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"The Abu Ghraib Investigation Was A Public Service" – Pulitzer Prize Winner
12 June, 2017
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To examine the challenges of journalism in the post-truth world, Hromadske visited this year's MezhyhiryaFest. This annual investigative journalism conference is held at the opulent estate of fugitive ex-President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. There, we spoke to Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter Scott Higham of The Washington Post.

Scott Higham has undertaken numerous investigations for The Washington Post, including the Abu Ghraib Investigation that uncovered human rights abuses by the US Army against prisoners in Iraq. "When we first found this information out the Pentagon pleaded with us not to publish it," he told Hromadske. Neverthless, The Washington Post decided to publish the story. "We felt we were doing a public service by exposing this," Higham explained.

Higham underscored that in the United States whistleblower protections are of the utmost importance for uncovering crimes and corruption. According to Higham, further strengthening these protections is key, not only to encourage people to report wrongdoing, but also to protect them from retaliation after they've come forward. "The person who reported the Abu Ghraib abuse was not protected. His life was threatened, he had to move his family," Higham recalled. "Hopefully we’ve learned from that and we protect these people. It’s really important to protect them when they come forward."

As an indpendent publication, The Washington Post never cooperates with the American government. "We see ourselves as a check and a balance on the power of the government," Higham explained. "If somebody denies us access sometimes it’s almost a badge of honour and we are able to get the information in other ways."

Nevertheless, Higham and the investigative team at The Washington Post always take security advice from the authorities into account. "It's a balancing act," Higham said. "We obviously don’t want to do anything that’s going to expose ongoing investigations or expose intelligence sources. So we always listen to them and then decide what’s the most important thing for our readers."

If we talk about the investigation into Abu Ghraib, that was kind of a game changer because when the story was brought to light, the US still tried to play the good power. They were speaking about freedom and democracy, and this was evidence of how many wrong-doings the Bush administration had been doing in Iraq. And then later there was Guantanamo. With this kind of investigation what was the impact? Has it changed the way the army is operating, especially in these sensitive cases of dealing with suspected terrorists? What are the practices that still exist and what has the government done to respond and to stop them?

Scott Higham: Our investigation showed that the abuse at Abu Ghraib and at Guantanamo Bay was much deeper and broader than was previously disclosed. So the administration at the time said that the Abu Ghraib abuses and the abuses at Guantanamo were isolated incidents and that they were confined to just a small band of army men and women and that wasn’t really the case. When we were able to get access to all the documents and all the photographs, and the internal investigations, we quickly realized that this was part of a concerted effort by the military and by the CIA to breakdown these detainees and to try and get as much information as possible out of them.

So when we first found this information out the Pentagon pleaded with us not to publish it. They believed the military would be at risk if we published this information and we decided to go ahead and publish it because we believed that what the military was doing, and a lot of the military lawyers and a lot of people in the military felt that this had crossed the line, that torturing detainees was a violation of the Geneva Conventions and by doing that we were putting our own servicemen and women at risk, that if they ever got caught or captured that they would be tortured as well. We felt we were doing a public service by exposing this.

Were the people punished in the end? There are always cases when there is a big story in the media, there is a lot of talk, then there is a long court hearing and then these cases are dropped from public memory.

Scott Higham: A small band of people were convicted of crimes for abusing the prisoners, but the people up the chain of command were not held accountable and to this day they have not been held accountable. I think it’s absolutely outrageous. These are the people who were responsible for the command and control of Abu Ghraib, they were responsible for the men and women under their command and they should be held accountable just like anybody else should be held accountable.

Are there any tools that you are following that law enforcement agencies could implement to be more accountable, to be more transparent? It’s really a difficult situation and we understand, we are in a country at war where there is a security threat, where you are definitely talking to criminals or suspected terrorists. So there is a chance to cross the line. So what practices have been enforced and might be enforced so that it’s more difficult for them to cross the line?

Scott Higham: We have whistleblower protections in our country [the US–ed.]. A whistleblower is someone who comes forward and blows the whistle, and says I am a witness to crime, I am a witness to wrongdoing, I am a witness to corruption. We have some processes that are in place that protect people who do that, in the military they’re not that strong. So I think strengthening those protections so it not only encourages people to come forward when they see wrongdoing but also protects them from retaliation when they come forward and report wrongdoing.

What about the practice of the cover-up in law enforcement? How common is this idea of whistleblowing or that the officer will cover the soldier, and the general will cover the officer?

Scott Higham: The person who reported the Abu Ghraib abuse was not protected. His life was threatened, he had to move his family, he had to leave the town that he grew up in. His identity was actually disclosed by the then Secretary of Defense. Hopefully we’ve learned from that and we protect these people. It’s really important to protect them when they come forward.

How would you explain the relations of your investigative unit with the Security Services, like the NSA. Newspapers like The Washington Post are independent but they’re close to government, the government usually needs them. You have the press corps, you do a lot of stories. You need to have interviews with top officials. At the same time there is an investigative unit that digs into the heart of the system and does something they really dislike. So there is this general brand of The Washington Post investigative unit. How do you build relations?

Scott Higham: Our newsroom is completely independent of the government. We do not cooperate with them, we do not share information with them, we see ourselves as a check and a balance on the power of the government. None of our reporters would ever compromise their positions or their integrity to get access to a story. If someone doesn’t want to give access to something and they want something in return, we don’t do deals like that, we’ll walk away from it. And if somebody denies us access sometimes it’s almost a badge of honour and we are able to get the information in other ways.

The Security Service always put forth the argument that it’s about security. If journalists uncover something that would endanger state security. How do you answer this question? Were there cases where you had doubts that you were going too far? What are red lines for you and your journalists?

Scott Higham: It is a balancing act and so we always listen very carefully to the intelligence services, sometimes the White House will contact our top editors. Sometimes the head of the CIA or NSA will contact our top editors. In the case of Abu Ghraib the Secretary of Defense contacted our top editors. So we will always listen to them, we will ask them why they believe that the disclosure of this information is perilous to maybe people in the field, maybe it would expose methods in sources, maybe it will expose intelligence agents and get them killed. We obviously don’t want to do anything that’s going to expose on going investigations or expose intelligence sources. So we always listen to them and then decide what’s the most important thing for our readers.

/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk

/Written by Eilish Hart