But almost immediately on their arrival in Iraq, say the two members of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, they recognized that what was happening around them was wrong, morally and legally.
They said in interviews Friday and yesterday that the abuses were not caused by a handful of rogue soldiers poorly supervised and lacking morals but resulted from failures that went beyond the low-ranking military police charged with abuse.
The beatings, the two soldiers said, were meted out with the full knowledge of intelligence interrogators, who let military police know which prisoners were cooperating with them and which were not.
"I was told, 'Don't worry about it - they probably deserved it,'" one of the soldiers said in an interview, referring to complaints he made while trying to persuade the Army to investigate. "I was appalled."
The two soldiers are the first from a military intelligence unit known to speak publicly about what happened at Abu Ghraib, and they are the first from such a unit to contend publicly that some interrogators were complicit in the abuses. The soldiers stressed that not all interrogators were involved.
The soldiers were interviewed together Friday in person and then separately yesterday by telephone. They said they had alerted superiors at Abu Ghraib and the Army's Criminal Investigations Division by November or early December of prisoners being beaten, stripped naked and paraded in front of other inmates.
Parts of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade were in Iraq from the start of the war, handling such duties as signal interceptions and identifying targets to be bombed. Only after the war did some members of the brigade end up as interrogators at Abu Ghraib.
What the soldiers spoke of, they know first-hand. They were inside the cramped wooden booths at the prison while Iraqis were interrogated, and they lived at the prison last fall and winter, when the worst abuses are thought to have occurred.
Their description of the prison and of the circumstances that helped it get that way indicate that troops stationed at Abu Ghraib were severely undertrained and were pressed into highly sensitive duties for which they had never prepared. Contributing to the problems at the prison, in their view, was the lack of soldiers to keep order and manage prisoners.
"We would see prisoners who had been sitting for months without being interrogated," one of the soldiers said. "We just didn't have anybody who could get to them, to get them out of there."
"There was like a big disconnect at every level," said the other. "Guys were given jobs they had never done, contractors [working as interrogators] are in there acting like they're in the movies. The whole operation was like a chicken with its head cut off."
The soldiers spoke on the condition that they not be identified because of concern that their military careers would be ruined, and because their unit was given a written directive not to speak to the press.
The Department of the Army at the Pentagon referred requests for comment on the military intelligence unit to Central Command in Baghdad. A person who answered the telephone there said nobody was available to comment.
"Everybody knew what was going on, but when we complained, we were ignored," said one of the soldiers. "We knew some [military police] were getting some blame, but what we were complaining about went way beyond them."
"We weren't at the other holding areas, so I don't want to say for sure the same thing was going on at them," said the other soldier, both of whom are in their 20s. "But it was going on there. The guys doing the interrogating, the MPs, they were all the same guys, going one place to the other. We were the standard on how to treat the prisoners."
The two soldiers hold the relatively low rank of specialist, which is more a reflection of their time in the Army - less than three years.
Though they entered Iraq with no training in interrogation, they were assigned to extract information from prisoners considered of high intelligence value - ranking Baath Party members and suspected insurgents, for example - and report on their findings.
They had access to prisoner files, they said, and interviewed several Iraqis who claimed they had been beaten by military police after being told by intelligence interrogators that they would be punished for their lack of cooperation.
"There would be the handoff from MI [Military Intelligence] to the MPs, and the word would be, 'Here you go, here's one who's not cooperating,'" one of the soldiers said. "Then - What do you know? - that prisoner ends up beaten or paraded around naked."
One of the soldiers witnessed military intelligence interrogators put one Iraqi naked under an outside shower for four hours in view of other prisoners, a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which the soldiers said they were briefed on.
They encountered another Iraqi prisoner whose face was badly disfigured from a beating, but they said complaints about this were also ignored even after they questioned other injured Iraqis and found a pattern of them being abused.
"I have an obligation to the Army, and I have an obligation to follow my orders," one of the soldiers said. "I also have an obligation to be a decent person and do what's right and to do what I can to get the truth out."
The soldiers interviewed estimate that about 3,000 Iraqis were held by the U.S. military at Abu Ghraib prison, the most notorious of Saddam Hussein's torture facilities.
In the days after the fall of Baghdad, the prison was accessible to anybody, and former prisoners of the deposed regime visited their old cells, walked through the execution chamber where two nooses still dangled above open trapdoors.
Then the Army took over the facility, in part because soldiers had nowhere else to detain hundreds of looters being arrested on the streets.
The Iraqi prisoners were divided into two main categories: common criminals and "MI Hold," military shorthand for those designated as potential sources of intelligence information.
The MI Hold section, where it is believed many of the naked and abused Iraqis were photographed, was subdivided into two camps, Camp Vigilant and Isolation.
Procedure dictated that prisoners in MI Hold had to be interrogated at least three times before being released, though the soldiers interviewed for this article said they quickly determined that at least 25 percent of those locked in this section had done nothing wrong and even fewer were of any intelligence value.
For months, though, prisoners languished, contributing to unrest at Abu Ghraib, which led to riots and the killing of several Iraqis by the Army.
"Some of these guys didn't even have paperwork or files for me to read before I could get them in the [interrogation] booth," one of the soldiers said. "I'm sorry if it sounds mean, but I wasn't there to do humanitarian work, so I wasn't going to take someone in just so I could get him released. There were other prisoners we thought had information that would help us save lives, so they were our priority. Those were the guys we took in the booth."
Interrogations typically lasted three hours, often more, which led to the backup of prisoners.
"We were working 12-hour days, sometimes more, six days a week - and then catching up on the seventh day," one of the soldiers said. "It's not like we weren't working. We just didn't have enough guys."
As described by the soldiers, military intelligence was under enormous pressure to get "actionable intelligence" during this time. The soldiers were working from two lists of tactics to get Iraqis to talk.
The "A" list included directly asking for information as well as relatively mild interrogation techniques, such as becoming angry with the prisoner or threatening to withhold meals - but not actually doing so. The interrogators were free to use these techniques at their will.
The "B" list included harsher techniques, such as sleep deprivation and withholding meals.
These techniques were considered acceptable, but because they were also considered close to the line of abuse, the interrogators could not use them without permission from their commanding officer, Col. Thomas Pappas, or his designate.
Around November, with casualties among U.S. troops rising, Saddam Hussein still in hiding and solid intelligence becoming more urgent, Pappas issued an order that broadened acceptable interrogation methods.
"I think he was referring to any techniques on the A and B lists," the soldier said. "But there was kind of the third list, the unofficial list. Guys called that the 'made-up list.'"
"I don't know where they got this from, but the MPs would say it all the time," one of the soldiers said. "MI would drop off a guy who wasn't talking, and the MP would say, 'So looks like I'll be going cowboy on him' or 'Looks like he needs some wild, wild west.'"
The terms meant beatings, they said, and the military intelligence interrogators and private contractors did nothing to discourage them.
They do not believe, the soldiers said, that Pappas realized the extent of the abuses. A Pentagon source last week said that Pappas had received a severe letter of reprimand, which will most likely end his career. The letter was a result of an investigation by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba.
Pappas did not return several phone messages and an e-mail seeking comment.
The soldiers said they had nothing against the colonel and, in fact, that they feel sorry for him. Pappas, they said, was rarely seen in the prison; however, through orders by the American ground command, headed by Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, he was assigned responsibility for Abu Ghraib.
"We never saw him," one of the soldiers said. "He ate, worked and slept in one room. So it's like nobody's in charge, but these guys didn't need someone in charge to tell them not to do the things they were doing."
Many of the military intelligence interrogators were paired with private contractors from CACI International and with linguists from Titan Inc. The soldiers said most of those employees seemed to operate with autonomy, seemingly answerable to nobody in the command.
"They would say it right out, that 'we don't answer to you,'" one of the soldiers said. The Taguba report recommended that two of the contractors employed by CACI be dismissed.
Yet another investigation by the Army, at least the fourth involving the abuses at Abu Ghraib, is now under way. It is being conducted by Maj. Gen George Fay, who is in Iraq interviewing some of those involved.
He is expected in Wiesbaden within the next couple of weeks.
"Here's my point," one of the soldiers said. "All this that's going on? All these pictures all over the place, the whole world hating even more the United States? If two specialists could see how serious it was, how come nobody else could?"