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Baltimore Sun investigation: Abuse goes far beyond the military police
Soldiers' warnings ignored
Failures: The blame for what happened at Abu Ghraib goes far beyond the
military police, intelligence soldiers say.
By Todd Richissin
Sun Foreign Staff
Originally published May 9, 2004
WIESBADEN, Germany - The two military intelligence soldiers, assigned
interrogation duties at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, were young, relatively
new to the Army and had only one day of training on how to pry information from
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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."
Too many prisoners
About 800 Iraqis were in the section the two soldiers were assigned to. To
interview all of those prisoners, only about 20 two-person teams of
interrogators - called "Tiger Teams" - were available, and they had access to
even fewer interpreters.
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
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
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.'"
'Wild, wild west'
The made-up list spawned a couple of other terms, the soldiers said: "going
cowboy" and "wild, wild west."
"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
Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun
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