ABU GHRAIB, Iraq—When Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller was assigned two years ago to run the Pentagon's prison camp for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, there had been none of the allegations of abuse that have shocked the world in photos from Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.
But the Guantanamo project, which began in a crude makeshift prison called Camp X-Ray, also wasn't producing much intelligence and had taken on the air of a sultry Caribbean outpost: Some reservists weren't even saluting officers.
So Miller instituted a reward system for prisoners who cooperated with their interrogators: better food, better cells, more exercise, extra bottles of water.
He introduced rigorous training for his soldiers. When they weren't on the cellblocks, analyzing intelligence or preparing for interrogations, they were getting in shape, drilling for an unlikely al-Qaida attack, undergoing snap inspections and doing coursework in their specialties.
The 33-year career officer also added a ritual that appeared almost quaint in its idealism. Along with saluting, the 2,000 U.S. forces assigned to Joint Task Force Guantanamo had a new motto:
"Honor bound," a saluting soldier would say.
"Defend freedom," the officer would reply.
It's a telling anecdote about the man who's now charged with bringing order to the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, where abuse of prisoners, documented in graphic and sometimes pornographic photos, not only has undermined Iraqi support for American efforts here, but also has prompted the worst international condemnation of the United States since the Vietnam War.
As Miller sees it, individuals may have committed crimes at Abu Ghraib, but it was an example of failed leadership. "I'm disgusted, embarrassed and ashamed," he said of the abuse. "We are a nation of honor and standards."
Already, there are questions about whether Miller might have been part of the problem at Abu Ghraib. Last summer, while he was still assigned to Cuba, Miller inspected the prison and recommended that the military police officers who guarded the captives help create conditions for better results from interrogations.
Two months later, the military police at Abu Ghraib were subservient to a military intelligence unit, and the abuses revealed in the photographs were under way.
Miller swats aside notions that his advocacy of integrating military police and interrogations under a single leader somehow enabled the scandal. At a briefing, he said he provided more than 200 pages of standard operating procedures to govern a new relationship.
"I will tell you that those recommendations that we made were based on a system that provided humane detention and excellent interrogation all within the bounds of the third and fourth Geneva Convention," Miller said.
The success or failure of the controversial Cuba project is still a subject of debate. International legal experts and human rights groups scorn the improvised legal framework that the Bush administration argues allows it to hold hundreds of men and boys as so-called enemy combatants.
Intelligence experts question whether years- or months-old details about al-Qaida operations help crack cells that no doubt have shifted strategies. The International Committee of the Red Cross has complained that the detainees' mental health deteriorated during Miller's tenure.
But there's no doubt that Miller's record at Guantanamo is one of the reasons he's now in charge at Abu Ghraib, or that the way he operated at Guantanamo provides insight into how he'll try to gain control of the sprawling American prison system in Iraq.
"Without hype or overstatement, Major General Geoff Miller's performance as the commander of JTF Guantanamo was the finest example of personal leadership and organization that I have seen in my 36 years of service," said Gen. James "Tom" Hill, the commander of the Pentagon's Miami-based Southern Command, which has responsibility for Guantanamo.
When Miller took charge at Guantanamo, the prison camp, like Abu Ghraib, had been under the command of reservists who'd been plucked from their civilian lives and pressed into service. The military police guarding the prisoners reported to a Rhode Island National Guard brigadier general on his first overseas assignment. The interrogators reported to a two-star reserve general, a Vietnam veteran who'd been mobilized from a court bench in Erie, Pa.
Miller, an artilleryman by training, had no experience running either prison guards or military interrogation units. A native Texan with a habit of punctuating his sentences with "OK?," he took a crash course in interrogation in Guantanamo and learned to love the work by watching through one-way mirrors as interrogators, interpreters and analysts questioned captives in specially built and designed booths inside trailers. He called the questioners his "tiger teams."
He boasts that he takes personal responsibility for 22,000 interrogations. In Cuba, he would candidly admit that, as a novice to the world of interrogations, he would stop by the trailers as often as his schedule allowed.
At Guantanamo, he directed everything from special intelligence training for promising reservists to speaking at church services to personally monitoring the work of reporters who are granted brief visits to the isolated offshore base.
A former Army deputy chief of staff for personnel, he loved to use terminology such as "actionable intelligence" to describe, without detail, the kind of material his "tiger teams" generated.
His system of rewards and analysis helped identify prisoners, including two now facing military tribunals: a Yemeni man who worked as Osama bin Laden's Kandahar driver and a former al-Qaida accountant in charge of paying salaries.
How well his techniques will travel to Iraq is unclear. At Guantanamo, soldiers outnumber the 600 or so prisoners 3 to 1, and the battlegrounds where the captives were seized are thousands of miles away.
In Iraq, the U.S. prison system includes not only Abu Ghraib, but also three other major facilities and at least 11 smaller ones, housing at least 8,000 prisoners. Inmates at Abu Ghraib outnumber soldiers more than 2 to 1, and the soldiers work long hours and routinely come under mortar and grenade fire from insurgents.
During a tour Monday of Abu Ghraib, Miller was bubbling with enthusiasm about changes he's made since he arrived April 15. He boasted that each tent block of as many as 500 prisoners now has an Arabic copy of the Geneva Conventions. He made it clear that he's started implementing his Guantanamo formula by thinning Iraq's prison population—down from 9,500 amid speedier reviews of captives' files—and instituting training, training and more training.
Commanders said guards now got more snap inspections and constant refresher courses on the Geneva Conventions and the rules under which force can be used.
Miller has ordered faster, more deliberate sorting of prisoners for future Iraqi-run trials, more interrogation to help the U.S. war effort and a series of releases or transfers, in part to restore Iraqis' confidence in the American-led coalition amid the ongoing sexual humiliation scandal.
Monday, Miller also unveiled a crude visitors center, a series of barbed wire-ringed tents where, under his plan, Iraqi families can see prisoners, by appointment, through a computer hookup, as often as twice a month. Previously, Iraqis were able to see prisoners only every six to nine months, Army Lt. Col. Craig Essick said.
He's even instituted drills for the captives.
Prisoners now practice, to the sound of a siren, rushing from their tents to cement block shelters that Miller ordered installed around the compound in case of mortar attack. An attack April 20 killed 22 prisoners and wounded 91.
On Monday, Miller grinned, wondered whether the expression was politically correct, then said the first such exercise "looked like a Chinese fire drill."
Said Army Col. Dave Quantock, the commander of the 16th Military Police Brigade and a 24-year career officer, "He thinks outside the box."
(Rosenberg reports for The Miami Herald.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040510 USIRAQ MILLER