us the scars of handcuffs on their hands, whatever, the bruised backs, and I don’t think we pursued them nearly as rigorously as we should have. I think it’s very difficult to prove who’s beaten somebody.
The thing was, it was an extremely violent place, Baghdad. People were getting killed every day, beaten up in the street. I mean I saw somebody being dragged out of his car and stabbed by carjackers. It was really difficult to pin anything down in those months after the war. There was so much, people telling incredible stories. It was very difficult to find out any sort of accountability, responsibility. If you went and spoke to a soldier, he’d say one thing, and if you spoke to the Iraqi police, they’d say another. And it was difficult to get any hard evidence. I think this is a classic case of the power of images, and it came from the Americans themselves in the end. Seymour Hersh wrote a story [in April 2004] that basically came from those [Abu Ghraib] pictures, and that was the first proof that we had. But it was very difficult — you couldn’t get into the camps. People would show you a bruise on their back and say, “American did this.” So it was very difficult to come down hard on that story. But I think that also we didn’t investigate enough because there was so much stuff happening at the time, that we didn’t delve into it enough.
Well, I didn’t ask people about how they were being treated in Abu Ghraib before the big Abu Ghraib story came out, which is probably the biggest single story of the war since the government fell. And in a way I’m glad I hadn’t been approached with those stories; I’m not sure I would have believed them if I had heard them before I’d seen the proof, because it seems so outrageous — American soldiers making prisoners get naked and pile on top of each other and simulate sex acts. But after that happened, yes, I was a lot more on the lookout for those kinds of things.
If you went to the hospital in Fallujah in the fall of 2003, they would tell you about bodies coming from Abu Ghraib with signs of torture. And you heard a lot about the torture. The Eighty-second Airborne had a camp called “The Farm” — Iraqis called it “The Farm” — and the Iraqis talked about being arrested and being, you know, all the stuff that Captain [Ian] Fishback talked about [Fishback was a captain in the Eighty-second Airborne who protested to his superiors about the harsh treatment of detainees]. Fishback talks about guys, cooks with baseball bats being pissed off and breaking prisoners’ legs, right? And the Iraqis, in Fallujah they were talking about this.
I didn’t realize the extent of — I had doubts about it. How do you prove it until you find someone who’s been tortured? How do you do it until you see the body? And how do you know that body came from there? All you could do was write an interview with an Iraqi that said this happened, but is that enough? I don’t think that’s enough to get published in an American paper.