War Stories: Walking A Fine Line In Iraq

It's an odd day when the following needs to be said: Despite the systematic and sadistic abuse of Iraqi prisoners, the U.S. military is not "Lord of the Flies" in desert cammies. In war, the law of the jungle is a constant lure, especially for soldiers trying to distinguish between detainees who are common criminals, cases of mistaken identity, terrorists or intelligence subjects. The "rendering" techniques of the CIA, who often assist in army interrogations, are as unfamiliar to the public as they are fuzzy in hewing to Geneva Convention rules.

The Army battalion I observed as an embedded reporter during the Iraq war took very seriously its treatment of prisoners. Take the night almost exactly a year ago, inside a tactical operational center near Tikrit. Army Capt. Dave Gray, an intel officer, was fuming as a dust storm raged outside. The battalion had just snatched one of Saddam's bodyguards after receiving a tip at a checkpoint. The excitement of good detective work paying off gave way to the tedious part of nascent nation building, namely, holding fast to the Geneva Convention. Saddam's bodyguard was immediately tossed into a hastily built jail--sand-dune walls, concertina wire, a single tent--along with more than two-dozen other enemy prisoners of war (EPWs).

It wasn't pretty, and Gray was agitated. The body guard needed medical attention and the battalion didn't have the personnel or supplies to handle its swelling EPW population. "He's got an eye infection," he told Sgt. Maj. Jesse Topasna, the battalion's top non-commissioned officer, "and none of them have blankets or adequate shelter. I called the MPs and told them to improve the conditions, and they said, 'F--k you.' So I said, 'F--k you,' and I told them I was getting them (the EPWs) out of there. You better get down there now and take care of it. Otherwise, I'm going down there and opening the f--king thing up and letting them out myself. Because right now it's the most blatant Geneva Convention violation I've ever seen. It's not our fault, we don't have any support. But we can't let them sit there like this."

Other soldiers started listening in. "Yeah, I'm not going to jail over that," said Capt. Mack Tugman, the officer in charge of the EPW compound. Topasna, the avuncular father of the battalion, reminded everyone of the Geneva Conventions' rules, that the prisoners couldn't be held without charge for more than 36 hours. "Plus," he said, "we just don't have the assets to do that." Lt. Col. Phil Battaglia, the battalion's commander, caught wind of the brewing problem as Topasna radioed up to the brigade level for reinforcements at the holding cell. "Get 'em off our f--kin' hands, that's the key," Battaglia said. "Eventually the Red Cross is going to come in and check our s--t. Let's not have the Army being accused of not abiding by the Geneva Convention. Go find somebody who knows whether they're supposed to have a 20-by-20 living space, whatever. Just do it."

A cynic might say that these soldiers did the right thing only because I was there witnessing the whole thing. But what happens when the media isn't around? It's easy to see how a line could be crossed in the CIA's interrogation of EPWs. The long hours can be as rough on the interrogators as it is on the interrogated. They walk a fine line. The EPW must be broken out of his defenses without being blown out of his psyche. EPWs may want to give bad intel just to stop the interrogation. Answers are constantly checked against information gleaned from his cell phone records, passport and other information he possessed. Often, agents assist the Army, as well as private contractors, during interrogation.

Here's how a "rendition"--short for "rendering" the enemy unto justice--works, according to a 20-year CIA agent who operates in Iraq. The EPW's vision is obscured or blinded as they're taken through yelling and bumping to the interrogation cell. Falls down stairs are common. Once in the cell, he receives a physical to establish a baseline from which to calculate what his body can endure. The CIA agent said that in his experience he was always amazed at how quickly EPWs could fly into their cover stories. They were so good that it was common for U.S. military interrogators to disagree with CIA agents about an EPW's identification. They admit nothing, deny everything and make counter accusations. One day, the agent received an Al Qaeda member with two fresh bullet wounds. Before he was medically treated the suspect sang like bird. After treatment, he gathered his head and shifted his identity.

In the interrogation cell, there's no day and no night. In addition to an interrogation team of two (they check each other's temper), a supervisor oversees the session along with an Arabic speaker. Always in a hood, the idea is to keep the EPW as disoriented as possible. He's kept awake and stood in awkward positions for as long as 24 hours at a time. They kneel or stand, with hands and legs tied, in various states of dress, although the agent doesn't recall EPWs being stripped naked. They're kept from using a toilet until they soil themselves.

Ultimately, the idea is to ingrain a sense of hopelessness. They're told things like, "You aren't going to see a lawyer or the courts, you're not going anywhere anyway, and Osama's in Syria with your wife who he's taken as his own wife." Through a variety of methods, the EPWs are left to wonder whether they'll be killed. Force isn't used as much as one might assume, the CIA agent said.

Middle Eastern EPWs' sociability is used against them; they're more susceptible to isolation than most people. To an Arab or Middle Easterner, according to the CIA agent, the very definition of torture is being alone. They're accustomed to extended families. Interrogators also play on greed, avarice, pride, jealousy. In extreme cases, they use "honey traps"--the lure of sex, which can work even on the most devout Muslims who, deprived of their rituals and plunged into isolation, often give in to any kind of companionship. At least, that's what used to be thought of as the extreme cases.