Cover Story "We were supposed to humiliate them"

Interview with US Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick on torture at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison.


Since the images of torture at Abu Ghraib became public, you have had a lot of time, while detained in Baghdad, to think about your actions. Today, how do you view what you did - as a disgrace for America?

Frederick: I am very upset and depressed about what happened. I'm not a sadist. My family and my friends will attest to that. I was always proud to be defending America. In doing so, I made a lot of sacrifices in the past twenty years, especially since the attacks of September 11. I have always served my country well, even in Iraq - until we were transferred to Abu Ghraib and things got out of control.

SPIEGEL: What was the prison like when you arrived there in October 2003?

Frederick: As soon as I walked into that place the first time, I knew it was a nightmare. There was dirt everywhere, the toilets didn't work, and it stank. The food was terrible. The chicken wasn't cooked properly. It was still raw. We worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week. And we only had five soldiers for 1,000 prisoners. We had no place to unload our stress. Morale was generally miserable.

SPIEGEL: What kinds of guidelines applied to your job during the night shift? Who gave you your commands and instructions?

Frederick: I didn't even know who was really in charge. I knew that Captain Donald Reese was theoretically the company commander and that Brigadier General Janis Karpinski was in charge of all operations at Abu Ghraib. But in reality, the battalion wanted you to do one thing, while the company wanted you to do something completely different, and the intelligence services had their own ideas altogether. It was total chaos.

SPIEGEL: That's not an excuse for abusing prisoners.

Frederick: You're right, but on my very first tour, when they showed me cell block 1-A, I saw naked prisoners with their hands tied to the door. Sleep deprivation, withholding food, humiliating prisoners - those things were already routine at Abu Ghraib before I was transferred there.

SPIEGEL: You are also a prison guard in your civilian life, so that you're someone who should know about the proper treatment of prisoners. Why didn't you talk to your superiors about these practices?

Frederick: On the very first day, I asked a sergeant in military police company 372 why the prisoners were being treated that way. His answer was: That's the way the intelligence services do it. I heard a number of people say: "We don't waste a lot of time with them here. If they don't cooperate, we deal with them."

SPIEGEL: You keep talking about everyone else, but you did play along, after all. Who started the torture? Were you following orders, or did the situation simply escalate?

Frederick: Both. They would say: "Let the dogs loose on these prisoners! Try to get more information out of them. Take away their food, their clothing. Humiliate them!"

SPIEGEL: You stacked naked prisoners into a pyramid and abused them. Was that your idea, or were you also just following orders?

Frederick: There was a riot uprising at Abu Ghraib. A prisoner had injured a female American soldier in the face with a rock. They brought him and the other ones who were involved to our section, the "tough section," as a punishment. First we searched them. Then we made them undress and forced them to build that pyramid - and then everything got out of hand. One of the methods was to humiliate them, so that they would break down and talk, and I...I just wanted (he begins to cry) to humiliate them. And so I made them masturbate. I didn't want to commit a crime, I just wanted to humiliate them. But I am guilty of that.

SPIEGEL: Didn't you realize, at that moment, that what you were doing was wrong?

Frederick: I had mixed feelings at the time. Today I know I was wrong. On the one hand, I was filled with rage for this prisoner who had injured a female soldier. And they had told me to "humiliate them!" On the other hand, no one explained to us exactly how we were supposed to do that.

SPIEGEL: Why didn't you object? Didn't you have clear guidelines?

Frederick: I had guidelines at the prison in Buckingham, Virginia, where I worked as a civilian. But there were no guidelines at Abu Ghraib. No one gave me any instructions on the military principles for treatment of prisoners.

SPIEGEL: You could have invoked the Geneva Conventions.

Frederick: I didn't know anything about the Geneva Conventions. No one told me about them when I was in training. I just recently tried to find out about the Conventions on the internet. In addition, the intelligence people were constantly praising us. They would just say: "Keep up the good work."

SPIEGEL: Was that in reference to the abuse?

Frederick: The intelligence service simply imposed no limits. They wanted concrete results, and they didn't care how they were achieved.

SPIEGEL: What do expect from your trial?

Frederick: First of all, I want to apologize to the victims and their families. And I will take responsibility for my actions during the trial. But I also hope that others will follow my example and assume their share of the responsibility. It's clear that more people are responsible for what happened in Abu Ghraib, and many of them haven't even been charged yet.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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