Published on Saturday, May 15, 2004 by the Boulder Daily Camera (Colorado)
Abuses in Iraq and Brooklyn
by Christopher Brauchli
One picture is worth a thousand words.
It's hardly the president's fault. As he himself has said, he doesn't read newspapers. He relies on his staff to tell him what's going on.
The Pentagon was in possession of the Taguba report detailing the abuse of Iraqis in the Abu Ghraib prison in February. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, White House officials told a reporter that: "the abuse of Iraqi prisoners sparked so much concern that President Bush was told about an investigation during the winter holidays." It didn't spoil his Christmas. It didn't even seem to have made an impression. Pictures make more of an impression on Mr. Bush than do words.
At a press conference following the pictures' release, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the president was as surprised as everyone else by the report's findings. He explained that the president hadn't seen the pictures until they were published and wasn't aware of the Pentagon's internal report completed in February until the preceding week.
To assuage the bruised feelings of the Arab world, Mr. Bush appeared on assorted television stations around the world making reassuring comments. Among other things he said that the action portrayed in the photos "does not represent the America that I know. Our citizens in America are appalled by what they saw, just like people in the Middle East are appalled. We share the same deep concerns. And we will find the truth, we will fully investigate." Were he a reader of newspapers he might have run across a story about a lawsuit that was filed only days before news of Iraqi prisoner mistreatment surfaced.
Javaid Iqbal, a Pakistani immigrant, and Ehab Elmaghraby, an Egyptian immigrant, filed a lawsuit on May 3 in which they described the conditions of their incarceration in the Brooklyn Detention Center following 9/11. A reader would have been forgiven for thinking the prison described was in Iraq and not in Brooklyn. The two men were picked up shortly after 9/11 and held for 2 1/2 years while John Ashcroft tried to figure out if they were terrorists. They weren't. Mr. Iqbal pled guilty to having false papers and bogus checks and Mr. Elmaghraby pled guilty to credit card fraud. Both men were deported.
The civil complaint alleges that the men were held in solitary confinement 23 hours a day in the maximum-security unit of the Brooklyn Federal Detention Center, were slammed into walls, dragged across the floor in shackles, manacled, kicked and punched until they bled, cursed at, called "Muslim bastards" and subject to body cavity searches. Mr. Elmaghraby alleges that a flashlight was inserted into his rectum, causing him to bleed. He was forced to walk naked in front of one of the guard's female co-workers. During part of his confinement Mr. Elmaghraby was given no blankets, mattress or toilet paper and placed in a tiny cell lighted 24 hours a day. Mr. Iqbal said on rainy cold days he was left outdoors without shoes or jacket and upon being returned wet to his cell the air conditioning was turned on.
A civil complaint is nothing more than allegations. This detention center, however, was cited by the Justice Department's inspector general in 2003 for physical abuse of its denizens. He issued two reports harshly critical of the center. He described a pattern of mistreatment and obtained videotapes showing officers brutalizing inmates, many of whom were 9/11 suspects who were never charged.
One of the guards targeted in the suit is Raymond Cotton, who was a key figure in a Brooklyn Detention Center scandal some years earlier. Describing Mr. Cotton, Stephen Grogan, the lead federal investigator at the time, said of Mr. Cotton: [T]his guy was involved in criminal activity and should no longer have been an employee of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. All of that evidence was turned over to them. They should have taken administrative action, and if they had, maybe Cotton would not be involved in this current complaint." They didn't and in the complaint he is described as one of the principal actors who brutalized the two men. Mr. Ashcroft has decided not to prosecute anyone involved in the earlier scandal notwithstanding the inspector general's report.
Speaking to the Arab nations about the prisoner abuse, Mr. Bush said: "It's a matter that reflects badly on my country." He was thinking of Iraq. He would have referred to Brooklyn as well, had the inspector general or the lawyers in the more recent case given him pictures.
Christopher Brauchli is a Boulder lawyer and and writes a weekly column for the Knight Ridder news service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2004, The Daily Camera