March 25, 2008

The Dungeon of Fallujah — Upgraded

Last month I published a piece here called The Dungeon of Fallujah about my visit to the wretched jail in the city. As it turns out, the place was worse than I thought. Prisoners had to supply their own food or starve. I didn't report that detail because I didn't know it. But Marine Major General John Kelly (whom I don't think I met) read my report, investigated the jail, and fixed it. No one in the military talked to me about this. I learned about it from Mary Madigan in my comments section, she learned about it from Ace, and he learned about it from UPI.

WASHINGTON, March 24 (UPI) -- The U.S. military says it is taking steps to alleviate conditions at the Fallujah city jail in Iraq after recent visitors found a filthy, overcrowded facility.

"They are being fed now," Lt. Col. Michael Callanan said of the prisoners, who until recently had to provide their own food or starve. Callanan, the point man for the U.S. military on rule-of-law issues in Anbar province, spoke to United Press International in a phone interview Monday.

Establishing the rule of law and functioning judicial institutions is a priority for Multi-National Force-West, the coalition military command in the province, Callanan said.

He said shortly after a visit to the Iraqi-run jail by the new commander of MNF-W Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly, cash from a special commander's contingency fund known as CERP was used to hire Iraqi contractors to feed "the majority of the prisoners in both Fallujah and Ramadi" city jails.

He said "similar measures" were being taken by local commanders with CERP funds at the other 27 smaller jails in the province. In Ramadi, he said, the military was transitioning from using contractors to "providing food ... and an empty kitchen" to a women's volunteer group that would feed the inmates.

He said two new facilities in Fallujah, a city jail for pre-trial detainees and a long-term facility for convicted prisoners, would be complete by spring 2009, and described the CERP contracts as a temporary measure implemented for humanitarian reasons "in order to bridge the gap" until long-term arrangements were put in place by the Iraqi Ministry of Justice.

Kelly's visit followed a report on conditions at the jail by independent journalist Michael Totten. Totten found a facility built to hold 120 prisoners housing 900 without even minimal provision for sanitation or hygiene.

I'm a little bit stunned. I didn't intend that piece to be "activist journalism," but I guess that's how it turned out.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at March 25, 2008 11:31 AM
Speak truth to everybody and smart power listens, Michael. Karl Rove reads HH, Instapundit, and The Corner. Of course you are getting read by people who matter and make decisions.
Telling the truth in unvarnished terms isn't activism. You didn't have to lie about a bad situation, you just had to go and report on what you saw that nobody else was looking at.
Good job, Michael.
Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at March 25, 2008 12:12 pm
By the way, there are a lot of Majors in the Marine Corps. There are very few Major Generals. You might want to give MAJGEN Kelly proper recognition for his rank since his leadership clearly deserves the recognition.
Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at March 25, 2008 12:14 pm
Oops, thanks Pat. Somehow I missed that detail. Fixed.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at March 25, 2008 12:16 pm
I agree with Patrick that your work has affects that are far reaching, if often not recognized. I think this is true on an individual level (e.g. my education) and on many organizations, both public and private.
You are rather modest, but perhaps in the privacy of your home a pat on the back would be in order :)
Posted by: rsnyder at March 25, 2008 12:18 pm
I'm not getting on his back. He's scrawny and I weigh over 200#.
Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at March 25, 2008 12:24 pm
Sad to say, somebody just couldn't resist twisting your words, Michael. You didn't "find" 900 prisoners being housed, you found 320, and reported that officials said that in the past it had held as many as 900. That's not the same thing.
Posted by: Solomon2 at March 25, 2008 12:27 pm
Good news. Now we just need you to visit every prison you can, and blog about them.
Congrats, you made the world somewhat better in a big way. I wish we could all do as well.
Any word if the kids were released?
Posted by: double-plus-ungood at March 25, 2008 12:47 pm
I'm a little bit stunned. I didn't intend that piece to be
Posted by: maryatexitzero at March 25, 2008 12:51 pm
Hey, Pat my boot is a little smelly. I tried everything but it still stinks. Oh, well it felt pretty good, though.
According to that idiot Graham you're just a "cheerleader" Michael; I guess you missed your "cheerleading" orders when you blogged about the Iraqi jail and it's conditions. Got anything to say, Graham???
Posted by: PeteDawg at March 25, 2008 12:53 pm
I'm going by Danner in a few minutes, do you want me to pick you up anything at the factory store? It's not out of my way... There are some real bargains if you're a size 10!
Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at March 25, 2008 1:03 pm
Great reporting and great results. Talk about winning hearts and minds.
Keep up the good work.
Posted by: Rayne at March 25, 2008 1:12 pm
Michael, this is awesome. Congratulations and keep up the good work.
Posted by: Asher Abrams at March 25, 2008 1:20 pm
Outstanding job, Michael. Keep it up.
Posted by: imsnooping at March 25, 2008 1:21 pm
Michael, you are doing fantastic work and this is proof; you are making a difference. Most who strive to make a difference are just full of blather.
Thanks for being where most of us would not want to be.
Posted by: Peg C. at March 25, 2008 1:49 pm
DPU: Any word if the kids were released?
I hope so, but I don't know. All I know is what's in the article.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at March 25, 2008 1:58 pm
This is all about simply reporting the truth, an art that has been lost in the cesspool of global journalism.
Michael, you reported nothing but the truth without a greater agenda and look what happened! It's like the "god of journalism" saw what you did and made sure your humble report initiated action at the jail.
I love it. This is what true reporting is supposed to be.
Posted by: Roast Chicken at March 25, 2008 2:47 pm
The best thing about all this is more people will be reading Michael Totten now.
Well, OK, the second-best thing.
Posted by: TallDave at March 25, 2008 2:51 pm
This is a wonderful example of why honest journalism is so important. Thank you, Michael, for doing this job, and thank you, USMC, for paying attention. Everyone, please keep up the good work!
Posted by: Warhorse at March 25, 2008 3:16 pm
Kudos, Michael. The proper role of the press is to be an unbiased feedback mechanism to the people and its institutions. This is a perfect example of how it's supposed to work.
Posted by: MartyH at March 25, 2008 3:47 pm
I do wonder, if someone read the AP report without having read your original report, would it be clear that this jail was being run by the Iraqis, and there was no U.S. Army mistreatment of the prisoners?
Posted by: Eric Akawie at March 25, 2008 3:57 pm
I do wonder, if someone read the AP report without having read your original report, would it be clear that this jail was being run by the Iraqis, and there was no U.S. Army mistreatment of the prisoners?
If they read it, yes:
He said shortly after a visit to the Iraqi-run jail by the new commander...

Posted by: double-plus-ungood at March 25, 2008 4:11 pm
Michael, you have accomplished a wonderful thing. Congratulations!
You are a very brave and good person, thank you for your reporting. Your words are now proven to have a real impact beyond your readers, you should be proud.
Posted by: Matthew at March 25, 2008 5:33 pm
Kudus from me too -- keep telling the truth, to those with power and those without, and it's very likely a little good will come of it, and a little likely that a gread good will come.
Thanks, as always. Already 5 years since your hmm, what was it? "Why Liberals should support Iraqi Liberation". The one in Frontpage (?). Wow, I already don't remember, but it's not quite worth googling.
The arguments still seem true as I recall.
Has your wife committed to Obama yet? Or H. Clinton?
Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at March 25, 2008 7:47 pm
My wife is voting for John McCain, with no pressure from me whatsoever.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at March 25, 2008 8:47 pm
Congratulations again, Michael. I'll bet you've been glowing with satisfaction ever since you got the word. :)
UPI is a pretty good news resource now, especially their Emerging Threats, Energy Resources, and Security Industry subsections. It might be a good idea to add them to any RSS feed reader that you use.
Posted by: Robert at March 25, 2008 9:46 pm
No one has noted here that the 'grats need to be multiplied by 28, since 27 more jails in the area are getting the same service upgrade and benefits as a rusult -- including permanent facilities improvement.
Michael, I'm sure you write in the hope of causing constructive "ripples" in the world. Here's evidence that you're succeeding. There are undoubtedly many more instances that are subtler and don't generate obvious evidence like this case, I'll bet.
Posted by: Brian H at March 26, 2008 9:51 am
rusult = result. 8-\
Posted by: Brian H at March 26, 2008 9:52 am
Briah H:Michael, I'm sure you write in the hope of causing constructive
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at March 26, 2008 11:10 am
Good work, Michael. Good work, MajGen Kelly!
(I am sure Koz and HuffPost and MSNBC will jump on this story! /sarc)
Posted by: gunjam at March 26, 2008 7:06 pm
My feelings are as mixed as Mike's.
First and foremost - you seem to have played a part in a good thing that was done here. I'm glad about that.
The rest of my reactions are variants on how strange a world it is. Liberal bloggers call attention to human rights abuses by us/our allies on a regular basis, no few of them in Iraq. Often the reports are generated by the mainstream media, or by NGO's. The reports are usually ridiculed and mocked by the same people who are applauding and cheering when Mike Totten does the same thing. Reports like this this one have been the subject of one hundred angry Commentary rants accusing the creator of anti-Americanism, defeatism, foolish and naive generosity to savages, etc. ad infinitum.
I mean, I'm glad to see it. Mike Totten has apparently become a member of a small and priveledged class allowed to present accurate information that reflects badly on the 'good guys' without being villified. It probably helped that the military endorsed him instead of Beauchamping him.
Still, it's surprising to not see people making the familiar argument about how Mike Totten is jeopardizing Iraqis and Americans by interfering with the Fallujah "strongman"'s MO. You know, playing patty-cake with the destroyers of the world, and the rest of what they'll say about whoever runs against John McCain this fall.
Which brings me to my next thought: it really is weird that this happened. Mike wrote about it as if it was typical. He didn't come right out and say that they probably deserved it, but he didn't come out and say they didn't. He didn't try to do anything about it - not that I'm calling him a monster for that, but because that's how people tend to behave. And for what it's worth, I didn't even bother to bi*ch at him for not trying to do anything about it. Because I considered it typical as well and would never have expected him to be able to do anything about it. So, yeah, I'm as guilty as anyone else.
Why write about it as typical? Because it is typical. It's counterintuitive, but this is an another illustration of how screwed up our Iraq dynamic is. Think about it. The surge has been going for what, a year? Mike was there... December? The only guy who had the incentive and power to fix this is the guy who only found out about it a year into it, due to the entirely random occurence of Mike Totten's visit. I'm glad that someone in the military is smart enough to understand that having your allies detain people without feeding them is bad COIN. (Or is it? Aren't starving people more eager to spill their guts? Where are the pro-waterboarders?)
Anyway, the point is that this is an anecdotal fix of a pervasive scenario. (Yeah, I saw the point about the other prisons. The pervasive scenario is broader than food deliveries to prisoners in Anbar.)
Of course, to be fair, this is also an argument for why it's good to have Americans here, look at how we just fixed this, etc etc.
I'm not sure that our interest in fixing things like this is very systematic, and I'm sure that our ability to do so is not at all systematic. Note the total lack of Iraqi involvement in this solution.
I suppose it's something to add on the positive side of the ledger against all the terrible things that have happened to the country in the time period following our invasion.
If only the White House, the military, and the people with ties to both - the conservative media - consistently cared about these situations at all. This is as rare as the blue moon.
Nice to see, though.
And I'm not blaming you, Mike. You didn't exactly appeal for help for these guys, and you didn't really condemn anyone for doing it, but you were honest and you didn't editorially excuse it, either. You wrote about it and it was fixed, so you were part of the solution. Two cheers.
Posted by: glasnost at March 26, 2008 8:42 pm
Glasnost, I understand very well why no one griped about my article but did gripe about the one you linked to. I'm thinking of writing about this, and you will see.
For starters, though, here's an snip from the complained-about article:
But the security that has been achieved here is fragile, the result of harsh tactics recalling the rule of Saddam Hussein.

And here's a longer excerpt from mine:
10,725 people were murdered in the Red Building alone by the previous government of Iraq. All died during torture. Formal execution actually took place in Abu Ghraib.
I wrote about and photographed this hideous place on my first trip to the country, and Martin Kunert left the following note in my comments section:
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at March 26, 2008 9:30 pm
I reread your article on Fallujah, and was somewhat impressed again with your vividity. I'd still call it essentially true neutral with regard to the okayness of what was being done, but it didn't pull any punches.
Oh, I understand the point you're making with the those.
It seems somehow inadequate, tone-deaf, and perhaps even wrong to say Fallujah
Posted by: glasnost at March 26, 2008 10:37 pm
I didn't say it was enough progress, I said it was some progress. And it was.
It should be obvious by my use of adjectives that I did not find that place acceptable. Note also the use of the nouns "dungeon" and "hostages." It was obvious to my Marine escort that I didn't find the place acceptable. In fact, I didn't meet a single American there who thought it was acceptable. That's why I quoted them saying so. I could have produced more quotes, but I thought those I did produce were sufficient to get the point across.
I saw no point in grinding my axe. There indeed was no point. It probably would have been counter-productive if I had because my report could have been dismissed as just more of the usual bullshit from the media. I didn't think of it that way consciously, but you know what I'm talking about or you wouldn't have written the first comment you left above when you noted how differently my article was received compared to the other.
You're comfortable reading the work of hysterical anti-war leftists who make no distinction between a totalitarian torture chamber and a bad third world prison. You think I approved of that warehouse for humans only because I did not shriek like they do. You need to understand that a large percentage of my colleagues are hysterical, and they aren't the baseline.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at March 26, 2008 10:50 pm
I have a feeling that if Iran had toppled Saddamn's regime instead of us, and their troops had raised things to the Fallujah standard, the final word at the bottom would not have been 'progress'.
I disagree. For me personally, I'm on record approving of Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia for exactly this reason. A bad regime replaced a worse one.
Let me also go on record right now and say that Syria's occupation of Lebanon made Lebanon a better place starting in 1990 than it had been for the previous fifteen years. That doesn't mean it was okay. It wasn't. But it was better than the near-apocalypse that preceded it.
I'm hardly the most conservative person around, but conservatives are far more likely than liberals to "get" this concept. Conservatives are comfortable with imperfection. Liberals are the ones who make the perfect the enemy of the good.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at March 26, 2008 10:58 pm
I didn't say it was enough progress, I said it was some progress. And it was.
Well, to be accurate, you said neither that it was enough progress, nor that it was some progress. You said it was progress. And it was. At least, in the specific comparison of Saddamn's torture chamber to this prison, it was, but I'll save that avenue of skepticism for another day.
It should be obvious by my use of adjectives that I did not find that place acceptable. Note also the use of the nouns
Posted by: glasnost at March 26, 2008 11:51 pm
Glasnost: I don't believe that you wrote your piece differently from my WaPo example because you believed it would increase the chances of an Army General reading your accurate description of the bad conditions and doing something about it instead of dismissing it.
You're right. I didn't. I wrote it differently because I know the difference between a totalitarian torture chamber and a bad third world prison. I have been inside both, and am not so dense to think they are the same. I know too much to believe that.
I consciously avoided writing in a buffoonish way about this because I want to be taken seriously, not dismissed as a crank without a clue. I think the fact that I was taken seriously by a general shows that I went about it the right way. I didn't expect a general to read the article and act on it, but I don't want to look like a clueless crank to any readers whomever they might turn out to be. I don't know who all reads this blog, but I do know of some very serious people who read it, people aside from that general -- people I am certain you've heard of.
But you're also aware that your closing frame puts a positive slant on a bad situation.
Yes. It wouldn't be right to write this in a 100 percent negative tone, especially after I visited a far worse place elsewhere in Iraq. Nuance and context are important. Some people pretend to value these things. I actually value them.
I continue to assert that when you describe something - and wrap up by calling it progress, you send a message of approval.
Well, I did approve of the progress that was made. Why shouldn't I? Iraq is a terrible place. No one should expect that country to resemble a Western country right now. Movement in the right direction is good. I do not make the perfect the enemy of the good. But it should be obvious, even though it apparently isn't, that I didn't think "the dungeon of Fallujah" is an okay place. If I thought it was an okay place I wouldn't have called it a "dungeon," and I wouldn't have described prisoners as "hostages."
I also called it a "disgraceful warehouse for humans." What more do you want from me? Do you think I should ignore the progress I've seen with my own eyes? Should I edit out my visit to a charnel house where 10,725 people were tortured to death? That's a hell of a lot worse than overcrowding. (I didn't report that prisoners had to feed themselves, but that's only because I did not know that. I didn't think to ask. I saw food and thought the Iraqi Police had provided it.)
I was physically shaking when I left the Nazi-like death prison in Suleimaniya. It made a powerful impression on me, one that I will never forget. It is the worst place I have ever been in the world. But I wrote it straight even when I covered that place. You can read about it here.
I continue to assert that there is a contrast between seeing that situation as
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at March 27, 2008 12:40 am
I've sat through interviews with Michael in Iraq where Iraqi prisoners of the Hussein regime related their stories to us. I've been to the Red Building with Michael. There is a difference between hells of intent and hells of neglect. The hell of prison in Fallujah was bad because of incompetence; not protracted, deliberate, and refined malice as Saddam's prisons were.
Michael described a hell of neglect where the Iraqi government failed to meet the organizational requirements of the war, again. He did not need to dramatize the situation with hyperbole, he just related the facts of a dramatic failure. He wasn't describing unknown fears of an unknowable future. Michael described a problem that had a known cause and a known undesirable effect. Marines in command read about the problem in their area and made necessary changes.
The hardest part of any military or governmental organization is the logistics, and Iraq is not on its feet with that yet. The best people in shipping in Iraq are actively working for oil companies, legitimate import business, or smugglers. Nobody wants to give up a lucrative career working for a first class outfit to go work for a third rate government, so the people the government gets are learning their jobs. The result in Anbar province is that it is much easier to find fighters to take prisoners than it is to build the transportation and governmental infrastructure to feed prisoners.
Michael wasn't reporting on political ambiguities, he was reporting on the cruelty of incompetent bureaucracies. He got results because the problem was likely to cause failures in the surge.
Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at March 27, 2008 1:00 am
Those who care about horrible prisons might be interested in the Phoenix, AZ, USA jail system.
This article in the Guardian sums it up...
Posted by: Chris Phoenix at March 27, 2008 2:37 am
This has been a great discussion on the comments page. Over the last five years I've come to see that the MSM is the most powerful player for both setting agendas and the interpretation of events -- the fourth estate, as they say. A few years ago I spent a month researching and writing up what I found out about the story of the looting of the Iraq National Museum as Baghdad was falling back in April, 2003. The performance of the MSM is very poor, as even John Burns would later admit. In my article you'll find out how the journalists who had raced to the museum zeroed in on the number 170,000. It ain't pretty, believe me. One interpretation of their behavior is that, for many international and national journalists, it was their first counter-attack against the US government and military. Here's the article:
Iraq Antiquities Revisited.
From reading your blog, your articles, and your comments here, I know that you yourself have learned a lot about how the media covers events (and creates them, in some cases). I would love to read your reflections on journalism in general and what you've learned and how it's affected how you read articles. I recall in our discussion of Nir Rosen's Rolling Stone article that your have some very specific responses and ideas about this. Anyway, I know you're very busy, but I would love to read one day your wide-angle assessment of what you've found on the ground dealing with other journalists and walking the same turf as the MSM.
Posted by: Jeffrey at March 27, 2008 10:11 am
I take anything from the Guardian with two grains of salt instead of the usual one.
Posted by: Boojum at March 27, 2008 10:37 am
Chris Phoenix - Are you related to Dark or Dirk Phoenix in Mytery Men? Just asking????
Sheriff Joe Arpaio is someone that is way ahead of his time; make jail a real had place so you don't want to come back. What a freakin concept?? He needs to be made head of the DHS in a McCain administration. Then I'd feel the our borders would be secure.
Posted by: PeteDawg at March 28, 2008 11:35 am
I continue to assert that when you describe something - and wrap up by calling it progress, you send a message of approval. When you do what the WaPo did, you send a message of disapproval. That was the point of your pair of cites. Wasn't it? Isn't that why one gets flak and one doesn't?
glasnost - why are you trying to stir up a right vs. left argument when there really isn't one?
The report was honest and factual and as a result positive changes were made. If there's any lesson to be learned, it's that factual, unbiased reporting is, generally a good thing. And it's also a rarity in the media. That's something that should change.
Posted by: maryatexitzero at March 28, 2008 5:56 pm
Those who care about horrible prisons might be interested in the Phoenix, AZ.
"English Shaun"
Pillar of society. I wonder how many underage girls he intentionally overdosed then raped and kicked to the curb. I bet it numbers in the hundreds.
Posted by: 13times at March 29, 2008 2:39 am
glasnost - why are you trying to stir up a right vs. left argument when there really isn't one?
I'd like to see allegations of human-rights issues amongst people we work with taken seriously at times when they are not reported on by Michael Totten. Even by conservative media. I don't see that.
See, we might be able to do something about those without killing people: whereas correcting human-rights abuses by people we define as enemies more often involves killing people and lots of it.
So that is why.
Posted by: glasnost at March 30, 2008 1:46 pm
Human rights abuses among people we work with in Iraq are being constantly addressed, whether or not I report it.
I do report it, though. See here.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at March 30, 2008 1:56 pm
glasnost - Who are "people we work with" and who are "people we define as enemies"? We work with the Saudis and they support terrorism worldwide. They're not defined as enemies, but that doesn't mean they're not enemies.
We (kind of) define the Chinese as enemies, sometimes we kind of work with them, yet we're not going to war over the outrages in Tibet, outrages that were well-reported by the conservative and the liberal media. We sorta define the Russians as people we work with and we kinda define them as enemies, but we're not going to war over their various human rights abuses. We (kind of) define Iran as enemies, and our sorta friend/enemies in Russia are working with them, despite everyone's human rights abuses.
Our government's behavior and real attitudes towards "people we work with" and "people we define as enemies" is not always what it seems and it's not always affected by journalism.
Posted by: maryatexitzero at March 30, 2008 3:42 pm
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