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The American Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

By Sam Provance
March 27, 2007

Editor’s Note: Former Army Sgt. Sam Provance was one of the heroes of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the only uniformed military intelligence officer at the Iraqi prison to testify about the abuses during the internal Army investigation. When he recognized that the Pentagon was scapegoating low-level personnel, he also gave an interview to ABC News.

For refusing to play along with the cover-up, Provance was punished and pushed out of the U.S. military. The Pentagon went forward with its plan to pin the blame for the sadistic treatment of Iraqi detainees on a handful of poorly trained MPs, not on the higher-ups who brought the lessons of “alternative interrogation techniques” from the Guatanamo Bay prison to Abu Ghraib.

The Congress, which was then controlled by the Republicans, promised a fuller investigation. Provance submitted a sworn statement. But Congress never followed through, leaving Provance hanging out to dry. Then, in February 2007, he went to a special screening of the documentary, “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” and learned more than he expected about why the scandal died:

For those of you who have not heard of me, I am Sam Provance. My career as an Army sergeant came to a premature end at age 32 after eight years of decorated service, because I refused to remain silent about Abu Ghraib, where I served for five months in 2004 at the height of the abuses.

A noncommissioned officer specializing in intelligence analysis, my job at Abu Ghraib was systems administrator (“the computer guy”). But I had the misfortune of being on the night shift, saw detainees dragged in for interrogation, heard the screams, and saw many of them dragged out. I was sent back to my parent unit in Germany shortly after the Army began the first of its many self-investigations.

In Germany, I had the surreal experience of being interrogated by one of the Army-General-Grand-Inquisitors, Major General George Fay, who showed himself singularly uninterested in what went on at Abu Ghraib.

I had to insist that he listen to my eyewitness account, whereupon he threatened punitive actions against me for not coming forward sooner and even tried to hold me personally responsible for the scandal itself.

The Army then demoted me, suspended my Top Secret clearance, and threatened me with ten years in a military prison if I asked for a court martial. I was even given a gag order, the only one I know to have been issued to those whom Gen. Fay interviewed.

But the fact that most Americans know nothing of what I saw at Abu Ghraib, and that my career became collateral damage, so to speak, has nothing to do with the gag order, which turned out to be the straw that broke this sergeant’s back.

After seeing first-hand that the investigation wasn't going to go anywhere and that no one else I knew from the intelligence community was being candid, I allowed myself to be interviewed by American and German journalists. Sadly, you would have had to know German to learn the details of what I had to say at that time about the abuses at Abu Ghraib.

Later, Republican Congressman Christopher Shays, who was then chair of the House Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats, and International Relations, invited me to testify on Feb. 14, 2006, so my sworn testimony is on the public record.  [See:]

On June 30, 2006, dissatisfied with the Pentagon’s non-responsiveness to requests for information on my situation, the Committee on Government Reform issued a subpoena requiring then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to produce the requested documents by July 14. I heard nothing further. I guess he forgot. I guess Congress forgot, too.

Thanks largely to a keen sense of justice and a good dose of courage on the part of pro bono lawyers and congressional aides, I made it through the next two and a half years of professional limbo, applying my computer skills to picking up trash and performing guard duty. Instead of a prison sentence, I was honorably discharged on Oct. 13, 2006 and began my still-continuing search for a place back in the civilian world.

Producers for Rory Kennedy’s documentary “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” were among the journalists who interviewed me—discreetly—in Germany.  On Feb. 12, 2007 I attended a screening of that documentary.  What happened there bears telling.

Surreal Event

Walking into the fancy government building to see the documentary proved to be a bizarre experience. Hardly in the door, I saw a one of the guests shaking his head, saying in some wonderment, “The young woman at the front desk greeted me with a cheerful smile; Abu Ghraib? she said. Right this way, please.”

The atmosphere did seem more appropriate for an art show than a documentary on torture. People were dressed to the nines, heartily laughing, and servers with white gloves were walking about with wine and hors d’oeuvres.

I managed to find one other person who was also in the film, former Gen. Janis Karpinski, with whom I shared the distinction of having been reduced in rank because we refused to “go along to get along.”

I had wanted to talk to her ever since the abuses at Abu Ghraib came to light. We’ve been on the same page from the beginning.  She seemed happy to meet me as well, but so many others wanted her attention that serious conversation was difficult.

Everyone shuffled into the theater and Gen. Karpinski’s and my presence there was announced briefly during the introductions. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that the showing was to be followed by a discussion led by Sen. Edward Kennedy (who was there from the start) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (who arrived only after the introductions).

It was largely because of the interest that Sen. Kennedy took in the Army’s retaliation against me that I escaped the Army’s full wrath for truth telling. And Sen. Graham initially had approached me when he heard of my situation, not even realizing at the time that I was from South Carolina. So I was looking forward to what I expected would be an unusual bipartisan challenge to the practice of torture.


When the lights dimmed and the documentary started, I began to be affected more emotionally than I had expected.

 It was the words of the other soldiers that touched me most deeply, because I could relate to them; I knew those soldiers on one level or another. I got worried I might not make it through the screening, that I would break down right there.

Ironically, it was my anger at their plight that kept me composed. Everything in the film was all too familiar to me. The soldiers explaining they were just following the orders of their supervisors; the higher-ups vigorously shifting blame from themselves onto soldiers of lesser rank—the whole nine yards.

And to see those Iraqi faces again—the broken hearts and ruined lives of innocent Iraqi citizens detained, abused, tortured. And the systematic cover-up, with the Army investigating itself over and over again, giving the appearance of a “thorough” investigation.

After the film, Senators Kennedy and Graham took seats on the stage to begin their discussion. I was shocked to see it descend into heated debate.

Sen. Graham began saying things that I couldn’t believe I was hearing. He made a complete 180-degree turn on the issue of torture from when I had spoken to him on the phone not long after the Abu Ghraib scandal was exposed.

Now he was portraying Abu Ghraib as a place where only a handful of soldiers resided (you’ve heard of them, the so-called “rotten apples).” I felt betrayed.

Worse still, the only officer Graham saw fit to criticize (he assumed in absentia) was Gen. Karpinski. And he laid it on thick, asserting forcefully that she should have been court-martialed because she was the reason things went awry.

The senator argued that Karpinski (who was responsible for overseeing 17 prisons with military police, most of whom had not been trained in detention operations) should have driven from her headquarters to Abu Ghraib for random middle-of-the-night checks. He then saw fit to contrast her behavior with what Graham described the due diligence he exercised nightly as an Army lawyer in checking the “dormitory.” (sic)

...and sick.  Anyone who knows much about Abu Ghraib knows that all kinds of Army brass lived and worked there, and that it was host to visits by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, U.S. pro-consul Paul Bremer, Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, Gen. Geoffrey Miller (in charge of “Gitmo-izing Abu Ghraib), Gen. Barbara Fast, and even National Security Council functionary Frances Townsend.

They were all there. I don’t know how many, if any, saw fit to check the “dormitory.”

Torture Works?

During the discussion/debate, Sen. Graham seemed to be speaking in support of virtually everything that we opposed – and that had been exposed in the documentary – throwing all reason out the window. He dropped a bombshell when he began defending the practice of torture itself, using the torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as an example. He cited the “good stuff” gleaned from treating him that way, as if to say, “it works!”

This raised again the question in my mind about just what kind of person professionally tortures somebody, and what kind of mentality would approve of it?  (I found myself almost wishing such people could hear the screams—almost, because I would not wish that on my worst enemy.)

The obvious answer is: Sadists. Which is what the administration called the military police in the infamous photographs. And what was seen in them was small stuff compared to what else happened—and continued to happen even after the abuses at Abu Ghraib were exposed.

Benjamin Thompson, a former U.S. Army specialist at Abu Ghraib, has told Reuters that exposure of the scandal “basically diverted everyone’s attention away from anything that was not in the photographs...  as long as we didn’t stack people and make pyramids, we were doing a great job.”

This reminds me of my wonderment at President George W. Bush’s public advocacy last fall of the “alternative” interrogation procedures in what clearly is one of his favorite CIA programs. Perhaps better than others I can imagine what has been tucked under the rubric of “alternative” techniques, the alleged success of which the President has advertised and has been picked up in the captive corporate media.

At one point Sen. Graham asked the audience who among us considered Army specialist Joe Darby a hero. Darby was the one who initially gave the Abu Ghraib photos to Army investigators. Pausing just a few seconds, Graham used the momentary silence as a cue to continue talking about how the American people really don’t care about torture.

For me, the worst part is that I have found this to be generally true. It is more convenient for people not to care. By and large, they are far more prepared to accept official explanations than to take the trouble to find out what is really going on. For, if they found out, their consciences might require them to do something about it. 

Sen. Graham’s demeanor was downright eerie in the way he chose to relate to the crowd…beaming with a kind of delight and mocking the outrage that he must have seen building.

This reminded me of my experience in Iraq, where I would hear soldiers discussing their abuse of detainees. It was always cast as a humorous thing, and each recounting won the expected—sometimes forced—laugh.

But now I am in Washington, I thought. Has everyone been bitten by the torture bug?  I was sickened to watch a senior senator and lawyer flippantly dismiss what happened at Abu Ghraib, and act as though he knew more about the abuses than the people, like me, who were there.

Sadly, Graham is not the first elected official who has become part of the problem rather than the solution.

Audience Unrest

Unrest was spreading in the audience to the point where some were threatened with ejection. People were yelling at Sen. Graham from all over the theater and for a moment I thought a riot might ensue.

But Sen. Kennedy’s response pierced the darkness with the white-hot light of truth.  Clearly, he was just as uncomfortable as most of the rest of us at what we had just witnessed, and he spoke in a straightforward way against what is just plain wrong.

For me, his comments came in the nick of time. I was beginning to feel not only betrayed, but a little crazy. Was this really happening? Later, I was happy to be able to shake Sen. Kennedy’s hand as he left the theater.

At the end, producer Rory Kennedy brought a portable microphone to Gen. Karpinski where she sat in the audience and, directing her attention back to the stage, explained to Sen. Graham that Karpinski was present and that it seemed only fair to give her a chance to comment on his remarks about her.

She rose and, in quiet but no uncertain terms, accused Graham and the general officers involved in Abu Ghraib of “cowardice.” Then she noted that as a South Carolinian she intended to work very hard to ensure that he would not be the senior senator beyond January 2009.

As to the merits of his charges against her, Gen. Karpinski revealed that she had actually pressed hard to be court-martialed and to appear before a jury of her peers, to get the whole truth up and out. She explained that the Army refused her request, presumably because a court martial might jeopardize the Pentagon’s attempt to restrict blame to the “few bad apples.”

Graham was initially taken somewhat aback, but he recovered quickly.  He offered no apology. Rather, he attempted to trivialize what had just happened with the jovial remark, “Well, I guess I lost your vote!” Smirk. Smirk.

Make that two votes.

Afterwards, it was back to high-society small talk and wine, while I looked for someone to really talk to. A reporter who has been covering the issue from the start sought me out and told me something that made me want to cry.

“You know we’ve talked over the years and I have followed your case, but I just want to tell you that I have found everything you’ve said to me all along to be true.”

For so long people have tried so hard to discredit either me or my testimony. Now the dust had settled for a moment; it was encouraging to know the truth can still stand tall.

I ended up hanging out with Janis Karpinski and later walking her to the Metro station.  I gave her a big hug and told her I’d always be her soldier. Then, as she went down the escalator I saluted her, and she returned my salute. 

“Thank you,” she said. “Anytime, General!” I replied. Anytime.

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