Behind Iraq abuses, a desperate need to gather information

Amid insurgency, demand came from highest levels

Political consequences loom

May 16, 2004|By Scott Shane and Tom Bowman | Scott Shane and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Last November, Army Sgt. Gary Yoakam's left hand was blown off by an Iraqi insurgent's rocket-propelled grenade. He turned to see one friend dying, another with his legs blown off and a third man bleeding heavily.

It was six months after President Bush had declared the end of major combat. It was just at the time of the most grotesque of the sexual abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.

On the surface, there was no connection between the intensifying warfare and the weird torments inflicted on detainees in the chaotic prison. But evidence is increasing that the worsening combat - unquestionably "major" to those in the middle of it - might have created the pressure that produced the abuse.

Thirty U.S. soldiers had been killed in September, 43 in October, and 82 would die in November. A wave of suicide bombings hit Baghdad, and guerrillas shot a Chinook helicopter out of the sky, killing 16 American soldiers.

Military commanders and Washington officials who had hoped to be building democracy discovered that they had not yet won the peace.

Pressure for better intelligence was coming from the very top of the chain of command: "We got to make sure that not only we harden targets but that we get actionable intelligence to intercept the missions before they begin," the president said at a Rose Garden news conference.

Yoakam, 21, now at home in Ohio with his wife and baby, understood that U.S. military interrogators were getting increasingly urgent demands.

"We knew they were under a lot of pressure to get information - and give us information - so we could get things done," Yoakam recalls. "The more information they got to us ground-pounders, the more information we had to use to catch the masterminds or leaders of the Saddam [Hussein] loyalists and stop the attacks."

Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other top officials have insisted that the prisoner abuse scandal resulted from a small number of out-of-control military police officers in defiance of their training and orders. If that version is confirmed by investigations now under way, the issue is likely to shrink swiftly in significance.

But there's another possibility: that the abuse resulted from a high-level military decision to allow harsh treatment in a desperate bid for intelligence to thwart the insurgency.

Political fallout

That possibility, unproved but supported by statements of many of those charged or reprimanded in the abuse, could have serious political consequences for the Bush administration. It could bring accusations of cover-up and months of revelations and recriminations over how high responsibility for the abuse went.

In Senate testimony last week, the Army officer who investigated the abuse, Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, took a middle course. He said the MPs "were probably influenced by others - not necessarily directed by others." Taguba said he found no orders, written or verbal, directing the abuse.

But a new investigation by the No. 2 officer in Army intelligence, Maj. Gen. George Fay, is looking into the involvement of military intelligence personnel. His findings are expected by the end of May.

Clues that instructions, explicit or implicit, came from above to "soften up" prisoners for interrogation are multiplying:

The Red Cross: Inspectors from the International Committee of the Red Cross who visited Abu Ghraib prison in mid-October saw detainees kept for days "completely naked in totally empty concrete cells and in total darkness" and halted their inspection to complain to U.S. officials.

"The military intelligence officer in charge of the interrogation explained that this practice was `part of the process,'" the Red Cross report says.

Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the military police commander who had been in charge of all detention centers in Iraq, said through her attorney Friday that she never got the Red Cross' written report on its October visit.

But at a late November meeting, Karpinski discovered that the Red Cross findings had gone to the office of Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said her lawyer, Neal Puckett.

Attending the meeting, Puckett said, were Maj. Gen. Walter Wojdakowski, Sanchez's deputy; Col. Thomas M. Pappas, the commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, who had taken control of Abu Ghraib from Karpinski on Nov. 19; and several Army legal officers.

All showed knowledge of the Red Cross report, joking about one detail: that male detainees were given women's underwear when male underwear ran out, Karpinski said. Karpinski "was told not to worry about it" by one of the legal officers, according to Puckett. "The JAGs [from the Judge Advocate General's office] were going to prepare a response for her signature."

That response was prepared for Karpinski in December, and she signed it, said Puckett.

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