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.
For Sgt. 1st Class Michael Pratt it would have been far easier to look away. If war is hell, after all, there are going to be some demons. And since hooking up with the Colorado-based 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq in early 2003, the Utah National Guard soldier had learned it was simpler to ignore questionable actions than report them.
But the guardsman couldn’t look past what he had seen in the Al Qiem Detention Facility. Not after the death of an inmate whom he believed had been abused by a senior officer. Not even as the Army announced that the prisoner had died “of natural causes.”
Army records show that apparent abuses of inmates at the makeshift prison, known as the Blacksmith Hotel, may have been ignored had Pratt not reported his concerns to Utah Guard officials, outside the chain of command of the unit to which he was temporarily assigned. The documents, transcripts from testimony given by Pratt in a closed hearing last March, also detail the soldier’s struggles to do what he felt was right in the face of pressure to remain silent.
How did he go about it? Repeatedly lodging complaints that were ignored or brushed off:
Among the allegations made in his testimony: That he had witnessed a soldier shoot a 14-year-old boy in the back during a raid – as the boy was running away. That matter, he claimed, was never thoroughly investigated, though fellow soldiers assured him that the rules of engagement had been followed when the teen was shot.
Later, when he learned that unqualified soldiers were conducting interrogations, Pratt again logged a compliant. In response, he testified, he was investigated – and told by other soldiers it was for blackmail purposes.
The final blow came when Pratt reported that a group of combat engineers had confiscated a large stash of currency from an Iraqi family who intended to use the money to send their daughter to Jordan for an operation. When he reported the matter to an officer in his chain of command, Pratt said, “he told me I was getting too close to the Iraqis. He accused me of losing my objectivity.”
“After that incident,” Pratt said. “I realized that it was pointless to report anything.”
That is not, as we have been told repeatedly, a few bad eggs. That is, if Pratt’s claims are accurate, a systemic and institutional problem. And from my experiences in the Army, entire units don’t just go rogue- they take their cues from the leadership. Which, according to Pratt, they did here:
Still, Pratt said he confronted the senior soldier after he watched another officer pull a sleeping bag over an inmate, immobilizing the man with cord before slamming him to the ground. When the inmate began to pray aloud, Pratt said, the officer poured water into his mouth and cupped his hands over the inmate’s face.
Welshofer, the unit’s “subject matter expert” on interrogation techniques, told Pratt “the sleeping bag technique” was authorized, though only certain soldiers were allowed to use it, according to Pratt’s testimony.
Again, while CWO Welshofer has been charged with the murder, as well as several other low level grunts, it is simply too difficult to believe that they repeatedly got these ideas on their own, acted on them, and that others in the chain of command didn’t know what was going on. It defies my experiences, at least. Even if they did, it points to a cavalier approach to interrogation in general, if slipshod spur of the moment ideas ruled the day over tried and true interrogation methods.
I really want to believe that this is just a few rogue soldiers in all of these cases, but the evidence keeps pointing back to approved interrogation techniques (and in fairness, much of this went well beyond approved methods), a sense of ‘anything goes’ because of the muddled legal status of the detainees, a general disregard in the chain of command, a chain of evidence linking policies to different detainment centers, willing participation by clandestine services working in concert** with military intelligence officers and being given free reign with prisoners and junior level enlisted men, and it stinks. It smells like institutional rot, and at the very least a pattern of negligence and callous disregard, something even the military appears willing to admit.
And if just one of you claims I am trying to smear all soldiers, I am going to blow a gasket. You know who you are, so just keep it to yourself. I want the people who put our soldiers in this position to be held accountable and to have a clear and open airing of what has gone on and what continues to go on today. Even if it goes to Rumsfeld and beyond.
And, as always, I am only working with the information that is out there, so I understand there may be more to the story. But this is what I have right now.
** Much more here, in this Amnesty International Report:
On 20 June 2005, Amnesty International delegates visited two Yemeni detainees said to have recently been transferred from the US detention facility at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. However, their accounts described another US detention regime just as sinister, yet more secretive, than Guantánamo. The men appear to have been victims of the US administration’s policy of secret detentions around the world. For over a year and a half they had effectively “disappeared”…
After approximately four days of solitary confinement in Jordan, both men state that they were blindfolded and shackled before being transported in what they described as a small plane for between three and a half to four and a half hours to a second location. Both men state that the guards during the transfer were from the USA.
The place they were held for the next six to eight months was described as an old-style underground facility with high walls. The cells were approximately 1.5m x 2m with buckets instead of toilets. Western music was piped into the cells 24 hours a day. As before, the men were given no reason for their detention, nor were they informed about their rights. They describe being interrogated by US officials about people they might have known and about their activities in Afghanistan and Indonesia. Apart from the guards, the interrogators and translators, the men did not speak to or see any other people during this stage of detention. Neither knew the other was detained. Each was held in solitary confinement, “disappeared” as far as the rest of the world was concerned…
Authorities in Yemen told Amnesty International that they have no reason for holding the two men except that their transfer from US detention was conditional upon them being held in Yemen. One official complained: “now we are running prisons for the Americans”. Another stated that they have finished questioning the men and found they have nothing against them, it is “just a matter of telling the US authorities that we will set them free”.
*** Update ***