The Making of a Mob

William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail: warkin@

Last Sept. 20 at 9:54 p.m., two rebel mortar shells landed inside the Abu Ghraib prison walls, killing Army Sgt. David T. Friedrich and Spc. Lunsford B. Brown II. The two soldiers were assigned to the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, one of the units involved in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.

Neither Friedrich nor Brown has been implicated in the current scandal in any way. But their deaths, and the events surrounding them, may help us understand the context in which the breakdown occurred. Both men were in “intelligence,” a word that evokes a shadowy, romanticized game of wits and derring-do, played by highly trained agents with methods, knowledge and resources beyond the ken of ordinary citizens.

But that’s not Friedrich and Brown. They were not highly trained special agents. They were not Iraq specialists. They were not veteran interrogators. Instead, they were, like most of the men and women in today’s Army, average soldiers pretty good at their jobs, but also very small cogs in a very large machine. To keep the machine functioning, the cogs need clear orders, rules, discipline and leadership.


Thirty years ago, when I joined Army intelligence, it was routine to take a ribbing about military intelligence being an oxymoron. Most of us were Friedrichs and Browns. But mixed among us were more than a few cowboys and fantasists, James Bond wannabes in love with the secrecy and the power. More than once in my three years in Cold War West Berlin, these types got into trouble, breaking rules, compromising operations, even flirting -- or worse -- with the Soviet or East European intelligence services. What kept it all going were clear rules, solid training and the elaborate customs and hierarchy of military discipline.

That was in a cold war: Hot war is dirtier. The process of outsmarting your opponent, controlling his territory, overrunning his objectives, shooting and being shot at, and taking human life is so stressful and potentially dehumanizing that clearly understood rules are even more crucial. When policies become muddled, when leaders fail or falter, when discipline breaks down, then the door is opened to disaster.

Friedrich and Brown arrived in Iraq about the same time last year. Friedrich, 26, was an Army reservist from Connecticut who enlisted in the summer of 1999. Brown, 27, was on active duty, a patriotic young American who joined the Army on Sept. 13, 2001. They both went to Iraq in early 2003, Friedrich as part of the New England-based 325th Military Intelligence Battalion, which prior to the war had been operating with a skeleton crew. In Iraq, the 325th was soon overloaded with assignments, spread out across the country from Basra in the south to the Turkish border in the northeast. Some of the reservists pulled into the unit hadn’t worked in intelligence for years.

In mid-September, elements of Friedrich’s unit, Bravo Company, were given responsibility for the interrogation facility at Abu Ghraib. The unit was wholly unprepared for the job, and so it was supplemented by 29 civilian contractors -- nine interrogators, 10 screeners and 10 analysts and report writers.

Meanwhile, as attacks on coalition troops escalated, more pressure was put on interrogators and others at the prison to get “actionable intelligence” from prisoners. And the prison itself had been under attack since July 2003. On Aug. 16, five detainees were killed and 67 were injured in a mortar strike. On Aug. 27, Army Sgt. Gregory A. Belanger, 24, became the first soldier in the 325th Battalion to die, when his convoy was attacked. Another soldier in the 325th said later that, when a suspect was brought in who was believed to have fashioned the homemade bomb that killed Belanger, interrogation for the first time “was personal.”

By Nov. 19, the pressure to get information from prisoners had grown so intense that Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top field commander in Iraq, gave military intelligence complete authority over the Abu Ghraib prison. Col. Thomas M. Pappas, commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, was directed to move his headquarters to the prison.


What would explode out of such a pressure cooker was all too predictable. Testifying before Congress last week, Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, one of the few heroes in this escapade, identified what led to the egregious acts of violence at the prison: “Failure in leadership, lack of discipline; no training whatsoever; and no supervision.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross in its confidential report in February went a step further. Abuses at Abu Ghraib during October 2003, the report said, “appeared to be part of the standard operating procedures by military intelligence personnel to obtain confessions and extract information.”

Those two statements about sum it up, and they are not contradictory. In the context of what was going on in Iraq last fall, a muddled, leaderless, unsupervised, high-pressure environment at Abu Ghraib led military policemen and their intelligence brethren to turn into a mob.

Now, it is simple to say that the only way to restore honor to the service in which Friedrich and Brown died is to conduct a wholesale housecleaning. And heads should certainly roll.

But as the tumbrels clatter on, let us also keep something else clear in our minds: that we, represented by the American fighting men and women stuck in the muddled and hopeless endeavor of Iraq, are in way over our heads.