Abu Ghraib Prison Torture: a Few Bad Apples or Long Standing Policy?

by John Spritzler
May 12, 2004



According to President Bush the torture at Abu Ghraib prison was carried out by a few "bad apples" and does not represent U.S. policy. But the history of the U.S. in the Middle East shows that torture there is longstanding U.S. government policy.

In 1953 the U.S. CIA and the British equivalent, M16, together engineered a coup against Iran's elected left-liberal leader, Dr. Mohammad Mussadeq, because he intended to use Iran's oil more for Iranians and less for U.S. and British oil company shareholders. The CIA installed Mohammad Reza Pahlevi as the "Shah-anShah" [King of Kings] on the Peacock Throne. Pahlevi was a man the British and American rulers trusted to serve Western investors and to carry out the intense political repression required to siphon the country's wealth to Iranian and foreign elites. The United States created the Shah's secret police, SAVAK, and it was trained primarily by Israel with British help.

"Over the years, SAVAK became a law unto itself, having legal authority to arrest and detain suspected persons indefinitely. SAVAK operated its own prisons in Tehran (the Komiteh and Evin facilities) and, many suspected, throughout the country as well. SAVAK's torture methods included electric shock, whipping, beating, inserting broken glass and pouring boiling water into the rectum, tying weights to the testicles, and the extraction of teeth and nails. Many of these activities were carried out without any institutional checks." [1]

Iranian scholar Reza Baraheni states that SAVAK's aim was to "spread a deep sense of fear, suspicion, disbelief and apathy throughout the country."

By 1978 there were huge demonstrations against the Shah that eventually led to his overthrow in 1979. On Friday, September 8, 1978 the Shah's soldiers killed as many as 900 civilians in one demonstration. Jimmy Carter called the Shah to assure him of U.S. support. At the same time, U.S. Ambassador William H. Sullivan worried that the Shah was getting cold feet, and complained that "the Shah's new directives to his security forces, such as instructions to desist from torture...are disorienting."

Henry Kissinger (whom George W. Bush asked to chair the 9/11 investigation) referred to the Shah as "that rarest of leaders, an unconditional ally" and called him "a pillar of stability in a turbulent and vital region." Kissinger also remarked, "The least we owe him [the Shah] is not retrospectively to vilify the actions that eight American Presidents -- including the present incumbent -- gratefully welcomed." At a ceremonial dinner honoring the Shah in 1973, Jimmy Carter described the Shah's regime as "an island of stability in a turbulent corner of the world." [2]

But as awful as SAVAK torture was, the deeds of Bill ("I feel your pain") Clinton and the United Nations were worse. While shedding rivers of crocodile tears for poor people, Clinton and the U.N. succeeded in killing a million innocent Iraqis. Clinton used the U.N. to impose sanctions on Iraq which, by banning imports of things innocent people needed to survive but which Saddam Hussein did not (like medicine and supplies required by the water treatment facilities), killed so many innocent Iraqis that Denis Halliday in October, 1998, resigned from the UN as its Assistant Secretary-General in protest of its sanctions on Iraq, saying: "However, with the embargo in Iraq, we have a United Nations whose decisions in the Security Council have led to the deaths of possibly more than one million people in ten years. Now that is a tragedy. And that begins to meet some of the definitions of the United Nations Convention on Genocide." [3]

That the sanctions were intended to kill civilians is proven by the fact that the U.S. military bombed the water treatment facilities after preparing documents that spelled out exactly what the consequences would be of destroying Iraq's water treatment plants: The primary document, "Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities," is dated January 22, 1991. It says, "Iraq depends on importing specialized equipment and some chemicals to purify its water supply, most of which is heavily mineralized and frequently brackish to saline...With no domestic sources of both water treatment replacement parts and some essential chemicals, Iraq will continue attempts to circumvent United Nations Sanctions to import these vital commodities. Failing to secure supplies will result in a shortage of pure drinking water for much of the population. This could lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease...Iraq's overall water treatment capability will suffer a slow decline, rather than a precipitous halt...Although Iraq is already experiencing a loss of water treatment capability, it probably will take at least six months (to June 1991) before the system is fully degraded." Another document, "Status of Disease at Refugee Camps," is dated May 1991. It says: "Cholera and measles have emerged at refugee camps. Further infectious diseases will spread due to inadequate water treatment and poor sanitation...The main causes of infectious diseases, particularly diarrhea, dysentery, and upper respiratory problems, are poor sanitation and unclean water. These diseases primarily afflict the old and young children." [4]

Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, "eight American Presidents" and Bill Clinton are hardly "a few bad apples." Torture and killing innocent people has been central to the methods used by U.S. and British rulers to subjugate the people of the Middle East. The biggest difference between the SAVAK and the Abu Ghraib torture is that photos of the latter showing American personnel as the perpetrators have been seen by the American public, so now the spin machine is engaged in over-drive. While the Abu Ghraib torture certainly is not due to just "a few bad apples," neither is it a reflection of the values held by most Americans. In fact, if the values of most Americans were to prevail in the United States as a result of a revolution, then the rotten and putrid apples with names like Kissinger and Carter and Clinton and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Bush would be thrown into the garbage can where they belong.


1. Federation of American Scientists

2. above quotes are from Behind the War on Terror by Nafeez Ahmed, pg. 39, where the primary sources are given.

3. CNN

4. The Progressive


Related articles by John Spritzler about the U.S. invasion of Iraq:



Abu Ghraib: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is NOT Us

John Spritzler is the author of The People As Enemy: The Leaders' Hidden Agenda In World War II, and a Research Scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health.


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