Inside the Detainee Abuse Task Force
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, with support from The Fund for Constitutional Government.
Most days in 2005, a small group of agents with the Detainee Abuse Task Force (DATF) trickled into their one-room office at Camp Victory, part of the sprawling Victory Base Complex surrounding Baghdad's airport. The camp's centerpiece is Saddam Hussein's glitzy Al-Faw Palace, which once hosted Baath party loyalists before serving as coalition headquarters, but the DATF was housed in a far more modest one-story building nearby. In a room next to their fellow agents in the Army's Criminal Investigation Command, known as CID, DATF agents investigated hundreds of cases of alleged detainee abuse.
This memo, dated August 17, 2004, notes that "On 28 Jul 04, the Detainee Abuse Task Force, was formed by USACIDC to investigate all allegations of Iraqi Detainee abuse involving Coalition Forces."
In this letter, the Army's associate deputy general counsel writes that the CID "never created an official 'Detainee Abuse Task Force.'"
One of more than twenty CID documents from 2004 and 2005 obtained by the ACLU that reference the Detainee Abuse Task Force. This one, dated October 6, 2004, refers to five abuse cases involving Marine Corps units.
It was tedious, frustrating work. The days sometimes began as early as 6 am and could stretch until 6 pm. Agents' desks were cluttered with stacks and stacks of case files, some of which had been opened as early as 2003 but remained unresolved more than two years later. Much of the agents' time was spent trying to locate victims, perpetrators and eyewitnesses.
Eventually T-shirts were made for the agents. The front displayed the unit's name and DATF motto: Do What Has To Be Done. The back read Detainee Abuse Task Force 2005 and listed the agents' names along with a dark inside joke about the daunting task before them: An Unknown Subject Assaulted an Unknown Victim, at an Unknown Time and Location. Investigation Continues.
A year earlier, in April 2004, searing photos of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib were broadcast around the world, shocking the public. Political and military leaders condemned the abuse and promised swift action and accountability. President Bush pledged that the United States would "investigate and prosecute all acts of torture and undertake to prevent other cruel and unusual punishment in all territory under our jurisdiction." Within two years, the Defense Department announced it had opened 842 criminal inquiries or investigations into allegations of detainee abuse.
As part of this response, the military produced thirteen comprehensive reports, the FBI produced two reports, and the CIA produced at least one. Also in 2004, according to a senior Army official with knowledge of the DATF, the Army's top CID officer, Maj. Gen. Donald Ryder, initiated a task force to manage what the official called the "volatility" and "sensitivity" of the detainee abuse issue. The task force was run by CID, and it periodically interfaced with the FBI and other federal agencies, as well as Army public affairs, operations and the Congressional liaison office. As part of this effort, in July 2004, the Army created an on-the-ground investigative team in Iraq, the CID's Detainee Abuse Task Force, which in 2004 consisted of agents from the 78th Military Police Detachment and in 2005 agents from the 48th.
During stretches of its existence, according to a joint investigation by The Nation, The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and PBS's Need to Know, the DATF had six full-time agents charged with investigating abuse cases that occurred in and around Victory Base Complex—a huge area of responsibility that included the heaviest concentration of detainees. (Individual agents at thirteen military facilities across Iraq dealt with abuse cases in their localities.) DATF agents were also charged with reviewing older cases that had been reopened. Reports generated by the DATF, according to the senior Army official, were reviewed by a team of senior CID agents at CID headquarters in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
The five CID agents who were interviewed for this article, four of whom worked on the DATF during 2005, said there was no consensus over what constituted abuse, especially when it came to interrogation techniques. They said the case files they received were often missing key pieces of evidence. They said they faced noncooperation from some military units they were investigating. They said they didn't have competent Arabic translators and were rarely able to track down victims once they'd been released from detention. They said they were overwhelmed by hundreds of abuse cases they'd been ordered to reopen, which one agent speculated was done to avoid responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from the ACLU.
Jon Renaud, a retired Army Warrant Officer who headed the task force as the Special Agent in Charge for the first half of 2005, now says of the DATF, "It didn't accomplish anything—it was a whitewash." Neither he nor his fellow agents could recall a single case they investigated that actually advanced to a court-martial hearing, known as an Article 32.
"These investigations needed to take place," said Renaud, a Bronze Star recipient who retired in 2009 after twenty years in the military. "But they needed to be staffed and resourced with the same level of resources that they gave the Abu Ghraib case." He noted that the Army assigned a general and staff to conduct a comprehensive investigation of Abu Ghraib. "That was a single case," he said, "and we had hundreds of others for six people."
Requests to the Army for information about the origins, mission and track record of the DATF were refused, and a FOIA request to CID was denied with this claim: "No documents of the kind you described could be located. No official 'Detainee Abuse Task Force' was ever established by the USACIDC." After a lengthy appeals process, during which we provided several samples of DATF communications on DATF letterhead, this finding was reaffirmed: CID "never created an official 'Detainee Abuse Task Force,'" the denial letter read. "Individual criminal investigation units may have set up informal, ad hoc task forces while deployed to emphasize detainee abuse investigations. In turn, they may have labeled certain investigations as being subject to a 'Detainee Abuse Task Force.'" But "there was no official organization for such a task force."
The agents' accounts of failed detainee abuse investigations are bolstered by a 2006 study by Human Rights Watch and two other human rights groups, which found that of 330 cases in which US military and civilian personnel allegedly abused or killed detainees after 2001, "only about half appear to have been properly investigated." In many cases, investigators "failed to follow basic investigative techniques, including interviewing victims and witnesses and gathering physical evidence."
Angela Birt, the Operations Officer who oversaw CID's felony investigations across Iraq during 2005, including the DATF, expressed disbelief at the military's response. According to Birt, the DATF did not receive an official unit designator; "there was no heraldry behind it," she said. "But to say it didn't exist in the terms that they said in the letter? Wow, that's really embarrassing for them," said Birt.
"To say, 'You never existed,'" Renaud said, "It's insulting. It's insulting to the agents that worked on it.
"I have to assume they just don't want to release the cases," he went on, "because if anybody actually got ahold of all the cases [and] read over them, they would obviously see huge holes."
* * *
Attorney Susan Burke spent her childhood bouncing around military bases and regards the military as an extended family. She'd long been proud of the Army's tradition of military law. But when the Abu Ghraib photos went public, she knew something had gone terribly wrong. She was determined to find out if such grave abuses were widespread. It was in her quest for accountability that Burke first stumbled on the existence of the DATF.
In the months after Abu Ghraib, Burke, a litigation attorney now based in Washington, DC, hired an Iraqi researcher and an American private investigator, Keith Rohman, to try to locate and interview other victims of detainee abuse, as well as witnesses who could corroborate their accounts. Burke's staff combed through evidence provided by detainees, including prison bracelets containing detainee ID numbers. Burke's team had their clients examined by doctors to verify their injuries and interviewed American soldiers, contractors and linguists who worked at facilities where the detainees had been held, as well as detainees in nearby cells who may have witnessed the abuse.
What they found troubled them greatly. In contrast to the emerging narrative that Abu Ghraib was the act of a few "bad apples," Burke's team discovered evidence of abuse that extended well beyond the walls of that infamous prison.
"I think Americans don't want to realize how widespread it was, how awful it was," said Burke. "They like to think, 'Oh, it was just a few night guards at Abu Ghraib.' What we have learned is some of the other sites were actually worse. Camp Cropper—the physical torture there was just horrific. The mobile interrogation units—again, the torture there, terrible."
Burke's team uncovered detailed information about what she called "very, very serious cases of physical abuse. People who've been electrocuted, people who have been mock executed, people who have been hung by their arms for hours on end."
Eventually, Burke joined forces with Shereef Akeel, a Michigan-based civil rights attorney, and the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City to file a lawsuit against private military contractors who had abused detainees in Iraq. The case, Saleh v. CACI and L-3, is pending. Separately, Burke sought criminal accountability for the allegations of abuse by military personnel. Reading through the case summaries she compiled, Abu Ghraib begins to feel less and less like an aberration:
A male was arrested [on] January 5, 2004, and released in June of 2004.... He was taken to [Mustansiriya] where he was hung by his hands and feet and beaten with a stick, kept nude for hours, and made to sleep outside.... He was taken to Abu Ghraib and threatened with the rape of his family, denied the ability to pray, forced to watch military personnel having sex, forced to break fast, forced to view pornography, and forced to masturbate. A female sodomized him with an artificial penis.
A female was arrested with her husband on September 4, 2003, in front of her two daughters.... While incarcerated, she was dragged on the ground, and asked to pick up feces with her hands. When she stopped to vomit, she was threatened by American personnel that if she continued, she would be raped. She was held at gunpoint, hooded, denied prayers, touched improperly. Her hands and legs were tied and she was put in the sun for hours. For 15 days, she did not have food, little water, and was forbidden from going to the bathroom.... She was photographed nude.
A man was detained by American forces at the [Samarra] Police Station on January 13, 2004 and was released on July 22, 2004.... He was transported to a facility near Baghdad Airport. During an interrogation there, an African-American interrogator demanded that the detainee confess to supporting the resistance. He put a gun to his head, threatened him with a knife, and tore off his clothes, stripping him naked. The detainee was beaten and later when a doctor came to see him he learned that his breastbone was broken.
In August 2004, Burke met with Captain Christopher Graveline, one of the Abu Ghraib prosecutors, to share her findings. She contacted senators on the Armed Services Committee. And she wrote to military investigators with the Army's CID to offer them access to her clients for their investigations. In October 2004, Burke told military personnel via e-mail, "We are most interested in working with you and others within the military who are acting in good faith to investigate fully and remedy the wrongs that occurred.... As the daughter of an Army Colonel (now retired), I am personally confident that many on active duty are as appalled as we are by the terrible abuses that occurred."
Burke first traded e-mails with Renaud, the head of the DATF, in March 2005. She felt encouraged by his warm response. "We had every reason to believe that her information was extremely credible and valuable," Renaud recalled. The result was a series of much awaited meetings with DATF agents scheduled for June 2005 in Kuwait. But just days before Burke and Rohman left to meet with Renaud, he was detailed to another mission. So on June 3, 2005, Burke and Rohman arrived at the Kuwait City Marriott for two days of meetings with two other DATF agents, Kenneth Dean and Julie Tyler (now Julie Kuykendall).
* * *
What Burke didn't know at the time was that the DATF was in disarray. Even the most basic aspect of its job was ill defined: what exactly constituted abuse? "What is abuse? was the million-dollar question over there because it was never clearly established," said Renaud. "Everybody liked to use the term 'detainee abuse,' but nobody really knows what detainee abuse was. It was never clarified. Were we using the US definition of assault?"
In particular, there was widespread confusion over which "enhanced interrogation" techniques were allowed and which were regarded as abusive. During his fourteen years with CID, Renaud had worked narcotics, fraud and homicide cases as well as protection details for Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Gen. George Casey. In 2003 he interrogated suspects connected with Saddam Hussein's regime as part of an Iraqi war crimes investigation by the 3rd Military Police Group. But even he didn't have a clear sense of which interrogation techniques were allowed.
"I was an interrogator for a year in 2003. I ran the Detainee Abuse Task Force, and I can't give you an absolute definition of what detainee abuse is—and none of my bosses can," said Renaud. "Everyone thinks that every interrogator in theater had read a list of enhanced interrogation techniques. Nobody knew what those were."
Several former agents speculated that this confusion over what was a permissible "enhanced interrogation" technique may explain why so very few cases relating to abuse during interrogations ever reached them. Renaud said it is plausible that interrogations complaints never reached them because when military intelligence commanders received a complaint against an interrogator they'd say, "No, I believe this falls within what is an acceptable interrogation technique" and therefore wouldn't file a report. "If you believe your folks didn't do anything wrong...why would you report it?"