See no Evil: Australia’s Involvement in Abu Ghraib

Iraq ten years on

Paper presented on 14th March at the

Iraq Ten years On: Intervention, Occupation and Beyond Conference,

Deakin University, Melbourne

14th-15th March, 2013

“Let me state very emphatically there is no moral equivalence between the regime of Saddam Hussein and the motives and the aspirations and the values and the conduct in war of the coalition led by the United States.”

Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard (2003)

If there is any image that encapsulates the failures of US led invasion of Iraq, it is the pictures of the twisted and tortured men of Abu Ghraib. An image of a man standing on a small box with a black shroud across his body, hood over his face and electrical cords attached to his fingers, has now become the typification of American torture and injustice. But what has been scarcely acknowledged, was the deep involvement of some Australian military personnel in the horrific events that took place within the prison walls. The events that followed the publication of the photos set off a chain of events that would have the Australian Government embroiled not only in the sanctioning and cover-up of torture, but also the culture of impunity that continues to exist when it comes to US torture. This paper discusses the extent of this involvement, and the legacy of Australia’s connection to Abu Ghraib and US torture, particularly in relation to the established culture of impunity, silence, cover-up and the lack of regard for human rights and the rule of law.


In the lead up to the Iraq war, Australian newspaper articles echoed politicians who used the threat of terrorism, and the torture perpetrated by Saddam Hussein on his own people as one of the central reasons for Australia’s involvement in the war. The US Department of Justice, and members of the Australian Government said that it was imperative that Saddam Hussein was stopped because he was an evil torturer- they even cited Amnesty International reports that documented the extent of torture in Iraq. Both Australian and US Governments’ now tend to steer clear of Amnesty’s reports.

It goes without saying that the atrocities perpetrated by Saddam Hussein’s regime were horrendous, nevertheless, it was the underlying statehood, and political alliance with the US that inevitably drew Australia into the conflict. Even though Former Prime Minister John Howard stated that the Iraq war was “directed towards the protection of the Australian national interest” (as cited in Riley & Wilkinson, 2003, para. 4) Iraq certainly had never posed a threat to Australian national security, and the Howard government had indeed never expressed a need to remove Saddam Hussein in the past in order to further human rights in the region. The involvement was undeniably, purely political.

So in 2003, Australia under the guise of the ANZUS treaty, invaded Iraq as part of the Coalition of the Willing (Gillespie, 2004). Australia was immediately involved in the capture and detention of those whom they deemed terror suspects, and the lack of accountability for the treatment of people detained was immediately established. Because of an arrangement with the US, the presence of one US military representative meant that the US was deemed the ‘Detaining Authority’, and therefore, Australian forces could negate any legal responsibility if the men or women who they had detained happened to be tortured, or die. This became an issue when in in April of 2003, 66 men who were detained by Australian SAS forces, were transferred to UK custody for handover to a US run prison. Whilst on transit one of the Iranian men died.

Now the key issue in this case highlights the already dubious legal situation that Australia had deliberately signed itself up for. When Iranian officials contacted the Australian Government to enquire about four of its detained citizens, the Australian Government denied any knowledge of their whereabouts and informed them that they were not the detaining authority. Documents released under Freedom of Information state that, the then Minister for Defence, Robert Hill informed then Chief of the Defence Force General Peter Cosgrove that any “public disclosure of the death may be damaging to the US and UK governments” (as cited in Public Interest Advocacy Centre, 2011a, p. 9). So the death went unreported, and paved the way for what the Australian Public Interest Advocacy Centre described as a policy of ‘unaccountability’. This formed the basis of many interactions that involved the US and Australia in the conflict, particularly in relation to Abu Ghraib.

Abu Ghraib

Australian forces were stationed at Camp Victory at the time that the torture and ill-treatment was occurring at Abu Ghraib. An International Committee of the Red Cross report (ICRC) raised concerns over the way that those detained were being treated. Although the full report has never been released publicly, some of the known torture methods included; sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, threats during interrogations, handcuffing to the upper bars of cells for hours on end, sensory bombardment in the form of loud music and twenty-four hour lighting, or sensory deprivation where the prisoners were kept in complete darkness.

Australian Major George O’Kane, was asked to respond to the ICRC on behalf of U.S. Brigadier-General Karpinski. Instead of taking the allegations seriously, and thoroughly investigating these serious claims made by the ICRC, O’Kane did not interview one prisoner. Instead, O’Kane held a meeting with the senior staff at the US run prison to discuss ways to respond to the allegations. In an interview later conducted by the Department of Defence, O’Kane expressed ambivalence as to whether the mistreatment of detainees was absolutely prohibited by stating, “they [the ICRC] call it ill-treatment, but we call it successful interrogation techniques” (Public Interest Advocacy Centre, 2011d, p. 7).

This sentiment was echoed in legal advice he prepared for the US Commanding Officer of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade in relation to whether the Interrogation Company’s intelligence gathering techniques complied with the Geneva Conventions (Public Interest Advocacy Centre, 2011c). Of note, is that it was this interrogation company that was at the centre of the torture that took place at Abu Ghraib. The techniques proposed included “sleep management, dietary manipulation and, possibly, sensory deprivation” which were already outlined in the U.S. Army Field Manual (as cited in Public Interest Advocacy Centre, 2011c, p. 9). O’Kane’s advice was that whilst the techniques did not categorically comply with the Geneva Conventions, they “substantially complied” (as cited in Public Interest Advocacy Centre, 2011c, p. 9).

Even more disturbing was O’Kane’s involvement in the hiding of detainees from the ICRC, as well as his knowledge of the existence of ghost prisoners. Under the Geneva Conventions, the ICRCs role is to ascertain the conditions of confinement and interrogation to ensure that the detaining authorities are complying with the laws of war. Documents subsequently released under Freedom of Information reveal that O’Kane was instructed to prevent the ICRC from visiting nine prisoners from cell-block 1A, because, “The ICRC visits were regarded as an inconvenience as they interrupted interrogations. O’Kane said, ‘if you break someone down, or persuade them to give up information you don’t need them drawing strength from an ICRC visit’.” (Public Interest Advocacy Centre, 2011b, p. 7)

In addition, O’Kane became aware that the US was detaining a man they dubbed ‘Detainee Triple X’, whose real name was Mr Rashul. We now know that Mr Rashul was detained in Iraq and rendered to Afghanistan for ‘interrogation’ by the CIA as a so-called high value detainee.  In 2003, O’Kane was shown a classified order provided by then US Commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez. The order detailed that ‘Detainee Triple X’ was not to be placed on a roster of detainee names and that he was not to be registered with the ICRC. Official documents note O’Kane states that he reported this to his US superior, Colonel Marc Warren and importantly to his Australian superior. He did this not because he was concerned about the significant breach of international law, or out of concern for the welfare of those detained, but because he feared that if this became public, it would embarrass the United States (Public Interest Advocacy Centre, 2011d).

The Australian government response

Instead of raising concerns with the US government over the unlawful detention, treatment and breaches of international law, Australia only raised ‘attention’ to the issue of Mr Rashul’s detention (Public Interest Advocacy Centre, 2011b). In addition, Australia as a matter of policy, has actively sought to avoid having to investigate any allegations of mistreatment by US led forces in Iraq, or anywhere for that matter. An email from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), released by PIAC through Freedom of Information stated that although former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer publicly stated to the media that DFAT would be willing to investigate particular cases of alleged human rights abuses carried out by US-led forces in Iraq that they “will need to get around this somehow.” (Doc 59, as cited in Public Interest Advocacy Centre, 2011b, p. 13)

O’Kane, and other Australian officials involved in the failure to thoroughly investigate US torture, have never been held to account, and in most cases been rewarded. Rather than taking seriously other members of the Australian Defence Force who raised concerns about the treatment of detainees, the former Howard government relied on the ‘glossed over’ reports from Major O’Kane that stated that prisoners were being held in conditions that complied with the Geneva Conventions (Senate foreign affairs, defence and trade legislation committee (shane carmody, department of defence), 2004). The Howard government went as far as protecting O’Kane from testifying before an Australian Senate committee, and a U.S. inquiry (Public Interest Advocacy Centre, 2011d). In a cable released by Wikileaks in 2006 after the deaths of three detainees in Guantanamo Bay, the US embassy in Canberra reports to Washington that “John Howard and his government have taken pains to defend our actions consistently, even if it costs them short term political points” (US Consulate Melbourne, 2006). This statement captures the lack of accountability and transparency around Australia’s involvement, and complicity, in US torture.

In the lead up to the war in Iraq, former Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer said that he did not want to be remembered for ‘turning his back on evil’ by allowing Suddam Hussein to continue to torture civilians (Downer, 2003). And yet, that was exactly what successive Australian Governments have done. The torture that took place in Abu Ghraib was touted as an anomaly, and a “misbehaviour” of some US troops by former Prime Minister John Howard (AAP, 2004, para. 9). In a response to the released photos, Howard not only belittled the experience of the men by saying that “far worse” had been done under Saddam Hussein, but immediately defended and indeed, credited the actions of the US by saying that they had admitted it was a problem and that those responsible had been court martialled (AAP, 2004, para. 5). In addition, it was also stated that the events had nothing to do with Australian forces.

Whilst the lower level US troops who directly participated in the torture at Abu Ghraib were brought before a court martial, those who ordered, oversaw and knew what was taking place remain unaccountable. Some have even been promoted. In February this year, Larry James a former Army psychologist who was involved in overseeing the interrogation of prisoners at both Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, is currently being considered for an executive director position at the College of Education at the University of Missouri. The American Psychological Association refuses to investigate complaints made about the former head of the Behavioural Science Division’s involvement. Jay Bybee, the author of the now notorious ‘torture memo’s’, and the man who wrote in legal immunity for acts that clearly amount to torture, is now a sitting US federal judge[1]. Disturbingly, he is ruling on cases involving the torture, cruel inhuman and degrading treatment of US prisoners. And John Yoo, who attempted to manipulate the definition of torture to support the Bush administrations torture program, and said it would be acceptable for the President to torture a child in the interests of national security, is now teaching law at Berkeley. General Geoffrey Miller, who sanctioned harsh interrogation techniques in Guantanamo, and exported them to Abu Ghraib, was promoted to Deputy Commanding General for Detainee Operations in Iraq. He received the distinguished service medal at the Pentagon Hall of Hero’s in 2006.

In the Australian context, Major O’Kane is now a Lieutenant Colonel in the Australian Defence Force. Not one Australian politician has been held to account for covering up the unlawful and inhumane treatment of the Iraqi people. Whistle-blowers have been punished, whilst those who lie and cover up abuses are rewarded.

The evidence of torture continues to be hidden from the public. President Obama has refused to release photos and interrogation films depicting the torture of men and women in US custody – this includes interrogations and torture of Australian citizens. The CIA has even admitted to destroying some of the tapes. The horrifying pictorial evidence viewed for the Taguba report, including tapes and pictures of women and children being raped, has remained classified. Whilst the UK is currently holding an investigation into the murder and torture of prisoners in Iraq committed by its troops during the war, Australia remains silent.


So, what legacy has this left for the Governments involved, the wider community, and the men and women who were subjected to torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.  And most importantly, what are the long term impacts of allowing those who order, sanction and cover-up torture to remain unaccountable?

The lack of respect for international law, and the culture of silence and cover-up have serious consequences for both the US and Australia, even though it may not seem so apparent at present. The moral standing of the US has declined immensely, not only in relation to torture, but also due to the lack of regard for human rights and the rule of law in countless other circumstances in the so-called ‘War on Terror’. The attitude that the Australian Government continues to take in relation to US torture has left an ugly stain on Australia’s human rights record, one that reflects poorly on its international standing. Indeed, the Australia and US alliance is only going to come under further scrutiny in light of the current geo-political shift in power. The selective application of international law by both countries has left a situation where serious human rights breaches are open to occur again. And, the further denigration of human rights protections in lieu of national security concerns has only served to further justify the treatment of those who are deemed as underserving of safeguards against ill-treatment.

More disturbingly, we have seen the establishment of a dominant culture that is more accepting of torture, both in Australia and the United States. Whilst torture is most prevalently described as a terrible act that warrants accountability, the level of abhorrence appears to be limited on the basis of whom the victim or survivor is, and indeed, the person or State who is accused of perpetrating the torture. Adverse reactions to torture have also been limited to the terminology used and the techniques employed, which has manifested in the general acceptance of what Rejali (2007) calls ‘clean’ torture techniques, that is techniques that leave no visible marks, such as forced standing and sleep deprivation. In addition, it has positioned and reinforced the dangerous notion that sees torture as a sliding scale of acceptability in circumstances where national security is at risk.

In the general community, this culture of impunity and silence has contributed to the marginalisation and vilification of those deemed terrorist suspects by successfully creating and maintaining an ‘us and them’ mentality, and in the process, assuming the public message that ‘torture is okay’ for those whom the powers-that-be deem as less than human (Frow, 2007). We are also in a dubious situation where the dominant narrative surrounding torture is either subtlety or overtly implying that torture works, and is necessary for the peace and security of States. The release of the film Zero Dark Thirty is recent example of the furtherance of this narrative.

Other countries have used the ‘War on Terror’ narrative as an excuse to treat their own citizens in a less than humane fashion, which is a logical result of powerful nations acting with impunity in relation to international human rights breaches. This includes Australia’s involvement. A recent report has named Australia as being one of 54 Government’s involved in the CIA extraordinary rendition program (Open Society Justice Initiative, 2013). The Australia Government’s knowledge of the torture of Australian citizens by the CIA and in Guantanamo Bay is now well documented, yet there has been selective acknowledgement of the atrocities committed against those detained.

It is vital to examine this issue whilst taking into account the long-term and wide-spread impacts of torture. Researches have long known the cancerous nature of torture; it spreads in ways we could never possibly imagine. It doesn’t end the day the torture stops. For example, we have seen the exportation of the same techniques used in Abu Ghraib to European police stations, and indeed US prisons (Vervaet, 2010). Research has established that torture techniques used in wartime have been exported into the domestic sphere, whether that be in relation to gender based violence or returned troops who then go on to work as police officers, or guards in prisons (Rejali, 2007; Sarson & MacDonald, 2009).

For all of these reasons, and in the interest of peace with justice, transparency and accountability around the events that took place at Abu Ghraib prison is essential to address the longer term and broader impacts of torture, as well as to curb the destructive legacy it has left for all involved. Accountability of this kind does not seek retribution. Rather, seeking accountability is a human action that encourages transparency, and invites another’s humanity to acknowledge the wrong that was done to a fellow human being. Due to the realities of the selective application of the rule of law, the legal framework does not always provide accountability and justice, even though it is an essential starting point. Principled leadership is needed on this issue, one that sees the mistakes of history as an opportunity to acknowledge and learn from; to right any wrongs, and to seek a peaceful resolution where injustice has occurred. This is essential in making progress towards a longer term peace and security strategy, and torture prevention.

It is unfortunately apparent that there has been little reflection as to the long-term implications of Australia’s involvement in US led torture, and even less regard shown for the survivors and victims. Inevitably it is they who are left with the worst possible legacy: they have been denigrated and violated in the worst possible way, to be tortured by another human being. And more painfully for the survivors, those in powerful positions, who were sent to supposedly protect and liberate, not only ordered it or allowed it to occur but attempted to cover it up. It appears then, to restore faith in Australia’s integrity, transparency, condemnation and accountability for all acts of violence perpetrated against the Iraqi people, no matter who perpetrated it, is essential. If the Australian Government continues to selectively see evil only in places where it is politically convenient, and continues to do nothing about it, the political and social legacy will continue to be toxic and destructive. Transparency and accountability are crucial in ensuring this will move in the right direction, and more importantly, fundamental in honouring the humanity of the victims and survivors.



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[1] Bybee recently oversaw a case where a US prisoner had alleged his treatment amounted to cruel and inhuman treatment. In Bybee’s ruling he stated that the guards did not have any reason to believe that contraband watch was unconstitutional. The man in question was subjected to 24 hour bright lighting, no mattress to sleep on, body cavity searches, waist chains which prevented him from using his hands to eat, and being placed in an unventilated and hot cell for a week.