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Looking Back at Abu Ghraib 5 Years Later

Five years ago, I was at work at CBS News in New York, holding a manila folder to my chest, guarding it with my life. Inside, there were pictures from Abu Ghraib.
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Five years ago, I was at work at CBS News in New York, holding a manila folder to my chest, guarding it with my life. Inside, there were pictures from Abu Ghraib - the pictures - the ones that would soon be seen around the world, the ones that made Americans sick to our stomachs, the ones that very few people knew about at that moment.

Hidden in my folder was an image that would become an icon of our enduring shame - the tragic figure of a man in a ragged shift, his head covered with a black hood, his arms outstretched, an electric cord running up his leg - the Statue of anti-Liberty.

Among the photos was the unforgettable sneer of a woman with a cigarette dangling from her lips, her fingers pointing tauntingly at a prisoner's genitals.

Tucked away in my manila folder was the face of a dead man packed in ice and wrapped in garbage bags. He was battered, his mouth open, his eyes half closed.

These were the scenes that would come to represent our country's secret side.

This was torture American-style.

Along with my hard-working partners, Dan Rather, Dana Roberson and Roger Charles, I had spent months digging out the truth about what had happened behind the imposing walls of the Iraqi prison. We had gathered interviews, anecdotes and documents that indicated American soldiers there were regularly committing acts that violated military law, international treaties and moral boundaries. More ominously, there were signs that these men and women were acting on orders from higher ups.

All we needed to prove the story were the awful pictures we'd heard so much about.

We knew that graphic photos existed somewhere - of simulated electrocution, detainees stacked like cordwood, a grinning American posing with his fist clenched in the face of a bound inmate, dogs attacking cowering Iraqis.

We were told the pictures had been as common as cornflakes among the soldiers serving at Abu Ghraib. One man reportedly showed them off on his computer during meals and used a particularly disturbing shot as a screen saver.

Finding the photos - getting someone to give them up and getting them in front of the world became an all-consuming quest. Not because we wanted to hurt the U.S. military, not because we wanted to embarrass the Pentagon, but because we knew the only way to make this right was to make it public.

We traveled around the world and across the country, we worked the phones and played the computer like a Wurlitzer, we begged and pleaded and kept at it until it finally paid off.

A folder arrived at our office.

We all gathered around. This was what we had been waiting for.

I remember holding the folder in my hands and, for just an instant, hesitating. Part of me didn't want to open it.

That's where this country is right now.


In the next few days, we have been told that we will see thousands of new pictures of prisoner abuse, this time released by the Pentagon in response to an ACLU legal filing.

This disclosure is sad -- and sadly overdue.

These are illustrations of pathological elements of Bush administration policy that should have been made public years ago.

I know some people believe that releasing this material further damages our country. They believe that new evidence of torture and abuse will be used as propaganda against us, that shedding sunlight on what we did in the dark will keep America from fixing the other serious problems we face.

We confronted a similar dilemma when we tried to air our story five years ago. The Pentagon pleaded that we kill it. Our network delayed it for weeks fearing a backlash.

These same arguments are being used to prevent further torture investigations. They are being cited by President Obama, who says he wants to "look forward, not back."

These reluctant folks should talk with 81-year-old Ivan Frederick. His son Chip was sentenced to years in federal prison for his actions at Abu Ghraib.

Frederick is still livid that his son has paid for the cruel policies of others. He says his boy was ordered to do things that were illegal, that he went along with it because he had no real choice. He says the Pentagon, the CIA and a bevy of mysterious and uncontrolled outside contractors were in charge of what happened at Abu Ghraib.

I believe him.

I do not think Chip Frederick - or any of the other inexperienced, poorly trained reservists at Abu Ghraib - went to Iraq full of original ideas about how to torment the locals that just happened to match the methods designed by the Pentagon.

I believe he and others at the prison were fed a steady diet of these toxic tactics.

And they paid dearly for their lack of protest.

Chip Frederick is now 42 years old, out of prison and trying to restart his life. Alone. His wife left him when he was sentenced to Leavenworth. He lost his military pension, his medals and his pride. Under orders from the federal government, he cannot speak with anyone in the media for two more years.

But his father can. And Dad is mad.

Ivan Frederick told me this week that he wants to know where Vice President Dick Cheney's public defense of torture was when his son and the other soldiers from Abu Ghraib were on trial. He wants to know why the Bush administration described the accused soldiers at Abu Ghraib as "a few bad apples" when it was the Bush team itself that had poisoned the barrel.

He wants to know why the people who dreamed up these dark policies are walking around free as birds while his son will be dogged by his misdeeds for the rest of his life.

Ivan Frederick says he is "an old geezer who loves the flag." He says the country needs more old geezers.

He describes himself as "not a Bush man. No way." But he believes in Barack Obama. He is writing letters to the President and Senator Carl Levin, asking for the opening of a new investigation.

Most pointedly, he wants to know why CIA members who committed torture are being excused for "just following orders," when his son had to go to prison for doing the same thing.

Chip Frederick's attorney, Gary Myers has a different view. He says the convictions of these men and women will not be overturned.

"These guys were covered by the Uniform Code of Military Justice and they violated it. What we've learned since then doesn't change a damned thing."

Myers does believe that everyone in the military ranking above the convicted low-level soldiers at Abu Ghraib could be prosecuted "for dereliction. Anybody wearing a uniform, all the way up to the top. All the way."

But Myers doesn't believe it will happen.

And like many in the country, he is not at all sure that it should. He sees investigations and trials as paralyzing for a nation in the middle of an economic crisis, at war on two fronts and rebuilding after the catastrophes of the Bush administration.

"Everybody knows these guys screwed up. We all know it. It's a mess. But if Obama uncorks this bottle - wow."

Our reporting team was honored to win a Peabody for our work on the nightmare of Abu Ghraib.

The soldiers who followed orders and broke the law there have suffered mightily for their mistakes. They were labeled as outcasts and had their legal fates left to the stingy mercies of the people who designed and dictated American policies for abusing prisoners.

The convicted Abu Ghraib soldiers appear somewhere on the long list of Americans - and others - who have paid and are paying a price for George W. Bush's torture policy.

Greg Mitchell has posted on this website a heartbreaking account of a young American soldier who killed herself after being exposed to the way this country was "interrogating" prisoners.

Other brave American warriors have died at the hands of those seeking retribution for the sins of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Still more of our men and women have come home from this war with wounds in their souls - because of what they have seen, what they have done, what they didn't do.

And dozens and dozens of inmates in American custody have died or disappeared.

We cannot, as Peggy Noonan blithely suggests, "just keep walking."

This should stop us in our tracks.

I know that any public examination of this is going to be awful. All of us are going to be embarrassed and ashamed of the questions we didn't ask, the investigations we didn't launch, the way we looked away.

We all like to think that if we had been at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo or Baghram Air Base, we would have done the right thing.

This is our chance to prove it.

Five years after those dramatic days when a few of us at CBS News were the only people outside the Pentagon who knew the full story, I keep going back to that moment when we first got the pictures from Abu Ghraib.

I think about holding the folder and deciding to pull it open.

It was tempting - as an American and as a human being - not to look, not to know, not to see things I could never forget.

That is where we are right now.

What will we do with the unexamined package we're holding?

Are we brave enough to break it open?

Do we have the courage to look at ourselves?

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