The U.S. Army has opened a criminal investigation into allegations of detainee abuse in 2003, following a Reveal story last month that showed a photograph of an Iraqi detainee in a stress position with two smiling soldiers.
The new investigation was confirmed by Christopher Grey, chief of public affairs for the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, who said the division was “not releasing any further information at this time to protect the integrity of the investigative process.”
This appears to be one of the rare instances in which the military has opened an investigation into detainee abuse in the years following the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse and torture scandal of 2004.
“From what we know, the vast majority of cases that were related to detainee abuse occurred during the Abu Ghraib era, and they were brought against low-level service members,” said Laura Pitter, senior national security counsel at Human Rights Watch. “There’s been widespread impunity for the cases in which hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of detainees in military custody were abused. For the most part, there’s been no real accountability for military abuses, and certainly none for CIA abuse.”
The photograph belonged to a deceased Army medic, Jonathan Millantz, who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 and was attached to a tank unit, Battalion 1-68, part of the 4th Infantry Division. Millantz is in the photograph, on the left, standing beside a lieutenant and an Iraqi detainee. Millantz died in 2009 at age 27.
The Iraqi detainee in the photograph appears to be sweating profusely, his face strained in pain as he’s holding up a long wooden board. (Reveal has blocked the detainee’s eyes in this image to protect his identity, because he is the alleged victim and because his identity could not be confirmed.) Millantz wrote on the back of the photograph that the detainee was “holding that board for 45 minutes,” and the pressure of lifting it eventually caused his wrist to break.
The lieutenant in the photograph was identified by several sources as Phil Blanchard, who is now a captain in the Army National Guard. On Feb. 12, he told Reveal that he had no recollection of the photo and had a limited relationship with Millantz.
“I had very limited engagement with detainees during my tour in Iraq,” he added in a statement. “I never processed or questioned detainees as that role fell into our S2 (intelligence) shop within the Battalion.”
Between 2006 and 2010, former members of Battalion 1-68 said in interviews that officers were present and aware of detainee abuse at the unit’s base, Forward Operating Base Lion (later known as FOB O’Ryan); some unit members said certain officers encouraged it and alleged that at least one officer ordered soldiers to deprive prisoners of sleep for extended hours.
Human rights groups – Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, the American Civil Liberties Union and a former researcher for The Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment – said the image published by Reveal appears to be the first photograph of U.S. military detainee abuse that has come to light since the Abu Ghraib photos were published in 2004 by The New Yorker magazine and CBS News, and then in 2006 by online news magazine Salon.
While researching a book and radio stories about prisoner abuse, reporter Michael Montgomery and I contacted the military nearly a dozen times about allegations made by former members of Millantz’s unit. In 2009, we sent Millantz’s photograph to the military and were told via email that Lt. Col. Martin Downie would refer the allegations to Army investigators. The military did not say whether officials looked into the allegations, even during a follow-up inquiry to the Criminal Investigation Command in 2012.
Reveal contacted the military about the abuse allegations and the photograph again in January, and a spokesman said officials could find no reports of any investigation into alleged abuses. The spokesman said that without the names of the detainees or their serial numbers, officials couldn’t determine “whether any detainees raised allegations of abuse.”
It’s unclear exactly how many service members have been investigated and punished for detainee abuse and torture. The State Department, in a recent report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, claims the military “has conducted thousands of investigations and prosecuted or disciplined hundreds of service members for mistreatment of detainees and other related misconduct since 2001.”
Human rights groups and the military could not produce precise figures for the number of military investigations and inquires into U.S. military detainee abuse. But human rights groups point to hundreds, possibly even thousands, of additional photographs of abuse and torture at the hands of American military personnel that remain in government custody – and are likely part of military investigations.
Since 2004, the ACLU has pressed the U.S. government to release those photographs, as part of a lawsuit to release the military’s record of detainee mistreatment during the so-called war on terror.
In 2009, President Barack Obama blocked the release of additional photographs, explaining that doing so would “inflame anti-American opinion and allow our enemies to paint U.S. troops with a broad, damning and inaccurate brush, thereby endangering them in theaters of war.”
He also reasoned that the photographs were linked to investigations and that wrongdoers had been punished.
“Individuals who violated standards of behavior in these photos have been investigated and they have been held accountable,” Obama said. “Nothing has been concealed to absolve perpetrators of crimes.”
Human rights groups complain that punishment for prisoner abuse and torture has mostly fallen on low-ranking service members. Few officers have been court martialed, and none have been punished for ordering torture. No political official has been held responsible, either.
The photograph once owned by Millantz has a long history. Millantz sent the photograph to his friend John Hutton, along with a letter, dated Dec. 20, 2003, that detailed the kinds of torture that unit members inflicted on prisoners. Millantz sent many similar letters and photographs from Iraq to Hutton. After the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal was revealed in 2004 and Army perpetrators were imprisoned for abusing detainees, Millantz asked Hutton to hold on to the photos for safe keeping.
In 2005, Millantz received a medical discharge, then began opening up about his experience in Iraq a year later. Millantz described in interviews – spanning three years – how he repeatedly tried to report the abuse and torture in which he and fellow service members were involved and how his superiors rebuffed him.
In August 2008, Millantz retrieved this photograph from Hutton and said he wanted it to be published to prove what he and his unit members described: that detainee abuse and torture occurred in the unit’s detention facility at their forward operating base and that officers were present.
Millantz’s family and friends recall other photos showing prisoner abuse and torture, but this appears to be the only one that wasn’t discarded; many of the letters Millantz sent to Hutton, detailing abuse and torture, remain intact.
Reporter Michael Montgomery contributed to this story. It was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick.