Robo-Tripping at Abu Ghraib

Adapted from Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War (Carroll & Graf)

One fall morning in 2003, Sam Provance was wandering around a building complex, the 519th/325th Logistical Support Area of Abu Ghraib, and found himself alone in a small room. Part of the area had been blown out -- in some kind of mortar explosion, apparently. "There were brains splattered across the wall. The wall was red -- a really old, dark, dried-blood red. There were pieces of matter in it," he says, sitting at a table in the Hartley Inn Restaurant in Carmichaels, Pennsylvania, more than three years after the incident. "I was like, 'Oh, my God, where am I?'"

At 32, Provance has blond hair, blue eyes, and a slightly dated Goth look with a black, lace-up tunic-style shirt and "Harley Davidson boots," as he describes them. A former student at Holmes Bible College in Greenville, South Carolina, Provance is now an avid reader of the late Anton Szandor LaVey, author of The Satanic Bible. Like many whistleblowers, Provance is unconventional.

He belongs to a small group of individuals who alerted the world to the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib and in U.S.-run detention facilities in Iraq. From September 2003 to February 2004, Provance says he saw how detainees were mistreated at Abu Ghraib: A 16-year-old boy, for example, was hooded, shackled, and interrogated not because he knew anything about the insurgency but because it would upset an Iraqi general, Hamid Zabar, who was his father. Provance also heard about beatings and assaults of other detainees. He reported the abuses, but he says no one aggressively pursued the leads. Out of frustration, he agreed to appear on ABC's World News Tonight with Peter Jennings on May 18, 2004.

Three days later, Provance was reprimanded, he told lawmakers on Capitol Hill at a briefing, "Protecting National Security Whistleblowers in the Post-9/11 Era," for the House Committee on Government Reform on February 14, 2006. "There were all sorts of intimidating acts against him," says Scott Horton, a human-rights lawyer who met with Provance in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2004. "His commander wanted to court-martial him."

Timeline of a Scandal

Provance is not the only Abu Ghraib whistleblower. Specialist Joseph M. Darby handed over a CD containing the photographs to a military investigator at the prison sometime in late December 2003 or early January 2004. He received a Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation in Boston on May 16, 2005, for his actions. A military investigation was begun after Darby turned in the photos, and the images appeared on network television on April 28, 2004. Soldiers implicated faced courts-martial and, in some cases sentencing, as early as May 2004.

And in October 2005 Captain Ian Fishback, a West Point graduate, told members of Congress that soldiers abused Iraqi prisoners between September 2003 and April 2004 at Camp Mercury, a detention facility near Fallujah. Fishback was named a 2006 Time magazine person of the year.

Provance has not received the attention of Darby and Fishback -- though he has much to tell. He was honorably discharged on October 13, 2006, and came home to Pennsylvania. He took with him mementos from Abu Ghraib -- dozens of jpegs, diary entries, unexpurgated sworn statements obtained for the military investigations, and 18 homemade films. Segments from one of the films, entitled The Shanksters Reloaded, appear in a PBS Frontline program, "The Torture Question."

Dozens more of the films and photos have never been seen by the public. Nor has Provance spoken with the media, or anyone, really, at length about the incidents he saw at the prison -- until now. The individuals he describes who were involved in the acts of alleged abuse constitute only a small percentage of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib. Yet I have chosen to write about them because their parties and sexual antics were not unusual. Nor were their actions condemned. In this way, the soldiers were part of a semi-lawless culture at the prison that may have contributed to the climate of abuse.

Provance sent me a computer disc of the films and photos while he was living in Heidelberg, and I brought along the CD, stuffed into a Priority Mail envelope marked with his APO return address, mailed on July 29, 2006, to the Hartley Inn. It was there he used the films and photographs to re-create for me the world of military police that existed at Abu Ghraib and invited me to look inside the prison walls.

"The place was just haunted," he recalls. "There was noise coming from places where there weren't supposed to be people. You'd be like, 'Was that real? Was that a ghost?'" Late afternoon sun streams through the windows of the restaurant, and particles of dust swirl in the air. "The hair on the back of my neck would stand." He reaches back and touches the top of his spine. "The darkness would descend on you. At night you would not go down the hallway by yourself because you knew something was there, and it was pissed off."

"My boys are going to get you."

In early October, several weeks after Major General Geoffrey D. Miller, U.S. Army commander of the Joint Task Force Guantanamo visited the prison, boxes of electronic equipment were shipped to the prison. "Computers started coming in, and they just never stopped coming," says Provance. "Brand-new, state-of-the-art desktops, laptops. But there were still no lights in the guardhouse. It was crazy. It was like, 'Oh, my God. What do you expect from us?'"

Approximately 20 civilian and military members of interrogation teams, including several individuals who had been stationed at Guantanamo, also arrived. "Big Gitmo implants," Provance calls them. "They were a lot more aggressive," he says. Many had served in the military. But now they were paid between $50,000 and $120,000 a year. "These guys were torn to pieces by the women," says Provance. "You see soldiers all around you, and then you see this brash civilian who comes in with a goatee, a Harley Davidson T-shirt and jeans, and the women are going to tear his clothes off."

One civilian interrogator, a tall, dark-haired man who wore black sunglasses, was put in charge of a group of soldiers.(For legal reasons, I will not use his name.) Provance knew the soldiers from Heidelberg, where they had all lived together in the same army barracks in 2003. The new soldiers were assigned to the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, which was in charge of interrogations under the command of Colonel Thomas M. Pappas. They attended two-day training courses to learn how to conduct interrogations in a conference room where Pappas held daily briefings. They were not eager students. (Provance has described four soldiers and provided me names and photographs. However, some of these men are still in the army, most likely in Iraq, and efforts to reach them were not successful. For that reason, I will refer to them as Soldiers D, G, H, and W).

"[Soldier G] would fall asleep," Provance explains. "I'd walk over there, and I'd see him just slumped down like this." Provance sinks his body into the chair and closes his eyes.

Pappas eventually assigned the soldiers a new role: Military Intelligence Security, or "Guard Force," according to an October 2003 Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center Organization chart. The civilian interrogator, Provance claims, "was telling them what to do."

When the detainees refused to cooperate, Soldier W claimed, as Provance recalls, the civilian interrogator would call them over to intimidate the detainees. "They were his muscle. He'd say, 'Oh, you don't want to tell me that? My boys are going to get you.'" Provance snaps his fingers. "And dude gets a punch in the face."

Just Like a Movie

Seventy to ninety percent of the detainees at Abu Ghraib, according to an October 2003 International Committee of the Red Cross report and sworn statements made by members of the 470th Military Intelligence Group, the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion, and the 304th Military Intelligence Battalion, were arrested by mistake or had no intelligence value.

Provance met one of the prisoners who seemed to be there for the wrong reason. "They got him to the point where he was naked, shivering, and covered in mud and then showed him to his father. That's what broke [General Zabar] down after a 14-hour interrogation," says Provance. "He said, 'I'll tell you anything.'"

"It struck me as morally reprehensible," Provance says.

In November, he says, he overheard a conversation in the dining hall at Camp Victory. One soldier told his friends at a cafeteria table how detainees were being treated in Abu Ghraib. "They would hit the detainees as practice shots…The detainees would plead for mercy," according to Provance's sworn statement in Major General Antonio Taguba's March 2004 report on military abuse, "Article 15-6 Investigation of the 800th Military Police Brigade."

"The whole table was howling with laughing," Provance tells me.

"They'd talk about their experience when the detainees were being humiliated and abused," says Provance. "It was always a joke story. It was like, 'Ha, ha. It was hilarious. You had to be there.' It would be funny if it were in a movie -- in a spoof like Naked Gun 2 ½."

He puts his chin in his hand and looks across the room. "You see these Iraqi people. It's hard to imagine they're human," he says. "They're just the stock detainee. Like a movie prop."

Provance and I move to another table at the Hartley Inn, and I put the CD in the MacBook on the table and start by clicking through several of his digital photos. In one picture that Provance obtained from an anonymous source, the civilian interrogator, who is wearing a bandana, is questioning a detainee with the help of female interpreter dressed in an army-fatigue jacket marked with a badge, "U.S. Contractor." She is holding a cigarette and a drink as if she were at a nightclub. The detainee is a heavy-set, dark-skinned man squatting backwards on two, flimsy plastic chairs.

"He looks scared," says Provance to me. Then he looks at the civilian interrogator in the photo.

"That's just his dark side," says Provance. "Mr. Cool Interrogator. He's wearing one of those black fleece coats. They were premium at the time. The only people who had them were officers, females, or civilians."

Females? I ask.

"The guys they were sleeping with would give them one," he explains.

Like an engagement ring, I tell him.

He laughs. "I tell you what -- people fell in love really quick out there."

"These girls -- they'd enjoy this lavish attention," he adds. "But once they've indulged, it would all backfire, and they'd find their reputations in the gutter."

"The jealousy is horrendous," he says. "Every guy is walking around with a hard dick and is like, 'Pleased to meet you, I'm Joe.'"

He pretends to expose himself.

"Before a girl can even get to work, 20 guys slap her in the face with their dick. It's sexual harassment. But it's so rampant, she has to get used to it. A girl in the army is going to have a reputation of being either a slut or a bitch -- depending upon whether she sleeps with them or not. A guy hears about how she gave another guy a blow job, and he wants a share. It creates a lot of tension. You see things written in the Porta-John: 'Queen for a Year.' Or 'Enjoy it now, bitch.'"

A Surreal Combat Zone

Provance's friends converted a cell into a party room with fluorescent lighting, narrow cots, and a strip of yellow flypaper hanging from the ceiling. Plywood is nailed onto the wall, covering the barred window and the door. GNC Lean Shake containers are stored on a shelf.

Here, the soldiers danced at night and shouted out lyrics from OutKast's "Hey Ya! (Shake It Like a Polaroid)." In one video, two men are swaying back and forth in front of the camera. Much has been reported on the criminal behavior of soldiers at Abu Ghraib. But until now few -- if any -- detailed, documented accounts of sexual relations among soldiers and between soldiers and female prisoners have appeared in the press. Sexual relations between guards and prisoners, even when consensual, are against military and prison regulations.

A former Abu Ghraib guard, Ivan L. ("Chip") Frederick II, said he heard that "people in the Hard Site [an area of the prison], Tier 1A were pimping the females out for a dollar," according to a November 3, 2004, sworn statement. Meanwhile, Soldier G used to shave his pubic hair and leave piles of it in a canteen cup in a public space. "He was trying to be all Mr. Pimp Sexy," Provance explains.

Frederick described a November 2003 incident in a shower with a female detainee who was about 18 years old. She "reached over and stuck her hand down my pants and touched my penis," he said. She "let me put my hand down her pants. I put my hand down her pants and barely touched her vagina," he said. "She tried to get me to hug and kiss her, but I wouldn't so we left the shower."

An intelligence officer, Lt. Col. Steven L. Jordan, provided a sworn statement at Camp Doha, Kuwait, on February 24, 2004, that was included in the Taguba Report. In an un-redacted version (a military source who asked to remain anonymous gave it to me), he talked about a female detainee who gave birth at Abu Ghraib. Her name is included in the document, but it has not been previously disclosed to the public. In December 2003, Frederick said he saw her with an American soldier -- not Jordan. "She kissed him on the mouth," Frederick said, "and he kissed her back."

Meanwhile, Provance claims soldiers stocked up on sticky, eight-ounce bottles of Robitussin by the caseload from a drugstore's website. They chased it down with two tablets of Vivarin: "Robo-tripping." It's like LSD (I've been told) -- except more jangly.

One video, "Booty Crook Ben," is apparently inspired by a Mystikal song, "Pussy Crook," that plays softly in the background. In "Booty Crook," Soldier H is sleeping on an army cot in the dark cell. Soldier W stands next to him and pretends to masturbate. He climbs on top of him and humps him furiously. In another video, a soldier climbs on top of a woman with a pony tail and thrusts his hips up and down. Eventually, the screen goes black. "It's depression, isolation, boredom," Provance says, trying to explain the speedy mating rituals at Abu Ghraib. "Girls were looking for security. For men, it's just a buildup of desire. You really get down to instincts and the danger of it."

He cracks his knuckles.

In another video, soldiers pound their fists into a black backpack resting on two piled-up mattresses on the floor. The sound track for the video is by rapper Lil' Jon of the East Side Boyz. Brutal rap music with misogynistic lyrics provides the sound track for several videos. It would show a misreading of the situation at Abu Ghraib, however, to say Mystikal lyrics compelled the soldiers to participate in the alleged abuses. In fact, it seems to work the other way around. As men who are drawn to violence, or the simulation of it, they chose to listen to music that expresses and celebrates those impulses.

In an opening scene of another video, "The Shanksters," filmed on November 3, 2003, a soldier is wearing tight shorts and a beige T-shirt. He has muscular legs and thighs, strong arms, and short, cropped hair, and he is pulling apart a collapsible wire chair with a swatch of fabric attached to it. Within seconds, the chair is transformed into a human dummy.

Soldier W stabs the dummy with a six-inch knife. "Through his tit!" another soldier calls out. In another video, one of the soldiers addresses a dummy -- again, it is the collapsible chair. "Nobody can hear you scream now," the soldier says. A 2003 OutKast song, "The Love Below," comes on, and Andre Benjamin (aka Andre 3000) croons like Frank Sinatra as soldiers slash other human dummies with knives. "That's some good cuttin' music right there, boy," says one of the soldiers.

Provance is holding a silver dinner knife as he watches the film, and he uses it to identify the soldiers on the screen. The afternoon light is fading, and he puts the knife on the table. Across the street, the electronic time and temperature displayed in front of the First Federal Savings Greene County Bank flicker between "4:47" and "64 degrees."

"When I came back here, I got 21 questions. People were trying to tell me they know more about Abu Ghraib than I do. I'm like, 'You work at Value City.' One of them -- well, she was like, 'There are people who want to get on with their lives and, there are people like you who want to keep bringing this shit up.'"

"I'm like, it's not just Abu Ghraib. It wasn't just a few bad apples or an outbreak of sadism. It was policy. Those MPs thought what they were doing was acceptable. So acceptable that they would use them as wallpaper for their laptops. It wasn't just mischievousness. A kid goes over there and busts glass out -- " he points to the First Federal Savings across the street -- "and he's not going to take a picture of himself doing it and mail it to his parents."

"Generals were shooting at the feet of the interrogators and telling them to dance," he says. "But for all eternity, the only thing people are going to say is, 'Oh, it was that one little girl.'"

He is describing Lynndie R. England, the soldier who became the symbol of criminal wrongdoing at Abu Ghraib. There were individuals higher in the chain of command who were responsible for the abuse, he says, but they were not punished. His descriptions of women in the army may sound sexist. But similar observations could be made of the male soldiers -- at least in his version. The soldiers were objectified as "muscle" and got lavish attention (boxes of fancy computers); they indulged themselves (beating detainees and treating it as a joke); and found their reputations in the gutter (some are serving time).

It looks like a rave party on the computer screen.. The lights flicker in the dark prison cell and create a mesmerizing neon glow. "I always tell people Abu Ghraib was Apocalypse Now meets The Shining," Provance says. He puts his elbows on the table and stares at the light display. "A surrealist combat zone with the horror and haunting of The Shining."

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