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Alcohol Cited as Problem at Prison

Times Staff Writer

Weeks before U.S. military investigators began uncovering evidence of mistreatment of detainees, commanders at the Abu Ghraib prison launched a crackdown on alcohol abuse and told intelligence troops that guards were suspected of soliciting sex from Iraqi prostitutes, according to soldiers and officers who worked at the compound.

Commanders at the prison outside Baghdad launched a series of measures to stem the illegal behavior, the soldiers said, including inspecting troops’ living quarters for stashes of liquor and banishing Iraqi vendors who were suspected of helping to procure alcohol and make arrangements for soldiers to visit prostitutes.

The steps were part of an attempt by senior officers at Abu Ghraib to impose order on a facility that had spun out of control. Officers who worked at the prison said the measures were imposed in late December and early January, after the reported abuses of detainees but shortly before military investigators received a computer disc containing photos of prisoner abuse that became public in April.

Some officers believe that alcohol may have been a factor in the behavior of guards who have been charged with beating prisoners, stripping them naked, forcing them to masturbate and stacking them in pyramid-shaped piles on the prison floor. At least one prisoner has told investigators that he frequently smelled alcohol on the guards’ breath in the cellblock where most of the abuses occurred.

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In a report on his investigation this year into abuses at the prison, Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba cited at least two cases of military police officers being disciplined for drinking alcohol against Army rules. The incident took place in May 2003, before the U.S. was using Abu Ghraib as a detention facility.

Five military intelligence soldiers who worked at the prison said they learned of the crackdown during an impromptu meeting with an irate Lt. Col. Steven L. Jordan, one of the senior officers at the prison and the leader of the interrogation operation. In telephone and e-mail interviews, the soldiers said that Jordan told them he had recently learned of an outbreak of alcohol abuse and that members of MP units on base had been seeking sex with Iraqi prostitutes. The soldiers said Jordan warned that he intended to put a stop to the illegal behavior.

Spc. Israel Rivera, an Army analyst at Abu Ghraib at the time, said Jordan “came in one evening and said, ‘There’s a prostitution ring and a liquor smuggling ring.... I’m going to pursue it and I hope there’s no military intelligence people involved.”

Another soldier who was at the meeting, Spc. Paul Son, said Jordan lectured the assembled troops that it was “absolutely unacceptable and a definite ‘no-go’ for anybody to be taking sexual advantage of and forcing desperate Iraqi women to prostitution. He said that as American soldiers we were sent to Iraq to do good and not exploit poor Iraqis that are trying to survive.”

Other soldiers offered similar accounts of the meeting and the ensuing sweep. All said they did not have firsthand knowledge of the alleged solicitation of prostitution by soldiers at Abu Ghraib but said that alcohol abuse was evident in the compound from early on in its use as a U.S.-run detention facility.

Several members of military police units assigned to Abu Ghraib disputed the prostitution claims, saying they saw no evidence of such behavior during their time there. They acknowledged that alcohol use was a recurring problem. Several soldiers said there were numerous warnings about alcohol -- possession of which was prohibited by General Order No. 1 issued by U.S. Central Command -- and that there was even an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter at Abu Ghraib.

Under the general order, no U.S. Army soldier may possess alcohol while in Iraq, a ban that stems from the military’s desire to keep troops ready for action as well as an interest in abiding by anti-alcohol sensibilities in Muslim countries.

“Prostitution? Absolutely none. Never even heard anything about that at all,” said Master Sgt. Greg Rayburn, a medic with the 870th Military Police Company, which is based in Pittsburg, Calif., and was stationed at Abu Ghraib from September 2003 until this April. “Drinking, yes,” Rayburn said. “There was drinking that was going on.”

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Jordan, who remains in Iraq and is among the senior officers at the center of the prisoner abuse investigation, did not respond to e-mail requests for comment.

Despite the denials, there are indications that prostitution may have been an issue at the prison. Among them is a cryptic note taken by a military investigator during an interview with an MP at Abu Ghraib, Cpl. Matthew Bolinger. A copy of the note was obtained by The Times.

In the note, the investigator wrote that Bolinger said he had seen computer images of one of the MPs having sex with an unidentified woman. The MP is identified as Cpl. Charles A. Graner Jr., a guard who has been portrayed as a ringleader of the abuses and now faces a court-martial.

According to the note, Bolinger “observed Garner [sic] having sex with female in video.” The next two lines read, “possible in cell” and “possible prostitute.”

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Bolinger, who is still serving in Iraq, said via e-mail that he could not comment on the matter, citing orders not to talk to the media.

Other soldiers familiar with the photos have said that they include images of Graner having sex with Pfc. Lynndie England, another MP who has been charged in the abuse case. England is now pregnant with Graner’s child, and is at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina.

The disclosures regarding alleged problems with alcohol and prostitution add to the portrait of Abu Ghraib as a prison beset by breakdowns in leadership, and where many of the most serious abuses had a sexual theme.

Capt. Leo Merck was relieved of his command of the 870th MP Company at Abu Ghraib after he was caught taking pictures of his nude female soldiers while they showered.

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Three soldiers with the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion from Ft. Bragg were fined and demoted last fall after they were accused of taking a female Iraqi detainee into a vacant cell and ordering her to strip.

Soldiers and an officer who were working at the prison at the time said they believed the accused soldiers had been drinking.

Soldiers and officers said much of the liquor was supplied by Iraqi civilians who entered the compound almost daily and were subjected to cursory inspections.

Dozens of Iraqi laborers worked on construction projects at the prison, and vendors sold wares such as prayer rugs and Iraqi military patches collected by U.S. troops.

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“I remember one soldier telling me he gave a [vendor] a 20 and he brought him back a bottle of alcohol,” said Sgt. Samuel J. Provance III, who worked as an intelligence analyst at Abu Ghraib.

The vendors also would try to curry favor with officers by offering liquor.

“They would try to bring it to you as a gift,” said Lt. Antoine Brooks of the 870th MP Company, who added that he never accepted such offers and knew of no officers who did. He also said that vendors sometimes suggested they could line up prostitutes.

“They would say: ‘I’m going to get you a woman. You need a woman. You’ve been away from home too long,’ ” he said. Brooks said the Iraqis who said such things “were just joking” and that he knew of no incidents involving prostitutes at Abu Ghraib.

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No members of Brooks’ company have been charged with prisoner abuse.

Provance said an Iraqi laundry service came once a week to collect uniforms and that he was told that “soldiers were meeting or arranging sex with employees” of that service, away from the prison grounds.

When Jordan delivered his lecture, suspicion also centered on an Iraqi named Ali who lived with the MPs in their compound and had been allowed to set up a cafe of sorts where he played American music and served Iraqi food to soldiers at the prison. MPs said Ali frequently left the base to buy blankets and other items for soldiers but never brought anything illegal into the prison.

Ali and others were banished from the prison by Col. Thomas M. Pappas, the commander of the facility, as part of the crackdown that Jordan announced to his troops.

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In that crackdown, Criminal Investigation Division agents set up so-called “amnesty bins” into which soldiers could dump alcohol and other contraband and avoid being punished. Commanders also launched “health and welfare” inspections, scouring soldiers’ living quarters for illegal items. Officers who took part in the searches said that some alcohol was confiscated and that several soldiers were disciplined.

Weeks later, when officers at the site were confronted with pictures showing abuse of prisoners, some wondered whether alcohol had played a part. A military intelligence lieutenant colonel from a National Guard unit who worked at the prison and asked not to be identified said that the MPs appeared to be drunk and that the atmosphere on the cellblock was “like a fraternity party.”

But others are skeptical that alcohol was a factor, saying that though soldiers were sometimes caught drinking off-hours, they were unaware of any instances in which the guards were drinking during their shifts.

Brooks declined to speculate on whether alcohol played a role. That would be “an excuse,” he said. “I’m not going to make excuses.”

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Times staff writers Richard A. Serrano and Rone Tempest contributed to this report.


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