Video: Culture of acceptance behind abuse?

NBC News
updated 9/28/2005 7:29:54 PM ET 2005-09-28T23:29:54

The Pentagon has been actively prosecuting every soldier involved in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. But in an exclusive interview an active duty U.S. Army captain says it's not just rogue, low-level soldiers behind the abuse of detainees in Iraq. He says there's a culture in the high ranks of the military that allowed the abuse to occur.

Capt. Ian Fishback is a highly decorated soldier — a West Point graduate, with two Bronze Stars and training for special forces. He has never talked on camera until now.

"Stripping detainees is unacceptable," explains Fishback. "Leaving detainees outside overnight is unacceptable."

Fishback charges that while at three bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, he and his peers and subordinates witnessed abuse of detainees. He says the abuse included everything from "physical beatings of detainees, to death threats, to harsh exposure to the elements, vigorous physical exertion to the point of fainting."

Is he saying the abuse of detainees was not just a few bad apples at Abu Ghraib prison?

"Yes," says Fishback, "there was a systemic problem, and it was widespread."

He says that when the shocking photos came out from Abu Ghraib, he thought some were abhorrent and over the line, but many techniques looked familiar.

"I thought those were acceptable interrogation techniques," says Fishback, "based on the interrogation techniques that I had seen in Afghanistan."

Did his superiors know about the abuses that he now believes violated the Geneva Convention?

"I believe some of the abuses listed were approved or condoned by the chain of command," he says.

Fishback says for 17 months he has tried to get the military to clarify what is and isn’t allowed in dealing with detainees — to no avail.

Recently, out of frustration, he gave information to Human Rights Watch and then to key senators, which finally caused the Pentagon to investigate his allegations. The Pentagon says most of Fishback’s information is second- and third-hand.

"That is true," admits Fishback.

Then why should anyone believe him?

"Because," he says, "the second- and third-hand information comes from men who I believe are both honorable and intelligent."

How does Fishback respond to some soldiers, who view what he’s doing as highly unpatriotic?

"In my mind," says Fishback, "this is clearly an act of patriotism."

Wednesday, a U.S. Army spokesman tells NBC News, "we have new investigative leads that we are following up on right now."

The Pentagon says it’s investigating these allegations vigorously and that if someone did something wrong they'll be punished.

Lisa Myers is NBC's senior investigative correspondent.

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