`There were no rules there'

Account details abuse of detainees at secret camp outside Baghdad

March 19, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

As the Iraqi insurgency intensified in early 2004, an elite Special Operations unit converted one of Saddam Hussein's former military bases near Baghdad into a top-secret detention center. There, American soldiers made one of the former Iraqi government's torture chambers into their own interrogation cell. They named it the Black Room.

In the windowless room, some soldiers beat prisoners with rifle butts and spat in their faces, and, in a nearby area, used detainees for target practice in a game of jailer paintball. Their intention was to extract information to help hunt down Iraq's most-wanted terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, according to Defense Department personnel who served with the unit or were briefed on its operations.

The Black Room was part of a temporary detention site at Baghdad International Airport's Camp Nama, the secret headquarters of a military unit known as Task Force 6-26.

Placards posted by soldiers at the detention area read, "NO BLOOD, NO FOUL." According to Pentagon specialists who worked with the unit, prisoners at Camp Nama often disappeared into a detention black hole, barred from access to lawyers or relatives, and confined for weeks without charges. "The reality is, there were no rules there," another Pentagon official said.

The following account of Task Force 6-26, based on documents and interviews with more than a dozen people, offers the first detailed description of how the military's most highly trained counterterrorism unit committed serious abuse.

It adds to the picture of harsh interrogation practices at some American military prisons as well as at secret CIA detention centers. The account reveals the extent to which the unit members mistreated prisoners months before and after the abuse at Abu Ghraib was made public in April 2004, and it helps belie the Pentagon assertions that abuse was confined to a small number of reservists at Abu Ghraib.

Abuse at Camp Nama continued despite warnings beginning in August 2003 from an Army investigator, and U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials in Iraq. The CIA barred personnel from Camp Nama that August.

For an elite unit with roughly 1,000 people at any given time, Task Force 6-26 seems to have had a large number of troops punished for detainee abuse. Since 2003, 34 task force members have been disciplined for mistreating prisoners, and at least 11 members have been removed from the unit. Five Army Rangers in the unit were convicted three months ago of kicking and punching three detainees in September 2005.

Some of the serious accusations against Task Force 6-26 have been reported over the past 16 months by U.S. news organizations. Many details emerged in documents released after a request by the American Civil Liberties Union. But taken together, the documents and interviews with more than a dozen military and civilian Defense Department and other federal personnel provide the most detailed portrait yet of the secret camp.

Most of the people interviewed for this article were midlevel civilian and military Defense Department personnel who worked with Task Force 6-26 and said they witnessed abuse, or who were briefed on its operations over the past three years. Virtually all were granted anonymity to encourage them to speak candidly without fear of retribution.

Military officials say there may have been extenuating circumstances for some of the harsh treatment at Camp Nama. By the spring of 2004, the demand for intelligence was growing to help combat the increasingly numerous and deadly insurgent attacks.

A spokesman for the Special Operations Command, Kenneth S. McGraw, said misconduct was proved in five of 29 allegations against task force members since 2003. As a result, 34 people were disciplined.

"We take all those allegations seriously," said Gen. Bryan D. Brown, the commander of the Special Operations Command.

Brown's command declined requests for interviews with several former task force members.

Detainee abuses attributed to Task Force 6-26 demonstrate confusion over and, in some cases, disregard for approved interrogation practices, according to Defense Department specialists who have worked with the unit.

In early 2004, an 18-year-old man suspected of selling cars to the Zarqawi network was seized with his family in Baghdad. Task force soldiers beat him with a rifle butt, and punched him in the head and kidneys, said a Defense Department specialist briefed on the incident.

High-value detainees at Camp Nama were questioned in the Black Room, nearly bare but for several 18-inch hooks that jutted from the ceiling, a grisly reminder of the terrors inflicted by Hussein's inquisitors.

A smaller room had carpets and cushioned seating to put more cooperative prisoners at ease, said several Defense Department specialists who worked at Camp Nama.

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