Prison Interrogations in Iraq Seen as Yielding Little Data on Rebels

[ Civilian and military intelligence officials report that “most of the prisoners held in the special cellblock that became the setting for the worst abuses at Abu Ghraib apparently were not linked to the insurgency.” –BL ]

May 27, 2004 | New York Times


WASHINGTON, May 26 — The questioning of hundreds of Iraqi prisoners last fall in the newly established interrogation center at Abu Ghraib prison yielded very little valuable intelligence, according to civilian and military officials.

The interrogation center was set up in September to obtain better information about an insurgency in Iraq that was killing American soldiers almost every day by last fall. The insurgency was better organized and more vigorous than the United States had expected, prompting concern among generals and Pentagon officials who were unhappy with the flow of intelligence to combat units and to higher headquarters.

But civilian and military intelligence officials, as well as top commanders with access to intelligence reports, now say they learned little about the insurgency from questioning inmates at the prison. Most of the prisoners held in the special cellblock that became the setting for the worst abuses at Abu Ghraib apparently were not linked to the insurgency, they said.

All of the prisoners sent to Abu Ghraib had already been questioned by the troops who captured them for urgent information about roadside bombs, imminent attacks and the like.

The officials could not say whether the harsh interrogation methods used at Abu Ghraib were counterproductive. But they said few if any prisoners there had been able to shed light on questions to which Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top American commander for the Middle East, and his deputies had assigned highest priority, including the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein and the nature of the insurgency’s leadership.

“Most of our useful intelligence came from battlefield interrogations, and at the battalion, brigade and division-level interrogation facilities,” said a senior military intelligence officer who served in Iraq. Once prisoners were sent on to Abu Ghraib, the officer said, “we got very little feedback.”

One American general who recently returned from Iraq put the concerns of many senior officers about what happened to the detainees this way: “There was a sense when someone was sent down there, they went into a black hole and never came out.”

In Senate testimony last week, General Abizaid defended interrogation practices used in Iraq, saying the information obtained served to save American lives. But he made no specific mention of Abu Ghraib, and military officers said the kind of intelligence he was referring to, about the location of hidden explosives or the details of planned attacks, had been obtained more often by soldiers in the field.

General Abizaid made clear in his testimony that the intelligence-gathering effort that he and Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the top American commander in Baghdad, set in motion late last summer had fallen short of its intended goal of getting a clear picture of the insurgency.

“We were dealing with a systemic problem, and we still don’t have as good a view as we’d like to have about the nature of the insurgency and who’s in charge and where the cells move and how they operate,” he said.

The Tier 1 cellblock at Abu Ghraib was set aside from the rest of the prison to house as many as 600 prisoners designated as “security detainees” because of their suspected involvement in or knowledge about attacks on American troops. This designation set them apart from the thousands of Iraqis imprisoned as criminals, who were held in less-secure sections of Abu Ghraib, and the 100 or so former top Iraqi officials designated as “high-value detainees” because of their suspected knowledge about Iraq’s weapons programs or other such issues, and who were held in a special facility on the outskirts of the Baghdad airport.

In practice, however, many of the “security detainees” fell into a vague middle ground, between what Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld described this month as “high-value targets,” who were “much more interesting from the standpoint of the interrogation process,” and “a simple low-level person” who is “simply being kept off the street for a period.”

In general, said a senior Army officer who served in Iraq, many of the prisoners held in the isolation wing at Abu Ghraib were kept there long beyond any period of usefulness because “no one wanted to be responsible for releasing the next Osama bin Laden.”

According to two senior officers, in high-level meetings in Baghdad in December some top American commanders, including Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of the Fourth Infantry Division, were openly unhappy about the quality of intelligence provided during a briefing by Brig. Gen. Barbara Fast, who as the intelligence deputy to General Sanchez oversaw the interrogation center at Abu Ghraib. “We weren’t getting the feedback we wanted,” one of the officers said.

The capture of Mr. Hussein later in December by soldiers from General Odierno’s division and a team of military commandos was carried out on the basis of intelligence from sources interrogated outside the prison, senior Army officers said.

The Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center at Abu Ghraib was established in September under the command of Lt. Col. Steve Jordan, and quickly established effective control over the cellblock set aside for the “security prisoners.”

Many of the prisoners in that cellblock spent months in Abu Ghraib, and some became victims of horrific abuse at the hands of the military police. Army investigators are reviewing evidence that the guards were encouraged in their tactics by interrogators, who adopted harsh tactics used earlier in Afghanistan and were instructed to work closely with the guards to break down prisoners’ resistance to questioning.

Interviews and documents obtained by The New York Times depict the interrogation center as a home to intimidating practices, including the use of dogs in interrogation rooms, some of which were constructed from shipping containers.

People who served there described a range of interrogation tactics, including interrogators’ breaking tables as a show of force. One interrogation area, known as “Steel,” was assembled in November from the shipping containers. Another, called “Wood,” was built from that material in October, according to a former officer at the prison.

In some ways, the cellblock was much more tightly controlled than the rest of the prison.

An undated list of “operational guidelines” for the cellblock directs, among other things, that the officers overseeing the interrogation center “will provide Segregation M.P.’s with an access roster of persons allowed to access the cells and walkways in Areas 1A and 1B.”

“Additionally,” the document says, “it is recommended that all military personnel in the segregation area reduce knowledge of their true identities to those specialized detainees. The use of sterilized uniforms” — uniforms without insignia — “is highly suggested and personnel should NOT address each other by true name and rank in the segregation area.”

No one from the interrogation center has been charged with crimes in connection with the abuses, several weeks after an initial Army inquiry suggested that Colonel Jordan, among three other senior officers and civilian contractors, was “directly or indirectly” culpable in the abuses.

General Sanchez and other Army officials have said broader control of Abu Ghraib was not transferred from a military police unit, under Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, to an Army intelligence unit, under Col. Thomas M. Pappas, until Nov. 19, when the intelligence unit was put in charge of protecting the prison against attack and of the inmates’ safety. By then, abusive practices had been photographed in the prison for about a month, and the International Committee of the Red Cross had already filed an official complaint about the practices.

But the documents and interviews suggest that de facto control of the isolation cellblock had been given to the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center by mid-October.

A classified memorandum issued by General Sanchez on Oct. 12, outlining a new “interrogation and counter-resistance policy,” directs that “the interrogator should appear to be the one who controls all aspects of the interrogation . . . as well as food, clothing, and shelter given to the security internee,” according to a briefing provided to Senate staff members last week by two senior Army officers.

The Oct. 12 memorandum advocated an “interrogation approach designed to manipulate internees’ emotions and weaknesses to gain his willing cooperation,” the Army officers said in the briefing.

At the opposite end of the cellblock compound from the “Steel” interrogation site were the “Wood” interrogation rooms, according to Army officers who served at the prison.

The rooms in both sites included two-way mirrors, chairs and a table, but interrogations were also sometimes conducted in the showers, stairwells and other sections of the cellblock’s isolation area, according to statements given to military investigators and included in the documents obtained by The Times.

The interrogation center also included an operations headquarters as well as what was known as Interrogation Coordination Element, or ICE, headed by Capt. Carolyn A. Wood of the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion, whose members had conducted interrogations at an American detention center at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

On occasion, according to some statements collected in the investigations so far, members of the 372nd Military Police Company assigned to guard the isolation cellblock were invited into interrogation rooms and sometimes instructed to yell at or otherwise intimidate Iraqi prisoners being questioned. This is a violation of standard Army rules on the role of the military police.

One civilian interrogator, identified as Daniel E. Johnson, an employee of the Virginia-based CACI Premier Technology, is described in a Jan. 23 statement to an investigator as acknowledging that “he is aggressive in an interview, he generally yells in their face, and throws the table in the room.”

Another civilian interrogator from the same company, whose employees were working in the interrogation center, was described as being known for breaking tables during interrogations.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the top military spokesman in Baghdad, has declined to respond to questions about the interrogation center or Colonel Jordan, saying that to do so could compromise an investigation being conducted by Maj. Gen. George Fay, the Army’s No. 2 intelligence official.

But Col. Jill Morgenthaler, chief of public affairs at the military headquarters in Baghdad, acknowledged in an e-mail message that while Colonel Jordan had been “assigned to” Colonel Pappas’s brigade, he was not under its operational control.

In interviews, several Army officers, including General Karpinski, said Colonel Jordan had received broad direction from General Fast, director of intelligence for occupation forces in Baghdad, who had been responsible for setting up the interrogation center.

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