Disgust at New Abuse Photos
Members of Congress expressed disgust and shock Wednesday after they privately viewed hundreds of additional photographs of Iraqi prisoners abused by U.S. military personnel.
Among the new photos and videos shown to lawmakers in secure rooms on Capitol Hill were those of Iraqi women apparently forced to expose their breasts. Others showed unexplained dead Iraqis with U.S. soldiers smiling or flashing a thumb-up nearby, said House and Senate members who saw the images.
The private screenings of more than 1,600 classified images offered greater detail and suggested new abuses of prisoners but shed little light on the scope of the misconduct by American soldiers. One lawmaker said senators who asked for an explanation of the actions depicted were told by a Pentagon official who remained in the viewing room that the incidents were “under investigation.”
The screenings are likely to increase the controversy over whether the pictures should be made public -- a decision that lawmakers said rests with the Defense Department.
The photos, many confiscated from soldiers and part of criminal investigations underway in Iraq, were shown as congressional committees pressed the Bush administration to explain the system of U.S.-run detention facilities for Iraqis after revelations that prisoners had been abused and humiliated by guards.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he feared that making the pictures public could have the effect of “inspiring the enemy to inflict further damage” on U.S. soldiers or civilians.
Before senators viewed the photos, Warner went to the Senate floor to caution colleagues to choose their words carefully when they talked about them.
Lawmakers were given a written warning that if they described a photo in a way that revealed a subject’s identity they could be in violation of federal privacy laws.
Still, the reactions were raw.
“Hard on the stomach lining,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
“Disgusting,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.).
“Horrible,” added Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.).
Senators viewed the photos in a Capitol room used for intelligence briefings, while House members saw the images at the same time in the House Armed Services Committee room.
The photos were flashed on a screen at a rapid clip -- interspersed with images unrelated to prisoner abuse, including sex acts between male and female U.S. soldiers and shots of Baghdad, lawmakers said.
The pictures -- contained on 12 discs -- were brought to the Capitol in a locked bag and were to be returned to the Pentagon on Wednesday night because they were “evidentiary material” in the criminal investigation, Warner said.
Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) said that during the screening he turned to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and said, with disgust: “These people are not members of my Army.”
Many lawmakers said the graphic images were far worse than anything they had expected and would make it harder to repair the damage to U.S. credibility, especially in the Arab world. Some photos were so explicit that some senators left the room.
“It was beyond anything that I had anticipated,” Wyden said. “All I can tell you is that this means that it is so urgent that steps are taken to try to begin to repair the damage.”
“I saw things that made me sick,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose).
Members of Congress saw pictures of corpses, including a man whose face was “virtually gone,” as Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) described it.
Lawmakers said that Pentagon officials offered no explanation, including whether the deaths had occurred at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad or elsewhere.
In one photo, an unidentified young woman in a U.S. military uniform was crouched down “almost head to head” with a corpse and was “smiling,” Campbell said. Another photo showed a U.S. soldier flashing a thumbs-up next to a body bag.
One image depicted an Iraqi woman undressed to the waist, while another showed a woman lifting her shirt up. “They were not smiling, believe me,” Campbell said.
There were additional photos of prisoners enduring sexual humiliation, including naked inmates apparently forced to simulate oral sex or participate in group masturbation.
“It had nothing to do with trying to break them,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) “It was sadomasochistic sexual degradation.”
“Even more disturbing was a video of a man who seemed to be flailing himself against a door,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.). He said the man’s head was bloody.
“The nature of these photos is more inflammatory than the original photos,” Crowley said. They showed a “lack of supervision and the lack of oversight” at the prison.
Lawmakers said they could not determine from the images how widespread the abuse was or how many soldiers were involved.
Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) said that after watching the photo presentation for 40 minutes, “no one can convince me, knowing the situation as I do, that this is all about seven reservists from Maryland,” referring to the U.S. soldiers charged so far in the abuse scandal. “It’s about more than that.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she thought the public had seen enough of the photos to get a sense of the abuse. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said he worried that making the pictures public might compromise the criminal investigation and prosecution. “We’re at war,” he said. “I don’t want to do anything that might even marginally increase the risk to our troops in the battlefield.”
But Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) disagreed: “The best thing to do would be to get them out and get this behind us.” And Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) said he feared that withholding the photos from the public would cause greater speculation and thoughts of conspiracy.
“I believe the pictures should be released for the sake of openness and transparency,” Johnson said. “The pictures are graphic and horrendous but do not plow new ground.”
The photos that have been published and broadcast have set off an international furor, tarnishing the U.S. image in the Arab world, angering members of Congress -- including Republicans, who were upset they learned about the misconduct from the media, rather than the Pentagon -- and leading to calls from some Democrats for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld said during congressional testimony last week that some of the unreleased images of physical violence toward prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison show “acts that can only be described as blatantly sadistic, cruel and inhuman.”
Feinstein said it was clear to her that there was “not a strong chain of command in place, and the Geneva Convention was winked at. Somebody gave the order that prisoners had to be softened up, and someone came up with this idea of doing it in this disgusting way.”
Times staff writers Janet Hook and Richard A. Serrano contributed to this report.