Complete Guide to the Abu Ghraib Photos and Torture Scandal

Origins, History, Facts, Debates, Outcomes and Photo Galleries.

Since it exploded on the world scene with the broadcast in 2004 of photographs of abuse and torture of inmates by U.S. soldiers and contractors, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal has mutated into several incarnations, some of them redeeming, most of them not: the scandal revealed a systemic failure of leadership, tactics and strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan. It discredited American credibility abroad and shattered Bush administration conceits at home. Now it's miring the Obama administration in a messy debate over whether to release more pictures. Here's a complete, updated guide to the multi-faceted issue.

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What Are the Abu Ghraib Prison Photos and How Many Are There?

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Sabrina Harman stands behind a pile of stripped Iraqi inmates forced, inhumanly, to make a "human pyramid and pose for pictures., one of a series of sexually humiliating methods of abuse used to degrade prisoners. U.S. Army / Criminal Investigation Command (CID)

It was long known, as told by Donald Rumsfeld, that the photographic record of abuse and torture images was larger than those disclosed in 2005. A court case instigated by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2004 led a federal district court to order the government to release all photographic and video evidence of inmate abuse and torture. The Appeals Court for the Second Circuit upheld the decision in September 2008. President Obama is resisting their release.

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What Was the Chain of Responsibility for Abuse and Torture at Abu Ghraib?

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Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush's defense secretary, thought America had "too soft an underbelly.". Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As a Senate Armed Services Committee inquiry concluded in December 2008, "The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of 'a few bad apples' acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority."

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Testimonies of Torture: Former Abu Ghraib Inmates Speak in their Own Words

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Hooding, according to a February 2004 Red Cross report on abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib, was used frequently to prevent prisoners from seeing or to disorient them, or to breathe freely. Hooding was sometimes used with beatings and forced standing. U.S. Army / Criminal Investigation Command (CID)

the Army's Criminal Investigation Command took sworn statements from many individuals formerly imprisoned at Abu Ghraib prison. The most relevant testimonies are reproduced here, reflecting the the former inmates' original syntax and wording as rendered by military translators. The testimonies lend detailed, graphic explanations and some context for the scenes depicted in photographs of abuse and torture.

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Torture Photos From Abu Ghraib and Elsewhere: Pros and Cons of Disclosure

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One of the many iconic photographs of the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal: Lynndie England forcing an inmate to crawl and bark like a dog on a leash. U.S. Army / Criminal Investigation Command (CID)

Should the Abu Ghraib images have been released? The question is pertinent even five years later, as the record of Abu Ghraib photographs is still incomplete. The Pentagon suppresses many additional photographs and videos that purportedly show more grave and degrading situations, including the rape and sodomy of inmates by American servicemen. Strong arguments are being made by proponents of disclosure. Less convincing arguments are being made by proponents of secrecy.

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Barack Obama's Abu Ghraib Photos Fli-Flop: Recycling Bush

An Abu Ghraib prisoner is covered in mud and what appears to be feces. U.S. Army / Criminal Investigation Command (CID)

Reckoning with history is an American specialty. It's what enabled this country to own up to past atrocities, emerging stronger and better for it. Sanitizing history is the first rule of un-free nations. When government represses its own sinister past and gets away with it, the damage to a nation's character is more lasting than any terrorist act. Obama doesn't need the reminder. Yet his reversal on releasing remaining Abu Ghraib photos is Obama's most cynical decision to date, especially as he brandished for an excuse the emotionally potent but false pretense of soldiers' safety.

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Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and Donald Rumsfeld

Manadel al-Jamadi
Sabrina Harman posing vulgarly next to the brutalized and bloody corpse of Manadel al-Jamadi, an Iraqi tortured to death by American Navy SEALS, members of the CIA and the US military at three locations, including Abu Ghraib prison, where he died. U.S. Army / Criminal Investigation Command (CID)

A Senate Armed Services Committee report explicitly rejects the Bush administration’s contention that tough interrogation methods have helped keep the country and its troops safe. The report also rejected previous claims by Donald Rumsfeld and others that Defense Department policies played no role in the the harsh treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 and in other incidents of abuse.

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Review: "The Dark Side," by Jane Mayer

jane mayer the dark side

Jane Mayer traces the ideological origins of the Bush administration's torture memos and Abu Ghraib scandals in riveting investigative detail and with the storytelling skills of an accomplished novelist. She shows how a few men--George Bush, Dick Cheney, a handful of lawyers--subverted the nation's laws and established a regime of torture, secret prisons and illegal detention to prosecute their "war on terror." The book provides invaluable context to the debate over torture.

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Glossary: Abu Ghraib

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The notoriously brutal Abu Ghraib prison was originally built in 1970 to satisfy the sadism of Saddam Hussein's regime then used to brutal purposes by the American occupation. Instead of demolishing it, Iraq renovated it in 2009. Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images

Brief explanation and history of the notorious prison built in 1970 by Saddam Hussein, its many mutations down to the present, and the city that surrounds it and gage it is name.

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Readers Respond: Protecting Soldiers or Suppressing Evidence?

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An Iraqi inmate at Abu Ghraib prison terrorized by dogs. U.S. Army / Criminal Investigation Command (CID)

In May 2009 Barack Obama announced that he would order the release of all remaining torture photos out of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. The decision wasn't his, but was compelled by a court case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. A few weeks later Obama reversed himself, claiming that releasing the photos would harm American soldiers in the field. But is Obama protecting soldiers or suppressing evidence with his flip-flop? Is he sanitizing the Bush years? Is he worried that releasing the photos would make evidence for a truth commission, which he's resisting, too powerful to ignore? You be the judge.

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Background and Further Reading: Bibliographical Sources on Abu Ghraib

Lynndie England
Lynndie England humiliating a naked inmate at Abu Ghraib prison. The hooded man is Hayder Sabbar Abd, a 34-year-old Shiite from southern Iraq who was never charged and never interrogated in months of detention. U.S. Army / Criminal Investigation Command (CID)

These sources were consulted to document and write about all materials relating to the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal and other matters relating to the treatment and mistreatment of inmates and detainees in the Bush and Obama administrations' prosecution of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Bush administration's "war on terror." The bibliography is also a helpful starting point for those interested in further reading. Where possible, documents are linked to their original web link in full.