Balkinization  

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Horrifying. Shameful.

Marty Lederman

Josh White and Dana Priest have two remarkable stories in the Washington Post this morning. The first recounts how, in February or March of 2002, the President authorized the CIA to recruit and train an Iraqi paramilitary group, code-named the Scorpions, to foment rebellion, conduct sabotage, and help CIA paramilitaries who entered Baghdad and other cities "target buildings and individuals." Priest and White report an Army investigator's testimony that "at some point, and it's not really clear how this happened, [the Scorpions] started being used in interrogations . . . because they spoke the local dialect." Priest and White also quote an intelligence official as saying that the Scorpions were tasked "from time to time, to do 'the dirty work.'"

The second article
, about a CIA/Army/Scorpions murder, must be read in its entirety. This is how it begins:

Iraqi Maj. Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush was being stubborn with his American captors, and a series of intense beatings and creative interrogation tactics were not enough to break his will. On the morning of Nov. 26, 2003, a U.S. Army interrogator and a military guard grabbed a green sleeping bag, stuffed Mowhoush inside, wrapped him in an electrical cord, laid him on the floor and began to go to work. Again.

It was inside the sleeping bag that the 56-year-old detainee took his last breath through broken ribs, lying on the floor beneath a U.S. soldier in Interrogation Room 6 in the western Iraqi desert. Two days before, a secret CIA-sponsored group of Iraqi paramilitaries, working with Army interrogators, had beaten Mowhoush nearly senseless, using fists, a club and a rubber hose, according to classified documents.

The sleeping bag was the idea of a soldier who remembered how his older brother used to force him into one, and how scared and vulnerable it made him feel. Senior officers in charge of the facility near the Syrian border believed that such "claustrophobic techniques" were approved ways to gain information from detainees, part of what military regulations refer to as a "fear up" tactic, according to military court documents.

The circumstances that led up to Mowhoush's death paint a vivid example of how the pressure to produce intelligence for anti-terrorism efforts and the war in Iraq led U.S. military interrogators to improvise and develop abusive measures, not just at Abu Ghraib but in detention centers elsewhere in Iraq, in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Mowhoush's ordeal in Qaim, over 16 days in November 2003, also reflects U.S. government secrecy surrounding some abuse cases . . . .

The sleeping-bag interrogation and beatings were taking place in Qaim about the same time that soldiers at Abu Ghraib, outside Baghdad, were using dogs to intimidate detainees, putting women's underwear on their heads, forcing them to strip in front of female soldiers and attaching at least one to a leash. It was a time when U.S. interrogators were coming up with their own tactics to get detainees to talk, many of which they considered logical interpretations of broad-brush categories in the Army Field Manual, with labels such as "fear up" or "pride and ego down" or "futility."

Other tactics, such as some of those seen at Abu Ghraib, had been approved for one detainee at Guantanamo Bay and found their way to Iraq. Still others have been linked to official Pentagon guidance on specific techniques, such as the use of dogs.

Two Army soldiers with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Fort Carson, Colo., are charged with killing Mowhoush with the sleeping-bag technique, and his death has been the subject of partially open court proceedings at the base in Colorado Springs. Two other soldiers alleged to have participated face potential nonjudicial punishment.

["CREDIT-WHERE-IT'S-DUE" UPDATE: Little did I know it, but the Denver Post (particularly Arthur Kane and Miles Moffeit) has been all over this story for months, with very little, if any, national exposure or fanfare. I've interlineated some links to several of the Denver Post's storys throughout this post.]

Note that this case has nothing whatsoever to do with Al Qaeda or the Taliban. It occurred in Iraq, where, in theory, the Geneva Conventions continue to apply. And it is not limited to the CIA and the Scorpions -- it implicates the military, as well. [UPDATE: The Post has now posted the transcript of the preliminary hearing against two of the charged Army officers.]

Mowhoush -- suspected of being a high-ranking official in Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard and a key supporter of the insurgency in northwestern Iraq -- was detained when he simply "walked into the Forward Operating Base 'Tiger' in Qaim on Nov. 10, 2003, hoping to speak with U.S. commanders to secure the release of his sons, who had been arrested in raids 11 days earlier."

The first stage of his interrogation was handled by the military, not the CIA or the Scorpions. In the months before Mowhoush's detention, White writes, "military intelligence officials across Iraq had been discussing interrogation tactics, expressing a desire to ramp things up and expand their allowed techniques to include more severe methods, such as beatings that did not leave permanent damage, and exploiting detainees' fear of dogs and snakes, according to documents released by the Army." A week into Mowhoush's detainment, a PowerPoint presentation dated Nov. 18 stated that non-threatening interrogation had ended and that the interrogator "took the gloves off because Abid refused to play ball." "In an interrogation that could be witnessed by the entire detainee population, Mowhoush was put into an undescribed 'stress position' that caused the other detainees to stand 'with heads bowed and solemn looks on their faces.'" (White further reports that this shameful technique "backfired," in that the humiliation ensured that Mowhoush "would not be able to stop the [insurgent] attacks.")

The second stage of the Mowhoush interrogation was carried out by an Army "Special Forces" group, by the CIA, and by the dreaded Scorpions. White recounts:

[O]n Nov. 21, 2003, Mowhoush was moved from the border base at Qaim to a makeshift detention facility about six miles away in the Iraqi desert, a prison fashioned out of an old train depot [and nicknamed "Blacksmith Hotel"], according to court testimony and investigative documents. . . . [At] Blacksmith Hotel, . . . teams of Army Special Forces soldiers and the CIA were conducting interrogations [of 350 detainees who were picked up by the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and the 101st Airborne Division in a series of massive raids].

At Blacksmith, according to military sources, there was a tiered system of interrogations. Army interrogators were the first level.

When Army efforts produced nothing useful, detainees would be handed over to members of Operational Detachment Alpha 531, soldiers with the 5th Special Forces Group, the CIA or a combination of the three. . . . If they did not get what they wanted, the interrogators would deliver the detainees to a small team of the CIA-sponsored Iraqi paramilitary squads, code-named Scorpions, according to a military source familiar with the operation. . . .

On Nov. 24, the CIA and one of its four-man Scorpion units interrogated Mowhoush, according to investigative records.

"OGA Brian and the four indig were interrogating an unknown detainee," according to a classified memo, using the slang "other government agency" for the CIA and "indig" for indigenous Iraqis.

"When he didn't answer or provided an answer that they didn't like, at first [redacted] would slap Mowhoush, and then after a few slaps, it turned into punches," Ryan testified. "And then from punches, it turned into [redacted] using a piece of hose."

"The indig were hitting the detainee with fists, a club and a length of rubber hose," according to classified investigative records. [UPDATE: Testimony from the preliminary hearing suggests that the CIA and/or the Scorpions beat detainees with the handle of a sledgehammer. See also this Denver Post story from July 27th.]

Soldiers heard Mowhoush "being beaten with a hard object" and heard him "screaming" from down the hall, according to the Jan. 18, 2004, provost marshal's report. The report said four Army guards had to carry Mowhoush back to his cell.

[UPDATE: According to this Denver Post story in April, an armed forces medical examiner testified that the Novermber 24th beating caused massive bruising over the detainee's back and five broken ribs.]

The third, and final, stage of the interrogation was conducted by four Army officers. On November 26, 2003, Mowhoush was brought, moaning and breathing hard, to Interrogation Room 6, according to court testimony. "Chief Warrant Officer Lewis E. Welshofer Jr. did a first round of interrogations for 30 minutes, taking a 15-minute break and resuming at 8:45. According to court testimony, Welshofer and Spec. Jerry L. Loper, a mechanic assuming the role of guard, put Mowhoush into the sleeping bag and wrapped the bag in electrical wire. Welshofer allegedly crouched over Mowhoush's chest to talk to him. Sgt. 1st Class William Sommer, a linguist, stood nearby. Chief Warrant Officer Jeff Williams, an intelligence analyst, came to observe progress. Investigative records show that Mowhoush 'becomes unresponsive' at 9:06 a.m. Medics tried to resuscitate him for 30 minutes before pronouncing him dead." [UPDATE: Testimony from the preliminary hearing indicates that when the detainee started to pray in the sleeping bag, Welshofer "poured water on the detainee's mouth," and then "cupped his hands over the detainee's mouth, creating a seal while he was sitting on the detainee's chest."]

An Army memo dated May 10, 2004 found that although the death was directly related to the "non-standard interrogation methods" employed by the Army in this third stage, "the circumstances surrounding the death are further complicated due to Mowhoush being interrogated and reportedly beaten by members of a Special Forces team and other government agency (OGA) employees two days earlier."

Williams was arraigned yesterday on a murder charge and is scheduled for court-martial in November, and Welshofer's court-martial is set for October. White reports that Loper and Sommer have not been referred for trial: "Commanders are still considering what, if any, punishment to impose."

At a preliminary court hearing in March for Williams, Loper and Sommer, an interrogator who worked with Welshofer in Iraq, and the Colonel who commanded the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, both told the court that stuffing a detainee in a sleeping bag and putting detainees in a wall locker and banging on it were "appropriate," effective and approved techniques that were used "to frighten detainees and make them tense." White further reports that the "claustrophobic technique" was even used "for some time after" Mowhoush's death, according to sources familiar with the interrogation operation. "The interrogation techniques were known and were approved of by the upper echelons of command of the 3rd ACR," said Williams's attorney. "They believed, and still do, that they were appropriate and proper." [UPDATE: Indeed, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Pratt of the Utah National Guard testified at the preliminary hearing that the sleeping bag technique "was used openly" in "many interrogations"; and the Denver Post reports Williams's attorney as saying that that technique was used for months after Mowhoush's death.]

[UPDATE: As this Salt Lake Tribune story reminds us, the Pentagon issued a widely circulated press statement after Mowhoush's death, in which it announced that he had died "of natural causes" during "an interview with U.S. forces." Not surprisingly, that statement has since "been scrubbed from all Defense Department Web sites."]

In a follow-up post, I'll have a few comments on the possible ramifications of these stories.

Comments:

But. . . according to the administration, guilt or innocence - or criminal prosecution - play no role in this process whatsoever. It's about gathering actionable intelligence. What kind of actionable intelligence does one gather from a dead man? Moreover, how useful is any intelligence gathered from a detainee to whom such methods are applied? The existing experience bank says its inherently unreliable. Indeed, look at Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice - he says exactly the same thing.
 

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