CBS Broadcasts Photos of Abused and Tortured Prisoners at Abu Ghraib Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The CBS news program 60 Minutes II broadcast photographs of U.S. soldiers abusing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. U.S. officials characterized the abuse as the isolated acts of renegade soldiers. Later evidence showed that “enhanced interrogation techniques” had been approved at the highest levels of the U.S. government, leading many to believe that prisoner abuse was common U.S. military practice. Also, critics claim that U.S. officials knew about and tried to cover up the abuse months before the photos were made public.

Summary of Event

Abu Ghraib is an infamous prison near Baghdad, Iraq. It was first used as a torture chamber and execution site during Saddam Hussein, Saddam Hussein’s rule of Iraq. After Hussein’s regime was toppled by the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the prison was transformed into a U.S. military detention facility. Soldiers from the U.S. Army’s Military Police (MP) Corps abused Iraqi prisoners there, photographed their acts of torture and humiliation, and created an international scandal. The abuse came to light on April 28, 2004, when the CBS television news program 60 Minutes II aired a story about the prison’s cellblock 1A. [kw]Abu Ghraib, CBS Broadcasts Photos of Abused and Tortured Prisoners at (Apr. 28, 2004) 60 Minutes[sixty minutes];Abu Ghraib prison Abu Ghraib prison Iraq War Torture;Abu Ghraib prison Sanchez, Ricardo Taguba, Antonio 60 Minutes[sixty minutes];Abu Ghraib prison Abu Ghraib prison Iraq War Torture;Abu Ghraib prison Sanchez, Ricardo Taguba, Antonio [g]Middle East;Apr. 28, 2004: CBS Broadcasts Photos of Abused and Tortured Prisoners at Abu Ghraib[03400] [g]Iraq;Apr. 28, 2004: CBS Broadcasts Photos of Abused and Tortured Prisoners at Abu Ghraib[03400] [c]Communications and media;Apr. 28, 2004: CBS Broadcasts Photos of Abused and Tortured Prisoners at Abu Ghraib[03400] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Apr. 28, 2004: CBS Broadcasts Photos of Abused and Tortured Prisoners at Abu Ghraib[03400] [c]Human rights;Apr. 28, 2004: CBS Broadcasts Photos of Abused and Tortured Prisoners at Abu Ghraib[03400] [c]Military;Apr. 28, 2004: CBS Broadcasts Photos of Abused and Tortured Prisoners at Abu Ghraib[03400] [c]Violence;Apr. 28, 2004: CBS Broadcasts Photos of Abused and Tortured Prisoners at Abu Ghraib[03400] [c]Government;Apr. 28, 2004: CBS Broadcasts Photos of Abused and Tortured Prisoners at Abu Ghraib[03400] [c]Publishing and journalism;Apr. 28, 2004: CBS Broadcasts Photos of Abused and Tortured Prisoners at Abu Ghraib[03400] Karpinski, Janis Schlesinger, James Rumsfeld, Donald

Abu Ghraib prison inmates gather outside their cells for traditional Friday prayers in May, 2004. U.S. military tents and guard towers dominate the prison landscape at the facility near Baghdad, Iraq.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The 60 Minutes II broadcast featured photographs of prisoners who were hooded and stacked in human pyramids; in positions of simulated sexual acts; chained into distorted positions; wearing women’s underwear on their heads; leashed; hooded and forced to balance on a box while attached to “electrodes”; and cowering under near-attack by a dog. The photos often include U.S. soldiers smiling and flashing gestures of approval as they posed alongside the prisoners being abused. MPs Charles Graner and Sabrina Harmon, both at the rank of specialist, were shown in photos smiling and flashing an approving “thumbs up” gesture near the bruised face of a dead man on ice in a body bag. The man, Manadel al-Jamadi, died during interrogation by the U.S. Central Intelligence Central Intelligence Agency, U.S.;and Iraq[Iraq] Agency (CIA) on November 4, 2003. Although a U.S. military autopsy established his death as a homicide, no one was charged with that death.

The compelling and troubling images, however, distinguished Abu Ghraib from other allegations of mistreatment of prisoners by U.S. troops and the CIA in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay Guantanamo Bay, Cuba;Guantanamo Bay Cuba. The Abu Ghraib photos made more real the earlier claims of U.S. military abuse by military watchdog groups and human rights organizations. The photos began their journey to the public eye when a horrified MP stumbled upon them and notified the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division of their existence on January 13, 2004.

The military had already been warned of inhumane treatment at Abu Ghraib, before the CBS broadcast in April, 2004. Internal documents show several MPs were being investigated for prisoner abuse already in late 2003. The Associated Press reported on the abuse and investigations in October, 2003. The mistreatment also came to the attention of the International Committee of the Red Cross, International Red Cross (ICRC), which sent a team of investigators to cellblock 1A in mid-October, 2003. The team reported its findings to American officials through a confidential report, issued in February, 2004. The ICRC alleged violations of international humanitarian law that included beatings with hard objects such as firearms, placing prisoners in stress positions for hours at a time, prolonged exposure to extreme heat or cold, and sleep and sensory deprivation.

After receiving the photos from CID, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, ordered Major General Antonio Taguba on January 19 to conduct a secret internal investigation. Taguba’s March 9 report concluded that between October and December, 2003, “numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” were inflicted on prisoners and that the abuse was “systematic and illegal” and “intentionally perpetrated” by MPs.

Former Iraqi prisoners of Abu Ghraib were transported from the prison by the U.S. military after their release from detention in January, 2004. Many had been abused and tortured by U.S. military personnel in a scandal that would come to light less than four months after this photograph was taken.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The photos of abused and tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib dominated the world media. Furthermore, both the ICRC Report and the Taguba Report had been leaked to the media in May. In the United States, the Senate opened hearings into the matter. Investigations also were implemented by the Pentagon and the Department of Defense (DOD). James Schlesinger, former defense secretary, chaired the DOD panel; its report was issued on August 24. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Schlesinger announced that although there had been evidence of “failures of leadership” at Abu Ghraib and beyond, through the chain of command, the responsibility for the serious mistreatment rested primarily with the MPs on duty at the prison. In a press conference the day the report was released, Schlesinger elaborated the DOD panel’s findings: “There was sadism on the night shift at Abu Ghraib, sadism that was certainly not authorized. It was kind of [like the popular teen film] Animal House on the night shift.” He added that no top military or government officials bore any direct responsibility, and that “the injunction from the top was to ensure ’humane treatment’ of detainees.” Furthermore, the DOD panel found “no policy that encouraged or justified abuse.”

The soldiers directly involved in the abuse were charged, tried, convicted, and sentenced by military courts-martial for acts that included assault, battery, conspiracy, and maltreatment of detainees. Graner was sentenced to ten years in prison, Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick received eight years, and Private Lynndie England received three years. Eight other soldiers received lesser punishments, including imprisonment and administrative penalties such as demotion, discharge, or both. Two officers were reprimanded as well. Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the commander of Abu Ghraib prison and other detention facilities in Iraq, was removed from that post and demoted to colonel. The commander of the military intelligence brigade, Colonel Thomas Pappas, was fined and removed from his command.


The Abu Ghraib scandal, which became the centerpiece in the debate about fighting the global war against terrorism, provoked inquiries into how prisoners are treated during wartime. Confidential memos were leaked to the press as questions began to mount. One memo, a telling U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) memo from August, 2002, and addressed to White House counsel, surfaced in June, 2004. John Yoo of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) at the DOJ, who wrote the memo, interpreted the 1994 federal statute that ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture United Nations;Convention Against Torture and applied it in the “context of the conduct of interrogations outside the United States.” Yoo’s legal analysis held that for an act to be torture, the one inflicting the torture must have intended it to cause severe pain and it must cause pain that is equivalent in intensity to the pain that would accompany “serious physical injury, such as organ failure.”

The Bybee memo, as it came to be called, gave Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of the DOD, legal latitude to develop “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The new chief of the OLC, Jack Goldsmith, was shocked to see this secret torture memo in October, 2003, and later stated that it was without legal foundation. The DOJ rescinded the Bybee memo on December 30, 2004.

While the DOD’s enhanced interrogation techniques were not created for Abu Ghraib, it appears that at least some of the practices migrated from Cuba;Guantanamo Bay Guantanamo Guantanamo Bay Bay to Iraq. Major General Geoffrey Miller, commander of facilities at Guantanamo Bay, visited Abu Ghraib in August and September, 2003. Miller reportedly had been assigned to “Gitmo-ize” (Guantanamo Bay is referred to by the military as Gitmo) Abu Ghraib, specifically referring to the harsh interrogation practices at Gitmo that had been approved by Rumsfeld. Some of Miller’s recommendations were adopted by Sanchez for use at Abu Ghraib. Indeed, the Taguba Report concluded that the mistreatment of prisoners by MPs was a consequence of direct orders from military intelligence and other governmental agencies who “actively requested that MP guards set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses,” a technique Miller used at Guantanamo. 60 Minutes[sixty minutes];Abu Ghraib prison Abu Ghraib prison Iraq War Torture;Abu Ghraib prison Sanchez, Ricardo Taguba, Antonio

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Danner, Mark. Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror. New York: New York Review of Books, 2004. Follows the paper trail, including policy statements and government reports on the mistreatment. Many original government documents are included, as well as the infamous photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hersh, Seymour. Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. Hersh, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, helped break the Abu Ghraib story with a May 9, 2004, article in The New Yorker.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jaffer, Jameel, and Amrit Singh. Administration of Torture: A Documentary Record from Washington to Abu Ghraib and Beyond. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. Jaffer and Singh, both attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union, discuss the thousands of relevant documents, including government e-mails and autopsy reports, which they obtained for this study of the prisoner-abuse scandal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKelvey, Tara. Monstering: Inside America’s Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2007. A study of the crimes at Abu Ghraib prison. Includes first-hand interviews with MPs who worked at Abu Ghraib and with former Iraqi prisoners.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mayer, Jane. The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How a War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals. New York: Doubleday, 2008. A staff writer for The New Yorker examines the Bush administration’s response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and beyond in this meticulously researched, readable account of the American war on terror.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zimbardo, P. G. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New York: Random House, 2007. Zimbardo revisits his famous 1971 experiment and applies his research to the torture and humiliation at Abu Ghraib prison, challenging society to think about the situational influences that lead to oppression and abuse.

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