Shell-Shocked at Abu Ghraib?

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A photograph from Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib prison.

Did the senior U.S. officer at Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison suffer a breakdown after a deadly mortar attack, setting the stage for the worst Army abuse scandal in a generation? And did the Army then knowingly use the testimony of a commanding officer who may have been mentally unfit to prosecute subordinates for their roles at Abu Ghraib?

Those troubling questions about Col. Thomas Pappas are being raised in the walkup to one of the final trials stemming from the abuses at Abu Ghraib, which has resulted in a handful of enlisted men going to prison — while top officers, including Pappas, have suffered few if any legal consequences. Under a grant of immunity, Pappas, who has already testified at the courts martial of other subordinates, is scheduled to give evidence in the August trial of his former deputy, Lt. Col. Steven Jordan. Jordan faces six counts and up to 16 1/2 years in prison for alleged cruelty and maltreatment of prisoners, dereliction of duty and other charges. His defense team has already raised questions in court of the mental competence of unnamed prosecution witnesses, one of whom is believed to be Pappas.

Pappas's mental state in Iraq was first publicly questioned in The Lucifer Effect, a best-selling book by Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the Stanford University psychologist and expert on detention who conducted the well-known "Stanford Prison Experiment" — a 1971 simulation in which students were asked to play the role of guards — and who also testified as an expert witness in one of the Abu Ghraib trials. The book claims that Pappas, who ran intelligence at Abu Ghraib, was declared "not combat fit" after he survived a devastating mortar attack on September 20, 2003 — just weeks before the notorious abuses began to unfold. The attack — which killed two U.S. soldiers and wounded others but left Pappas physically unharmed — caused the Colonel to repeatedly exhibit bizarre behavior, the book says, while alleging that his "deteriorating mental condition did not permit him to provide the vitally necessary supervision of his soldiers working in the prison."

Zimbardo told TIME that he was not at liberty to name his source for the allegations concerning Pappas's mental condition. But he said the individual was "a senior U.S. military officer who had been present at Abu Ghraib and was in a position to know what happened." Zimbardo added that he had no doubt about the authenticity of the report. A military lawyer representing Pappas had no comment on the allegations concerning her client's mental condition.

Jordan's defense team has asked the Army to turn over records of mental evaluations of two unnamed prospective court-martial witnesses. One is thought to be Pappas. The other, according to Jordan's lawyer, has admitted to being medically treated for shell shock stemming from his service at Abu Ghraib. This week the judge ordered the Army to locate the mental evaluations, if they exist, and give them to the tribunal for review. It remains unclear who may have actually labeled Pappas "not combat fit", or if the records sought by the court will even address his psychological condition.

Experts on military law say the Pappas situation is murky and likely to require further investigation. If it could be determined that he was unfit or suffered from diminished capacity in Iraq, the next question would be whether Army prosecutors knew, or should have known, about his alleged condition when he was called to testify in earlier cases. More broadly, says Eugene Fidell, a lawyer who is president of the National Institute for Military Justice, "if officers in Iraq above Pappas were aware — or should have been aware — that he was impaired, then they should have relieved him of duty."

The attack that allegedly affected Pappas so deeply took place on the night of September 20, 2003, when mortar shells began to fall on Abu Ghraib. Pappas was holding a conference in a tent outside the main prison building with his driver and his deputy, Lt. Col. Jordan, along with others. The incoming shell killed his driver instantly; another solider died in the attack and several were injured, but Pappas was not hurt.

Several hours later, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, then the top officer in Iraq in charge of detention, encountered Pappas. "His face was completely drawn, no expression, blank, ashen color. He said in a very flat voice 'They killed my driver, the guy never did anything wrong,'" Karpinski told TIME. "He was in total shock. It wasn't anger, it was beyond anger — he just looked lost, he didn't know what to do."

Shortly after that, Karpinski says, Pappas briefed Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the overall U.S. commander in Iraq. "At that point, Pappas just did not seem to be stable, but who could blame him after what he had just been through," says Karpinski, who was demoted after Abu Ghraib but has claimed that she was made a scapegoat in order to deflect blame from higher-ranking officers (She has since left the military.) "He was incoherent, maybe just running on adrenaline, but he would unpredictably shift from one topic to another . . ."

Karpinski found him to be in a similar state at a scheduled weekly meeting that she attended with Pappas and others in Baghdad's Green Zone soon after. "He wasn't making any sense ... he was disoriented. The only thing he could focus on was the memorial service [for those killed in the mortar attack] — on that he had clarity."

According to Zimbardo's book, which relied on interviews with a variety of Abu Ghraib personnel, "Pappas was so affected by this sudden horror [the mortar attack] that he never again took off his flak jacket. . . It was reported to me that he always wore his [flak] jacket and hard helmet, even when showering." Several Abu Ghraib veterans also told TIME that Pappas tried to avoid going outside the prison building, and even moved an exercise bicycle into his quarters to avoid having to move around unprotected areas. But another veteran of the prison, Major David Dinenna, said he did not believe Pappas was impaired, though quite a few other soldiers were suffering from battle stress from the same shelling.

Several Abu Ghraib veterans told TIME that "combat stress teams" were dispatched to the prison to give psychological counseling to shell-shocked U.S. victims of the Sept. 20 attack. It remains unclear whether Pappas received any treatment. But one of his subordinates, intelligence analyst Armin Cruz, who was later accused of abuse at Abu Ghraib, specifically cited the Sept. 20 mortar attack at his plea bargain. Cruz, who struggled unsuccessfully to save the life of a fellow soldier wounded in the attack, claimed he had repeatedly sought and failed to receive treatment for shell shock in its aftermath. At his sentencing, a military judge asked Cruz to explain why he had forced prisoners to strip naked. After a long pause, Cruz said, he had mentally connected the prisoners with Iraqis insurgents who killed two members of his company in the mortar attack one month earlier.

In fact, Abu Ghraib came under regular mortar fire from insurgents, sometimes three or four times a week. The decision to site the facility in a combat zone was a clear violation of the Geneva Convention, experts say, and doing so cost scores of American and Iraqi lives — far more than were killed in the abuse scandal itself.

U.S. military doctrine stresses that those who guard prisoners of war should not be in combat, because the hostility and aggression necessary to fight must be directed at the enemy, not at prisoners. But with Abu Ghraib under threat of mortar fire, many of those stationed there have said they were in a perpetual state of tension and fear, the well-known antecedents to shell-shock, also known as post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Ken Davis, an Abu Ghraib veteran who has since left the military said the mortar attacks, "made everyone fear the Iraqis, and people stopped telling the difference between the Iraqi enemy shelling us and the Iraqi guys in our prison ... and that's a lot of what led to the abuse." As Karpinski put it: "The mortar attacks changed everything, because they made people angry, like 'we're going to get these guys,' and the prison is filling up with Iraqis — the impetus to seek vengeance went higher."

Whatever the impact of the mortar attacks, there is no question that Pappas, a decorated officer, made many serious mistakes in their aftermath. An Army investigation found that he failed to ensure that soldiers under his direct command were properly trained in interrogation procedures; they did not know, understand or follow the protections for prisoners required by the Geneva Convention. Ultimately, however, Pappas was punished for only two violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. He lost $8000 in pay and was called upon to testify against subordinates.