Soldiers' warnings ignored

Failures: The blame for what happened at Abu Ghraib goes far beyond the military police, intelligence soldiers say.

Crisis In Iraq

May 09, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

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 high-value prisoners.

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."

Interrogations

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."

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