Convergence of Errors: Leadership Failures Contributing to Abu Ghraib Abuses

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Major Lynne Chaloux, Canadian Forces College


The purpose of this persuasive essay is to reveal the key leadership factors contributing to events that occurred during Operation Iraqi Freedom at Abu Ghraib Confinement Facility in Iraq between October and December 2003.

"The abuses at Abu Ghraib primarily fall into two categories: a) intentional violent or sexual abuse [against detainees], and b) abusive actions taken based on misinterpretations or confusion regarding law or policy."Note de bas de page 1

From the standpoint of "Leading the Institution," it will be argued that authorities failed to develop of a coherent body of policy or proceduresNote de bas de page 2 regarding detainee operations, which would have served to appropriately and consistently guide actions in the field and thus enable success. Instead, policy was inconsistent, ambiguous and changing - resulting in confusion regarding morally and legally acceptable standards for interrogation and detention. These lapses in policy contributed mostly to the second category of abuse.Note de bas de page 3

From the standpoint of "Leading People," it will be argued that the absence of effective supervision was the key contributing factor to the events at Abu Ghraib, whereby leaders failed to "monitor, inspect, correct, and evaluate."Note de bas de page 4 It will be demonstrated that "leaders... failed to supervise subordinates or provide direct oversight of this important mission... [They] failed to properly discipline their soldiers... [and] failed to learn from prior mistakes..."Note de bas de page 5 The lack of effective monitoring and correcting, in particular, enabled abuses (of both categories) to occur.Note de bas de page 6

Leading the Institution

Leading the Institution is... anticipating and creating the conditions necessary for operational success and... effectiveness.Note de bas de page 7

Key Leadership Factor: "Develop a Coherent Body of Policy"

Following the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, the United States (US) soon recognized it was at war with different kind of enemyNote de bas de page 8 and was facing a new paradigm.Note de bas de page 9

As such, it was felt that some of the "old rules" relating to the laws of war needed to be re-evaluated in light of their applicability to the changing nature of war, as well as to the enemy actors involved in these asymmetric conflicts.

In this context and in preparation for post-9/11 operations, effective leadership would require "senior leaders [to] communicate their strategic intent and provide authoritative guidance through a body of coherent policy and advanced doctrine."Note de bas de page 10

  • Strategic Intent on Application of Geneva Conventions.

    After seeking a host of civilian and military legal opinions, a Presidential decision memorandum was issued in February 2002 that defined the application of the Geneva Conventions relating to Al Qaeda and the Taliban -- enemy actors in distinct operational theatres (Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq.)

    This memorandum stated unequivocally that from a legal standpoint, these prisoners were different from those of more traditional conflicts, in that:

    • None of the conventions of Geneva applied to the US conflict with al Qaeda in Afghanistan or elsewhere in the world;
    • Common Article 3 of Geneva (relating to the treatment of Prisoners of War) did not apply to either al Qaeda or to Taliban detainees;
    • Taliban detainees were unlawful combatants and did not qualify as prisoners of war under Article 4 of Geneva; and
    • Al Qaeda detainees also did not qualify as prisoners of war since Geneva did not apply to the conflict with al Qaeda writ large.Note de bas de page 11

    Despite the fact that some critics claim the Bush Administration was systematically preparing the way for torture techniques and coercive interrogation practices,Note de bas de page 12 this Presidential memorandum made reference to the United States' values as a nation that "call for us to treat detainees humanely, including those who are not legally entitled to such treatment."Note de bas de page 13 This was also reaffirmed in stating that "the detainees be treated humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva."Note de bas de page 14

    In other words, this decree provided a mixed message, whereby it was stated that by virtue of the country's values, prisoners should be treated humanely, even though this was not a legal obligation. It specified that this humane treatment would be done in the spirit of Geneva, but through the filter of military necessity (a vague term, easily interpretable as "if there is military advantage, do what you must.")

    As such, the first declaration of strategic intent was confusing in and of itself, and it contributed to at least one documented misinterpretation by a commander regarding what were deemed acceptable "tougher" interrogation techniques.Note de bas de page 15

    The somewhat ambiguous nature of the Presidential memorandum would only be exacerbated by several policy iterations (that followed) related to interrogation procedures.

  • Interrogation Policy.

    The Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel, in its August 2002 opinion on standards of conduct for interrogation operations, stated that only the most extreme acts specifically intended to inflict severe pain and torture would be in violation; lesser acts might be 'cruel, inhumane, or degrading' but would not violate the Convention Against Torture or domestic statutes. The President, as Commander in Chief exercising his wartime powers, could even authorize torture, if he so decided.Note de bas de page 16

    In a quest for stronger interrogation techniques than those available via the previously accepted standards in Army Field Manual 34-52, the Secretary of Defense changed interrogation doctrine and policies in December 2002 to include 16 new techniques -- most of which were rescinded six weeks later as a result of concerns raised by the Navy General Counsel. A working group was then established to study interrogation techniques, of which 24 were recommended, resulting in yet another policy promulgated in April 2003 for Guantanamo only.Note de bas de page 17

    Despite the fact that some of these policies were theatre-specific, they ended up migrating to other theatres of operationNote de bas de page 18 as "interrogators and lists of techniques circulated from Guantanamo and Afghanistan to Iraq."Note de bas de page 19

    Confusion about what interrogation techniques were authorized resulted from the proliferation of guidance and information from other theaters of operation; individual interrogator experiences in other theaters; and the failure to distinguish between interrogation operations in other theaters and Iraq.Note de bas de page 20

    In September 2003, policies that had been approved for use on al Qaeda and Taliban detainees who were not afforded protection under Geneva's Prisoner of War status now applied to detainees who did fall under Geneva Convention protections - using reasoning from the President's February 2002 memorandum and thereby creating an "unacceptably aggressive" policy.Note de bas de page 21 This policy was, in turn, disapproved a month later and replaced with another. This created more confusion since the latest policy was a replica of a previous outdated one -- but with the removal of specific information pertaining to the conditions of interrogation. "This clearly led to confusion on what practices were acceptable."Note de bas de page 22

    It could be argued that interrogation policy was no longer so much a "policy" - but rather a matter of opinion. Although "some incidents of abuse were clearly cases of individual criminal misconduct... [others simply] resulted from misinterpretations of law or policy, or confusion about which interrogation techniques were permitted by law or local standard operating procedures... Some [of those who committed abuse] may honestly have believed the techniques were condoned."Note de bas de page 23

    What is abundantly clear is that leaders failed in their institutional obligation to provide any type of coherent, consistent or clear policy regarding interrogation and detainee operations. Policies were written, only to be rescinded, then replaced - and then replaced again. Different policies and standards of interrogation techniques (some sanctioned, others not) were being applied differently in separate theatres of operation. Policies were misunderstood, misinterpreted, applied inconsistently, and/or applied incorrectly, by various groups under assorted circumstances with different prisoners who had confusing statuses as prisoners of war.

    As stated by the Independent Panel to Review Department of Defense Detention Operations: "We cannot be sure how much the number and severity of abuses would have been curtailed had there been early and consistent guidance from higher levels. Nonetheless, such guidance was needed and likely would have had a limiting effect."Note de bas de page 24

  • Doctrine for Detention Operations.

    The last part of the "coherent policy" equation is the requirement for authoritative guidance by way of advanced doctrine;Note de bas de page 25 but unfortunately, doctrine on detention operations in the new battlefield context was completely lacking.Note de bas de page 26 Note de bas de page 27 Note de bas de page 28 In turn, this forced organizations to "improvise the organization and command relationships"Note de bas de page 29, as well as "adapt tactics and procedures to address the resulting voids."Note de bas de page 30

    Several official "lessons learned" from earlier phases of Iraqi Freedom referred to the need for joint doctrine to define the appropriate collaboration between interdependent Military Police (MP) and Military Intelligence (MI) in a detention facility; the need for keeping MP and MI units manned at levels sufficient to the task; and the need for MP and MI units to belong to the same tactical command. However, these doctrinal "lessons learned" were ignored.Note de bas de page 31

    One of the practical functions of policy and doctrinal guidance is "the prevention of errors of omission, especially in regard to such things as shared or overlapping responsibilities, coordination and hand-off, information exchange, and reporting requirements."Note de bas de page 32 Absent this required doctrinal guidanceNote de bas de page 33, MP and MI units did not work together effectively in their distinct but interdependent roles in detainee operations,Note de bas de page 34 their command and control relationship was confused and ineffective,Note de bas de page 35 and the units themselves were extremely undermanned for their assigned tasks.Note de bas de page 36 Note de bas de page 37 These elements exacerbated the extreme level of dysfunction at Abu Ghraib and set the stage for problems to occur.

    Bluntly stated in Major-General Fay's investigation, "Inadequacy of doctrine for detention... and interrogation operations was a contributing factor to the situations that occurred at Abu Ghraib."Note de bas de page 38

    This also relates directly to deficiency in a secondary domain of Leading the Institution.

Secondary Leadership Factor: "Clarify Responsibilities, Enforce Accountabilities"

"Clear divisions of responsibility, plans and schedules... standard operating procedures [and] consistent policies... all [work to] link various parts of a team, unit or system into a smoothly functioning coordinated whole."Note de bas de page 39

Instead, at Abu Ghraib, there was unclear delineation of responsibility between the interdependent MP and MI unitsNote de bas de page 40, "lack of interaction and friction at the brigade commander level,"Note de bas de page 41 and lack of communication at all levels -- which contributed to a very unclear command structureNote de bas de page 42 and uncertainty regarding responsibilities.

This was further exacerbated by the confused command relationship at higher levels, with the "damaging result that no single individual was responsible for overseeing operations at the prison"Note de bas de page 43 -- thereby creating a lack of ultimate accountability. To make matters worse, weak and ineffective commanders at the MP and MI units did not ensure proper supervision or accountability within their respective units.Note de bas de page 44 Their failure to communicate responsibilities (standards, policies, and plans) to soldiers "conveyed a sense of tacit approval of abusive behaviors toward prisoners."Note de bas de page 45

Although clearly a contributing factor to the events that occurred, this is viewed as a secondary causative leadership factor. In the case of Abu Ghraib, these deficiencies were a direct result of inadequate or inexistent doctrine to guide the establishment of a proper command structure with clearly delineated responsibilities, accountabilities, and working relationships between MP and MI units. As such, it is a consequence of the primary factor.

Leading People

"Failure in leadership, Sir, from the brigade commander on down. Lack of discipline, no training whatsoever and no supervision. Supervisory omission was rampant."

- Major-General Antonio Taguba, when asked by Senator John Warner how the abuses at Abu Ghraib could have happened.Note de bas de page 46

Key Leadership Factor: "Monitor, Inspect, Correct, Evaluate"

Proper supervision is a key facet of leadership that allows leaders to assess the situation and the performance of tasks and, as per the "Direct Influence Principle", take corrective action if required.Note de bas de page 47 In order to set, maintain or change collective direction,Note de bas de page 48 it is necessary to have the appropriate situational awareness.Note de bas de page 49

In the monitor role, leaders continually assess the operating status of the unit or sub-unit, by generally ensuring compliance with rules and standards, conducting evaluations and inspections, reviewing reports and holding subordinates accountable for their actions.Note de bas de page 50

Of course, with skilled subordinates under controlled and routine conditions, the lack of continual and direct supervision is not in and of itself a causal factor for abuse. In fact, subordinates are given autonomy in many circumstances with very satisfactory results.Note de bas de page 51

However, under the explosive, dangerous and stressful conditions existing at Abu Ghraib,Note de bas de page 52 Note de bas de page 53 close supervision was not only desirable or warranted - it was an absolute necessity.

The conditions at the detention facility were woefully deficient in numerous ways,Note de bas de page 54 not the least of which were inadequate manning, insufficient or non-existent training, dangerous and very stressful living and working conditions, confused lines of authority, evolving and unclear policy, and generally poor quality of life.Note de bas de page 55 In other words, the conditions demanded leadership with directive influence, which is best utilized when "subordinates lack information or experience and need guidance... and in high-stress situations."Note de bas de page 56 Unfortunately, this type of supervision and oversight were sorely lacking.Note de bas de page 57

Instead, soldiers were generally left to their own devices, morale was very low, leaders were rarely seen, and soldiers perceived that their leaders didn't care.Note de bas de page 58 Note de bas de page 59

In Major-General Taguba's investigative report, multiple deficiencies were identified regarding monitoring, inspecting, correcting and/or evaluating; attributable to everyone from the Brigadier-General in charge of all detention facilities in Iraq, right down to junior non-commissioned officers at Abu Ghraib.

Weak and ineffectual leadership... allowed the abuses at Abu Ghraib. There were serious lapses of leadership in both units from junior non-commissioned officers to battalion and brigade levels. The commanders of both brigades either knew, or should have known, abuses were taking place and taken measures to prevent them.Note de bas de page 60

For example, Taguba's report highlighted that numerous individuals throughout the chain of command failed to ensure soldiers knew and understood the protections afforded to detainees in the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War; they failed to establish and enforce basic soldier standards, proficiency and accountability; they failed to establish basic proficiency in assigned tasks; they failed to ensure soldiers were properly trained; they failed to properly supervise soldiers under their direct authority; they failed to properly ensure investigation reports on escapes and shootings were disseminated and understood; and they failed to implement recommendations from various investigations -- among other noted deficiencies.Note de bas de page 61

In fact, even though some early warning signs of abuse were brought to the attention of the chain of command, these were never acted upon appropriately.Note de bas de page 62 Communiqués to local commanders, which should have prompted action by way of more specific procedures and direct guidance to prevent further abuse, were not taken seriously enough at the unit level and were not relayed to the responsible commanders in a timely fashion.Note de bas de page 63

There was a failure to respond to recommendations of corrective actions... Leaders were unwilling to accept responsibility. Discipline, when taken, was lenient, leading to the realization that the Brigade or Battalion chains of command would essentially do nothing, thus contributing to the mentality that 'I can get away with this.'Note de bas de page 64

To add more fuel to the fire, the dynamics of detainee operations carry inherent risks for human mistreatment, as established in the 1973 Stanford Prison Experiment.Note de bas de page 65 Note de bas de page 66

Detainee and interrogation operations consist of a special subset of human interactions... with one group [having] significant power and control over another group which must be managed, often against the will of its members. Without proper oversight and monitoring, such interactions carry a higher risk of moral disengagement on the part of those in power and, in turn, are likely to lead to abusive behaviors.Note de bas de page 67

Unit-level leadership also failed to recognize this inherent potential for abuseNote de bas de page 68 and/or take measures to correct it when abuses became apparent.

As per Philip Zimbardo, co-publisher of the Stanford study, "The situational forces that were going on in [Abu Ghraib] -- the dehumanization, the lack of personal accountability, the lack of surveillance, the permission to get away with anti-social actions -- it was like the Stanford prison study, but in spades."Note de bas de page 69

Colonel Henry Nelson, the United States Air Force psychiatrist who prepared the psychological assessment for the Taguba Report, put it this way:

This is a classic example of the legal formula that "predisposition + opportunity = criminal behavior." Predisposition included psychological factors of negativity, anger, hatred and desire to dominate and humiliate. And with an unsupervised workplace in which no threat of appropriate punishment would be forthcoming, there was opportunity.Note de bas de page 70

As such, the absence of adequate monitoring, inspecting, correcting and evaluating (supervisory oversight) - an absolute necessity in a highly stressful environment further burdened by the general psychological conditions pervasive in detention and interrogation operations -- is considered the key contributing factor to the unfortunate events of late 2003 at Abu Ghraib.

Secondary Leadership Factor: "Train Individuals and Teams Under Demanding and Realistic Conditions"

Leaders also failed to ensure "individuals and teams [were trained] under demanding and realistic conditions."Note de bas de page 71 Note de bas de page 72 This lack of training -- in everything from values-based ethics to the laws of war to detainee operations themselvesNote de bas de page 73 -- is extremely well documented in multiple investigations and reports.Note de bas de page 74 Note de bas de page 75 Note de bas de page 76 Note de bas de page 77 Note de bas de page 78

Soldiers were woefully unprepared for the challenges ahead as they were not equipped with the knowledge or skills to deal with their roles and responsibilities, particularly in the context that existed in Iraq at the time.

The lack of mission and ethics-related training, although extremely relevant, is nonetheless considered secondary. Despite soldiers' lack of training, many abuses could have been prevented if superiors had been properly monitoring, inspecting and correcting their subordinates.

As stated in the Independent Panel’s report, "The events that took place at Abu Ghraib are an aberration when compared to the situations at other detention operations. Poor leadership and lack of oversight set the stage for abuses to occur."Note de bas de page 79 In other words, soldiers at other detention facilities may have been similarly unprepared for their tasks, but it was the added layer of poor leadership and supervision at Abu Ghraib that ultimately enabled the abuses.


As defined in Conceptual Foundations, effective leadership is "directing, motivating and enabling others to accomplish the mission professionally and ethically, while developing or improving capabilities that contribute to mission success."Note de bas de page 80

Numerous investigations into this sad chapter of American Army history have corroborated the significant leadership failures at various levels of the chain of command which failed to "direct" or "enable" -- with dire consequences at Abu Ghraib.

The failure to provide coherent policy caused extreme confusion over interrogation techniques to the doctrinally-deficient dysfunctional command structure, thereby indirectly instigating abusive behaviour.

This was compounded a world away in Iraq, where leaders across the spectrum failed to adequately monitor activities, inspect facilities, assess the performance of tasks relating to detention and interrogation, or take appropriate corrective action through various measures -- ranging from remedial training, to seeking and providing direction and guidance, to outright disciplinary charges.

The convergence of errors that caused such disastrous results was not only regrettable, but also preventable.

It is worth noting, however, that these events occurred at a time in US history when emotions were at a peak, a strong and swift national response was demanded, and the nation was engaged in multiple conflicts simultaneously. Some may view the associated "sense of urgency," the absolute national resolve to win the war on terror, and the overwhelming operational demands as extenuating circumstances.

Nonetheless, it is clear from the multiple reports and investigations that the US Army has taken these events extremely seriously, having put in place solutions to ensure such mayhem is never repeated.


Certains des liens ci-dessous conduisent à un site d'une entité non assujettie à la Loi sur les langues officielles. L'information sur ce site est disponible dans la langue du site.

Canada. Department of National Defence. A-PA-005-000/AP-004 Leadership in the Canadian Forces: Conceptual Foundations. Canadian Defence Academy, 2005.

Canada. Department of National Defence. A-PA-005-000/AP-003 Leadership in the Canadian Forces: Doctrine. Canadian Defence Academy, 2005.

Canada. Department of National Defence. A-PA-005-000/AP-009 Leadership in the Canadian Forces: Leading People - Summaries. Canadian Defence Academy, 2007

Church, Vice Admiral Albert T. Executive Summary. Report Prepared for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. 2005.

Fay, Major-General George R. AR 15-6 Investigation of the Abu Ghraib Detention Facility and 205th Military Intelligence Brigade. 2004. Copy on-line; available from; Internet; accessed 11 November 2011.

Greenberg, Karen J. and Joshua L. Dratel. The Torture Papers: the Road to Abu Ghraib. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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Nelson, Colonel (Dr.) Henry. AR 15-6 Investigation - Allegation of Detainee Abuse at Abu Ghraib: Psychological Assessment as Annex 1 of Major-General Antonio M. Taguba, Article 15-6 Investigation of the 800th Military Police Brigade. 2004. Copy on-line; available in Karen Greenberg and Joshua L. Dratel, The Torture Papers: the Road to Abu Ghraib. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Book excerpt on-line; Internet; accessed 11 November 2011.

PBS Frontline, "The Torture Question: The Investigations,"; Internet; accessed 12 November 2011.

Schogol, Jeff. "General who authored Abu Ghraib report retires." Stars and Stripes, 22 December 2006. Newspaper on-line; available from; Internet; accessed 11 November 2011.

Taguba, Major-General Antonio M. Article 15-6 Investigation of the 800th Military Police Brigade. 2004. Copy on-line; available from; Internet; accessed 9 November 2011.

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