Tales of pain at Abu Ghraib

A Tampa man's book details his work as a sergeant at the infamous prison.

By THOMAS LAKE, Times Staff Writer
Published January 11, 2008

Late in 2005, a computer programmer from Tampa reported for duty at the old prison in Abu Ghraib. All around him were signs of Saddam Hussein's tyranny. Improvised gallows. Drowning pools. Floors stained with blood that would not wash away.

By then the Americans had seized the compound. By then it was common knowledge that they, like Saddam, had tortured inmates inside those walls. By then the abuse was supposed to have ceased.

The programmer was Sgt. Michael Keller of the Florida Army National Guard. He found inmates playing soccer, watching Hollywood films on DVD and making yogurt from sun-curdled milk.

But, he says in his new book, he also found prison officials giving punishments that amounted to torture.

"The detainee is then laid flat on a medical litter, and another litter is placed on top of them producing a sandwich effect," he wrote in Torture Central: E-mails from Abu Ghraib. "The two litters are then tightened together with ratchet straps, creating a vice. The detainee remains crushed between the litters for one hour, with the guard checking every 15 minutes to ensure that the detainee still has a pulse."

* * *

Keller joined the National Guard at 23, inspired by the events of Sept. 11. He went to Iraq -- leaving behind a wife, a baby daughter and the business he co-founded -- with a self-assigned mission to keep inmates safe.

"I will be a one-man oversight committee," he wrote to family and friends on Nov. 22, 2005, in the first of a long series of e-mails that would become the basis for his book.

He apparently followed through. The book contains a copy of a memo to a commanding officer in which Keller protests several ongoing violations of the Geneva Convention -- including the use of restraint chairs and the sandwiching of inmates between medical litters, otherwise known as stretchers.

The complaint actually worked, he says: On Dec. 29, 2005, his battalion commander told guards to stop punishing inmates with litters or restraint chairs.

The St. Petersburg Times gave U.S. Army spokesman Paul Boyce the chance to confirm or deny many of the allegations in Keller's book. The spokesman said Tuesday he would do some research and issue a response. By Thursday afternoon, he had no specific answers to provide.

"The U.S. Army has conducted more than 600 criminal investigations into allegations of detainee mistreatment. More than 250 service members have been held accountable for their actions in these matters," Boyce said.

* * *

Torture is not the only wrongdoing alleged in the book. Keller writes that the facility was full of children, most of whom had been denied due process. One had been arrested for running toward Marines while trying to retrieve a soccer ball.

"We have two 12-year-old children who were arrested by Marines and have been in Abu over 9 months," he writes. "Their arrest record (written by the arresting Marines) simply reads 'Reason for Arrest: Because we were bored.'"

In addition, the book says, medical information was kept in an inadequate spreadsheet; as a result, more than one diabetic inmate died after failing to get an insulin shot. Keller says he offered to build a database to fix the problem, but officials would not approve it.

Unlike most other reports from Abu Ghraib, Torture Central portrays the inmates as complex humans. In one case, Keller stood near one of the most meanest inmates in the compound during a showing of Top Gun.

Those who have seen the film know it includes the death of an American flier. The inmate watched, transfixed. His eyes reddened and filled with tears.

"No," he whimpered in Arabic. "No."

Then he saw Keller watching him and vanished into his tent.

* * *

The U.S. military abandoned the Abu Ghraib detention center in 2006. Inmates were transferred to other facilities.

Keller is home now, with his family. He is chief technology officer for a small software firm called IDSTC. His corner office overlooks Kennedy Boulevard. Instead of two guns he has two computer monitors, so as to double his productivity.

He says he still believes in America and supports the war in Iraq. He says he voted for George W. Bush in 2004. But a disturbing thought sticks in his mind.

"Thousands of kids have come through Abu Ghraib," he wrote shortly after leaving the old prison. "They are the future of Iraq, and I doubt that they left here with a very positive impression of America."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Thomas Lake can be reached at tlake@sptimes.com or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 3416.