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Inside the Detainee Abuse Task Force | The Nation

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Inside the Detainee Abuse Task Force

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The agents said the vast majority of their cases instead involved physical abuse that occurred during detainees' capture and transport. And for injuries sustained at capture, Renaud recalled, "we gave them some leeway."

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  • A detention center in Iraq
  • Office of the Detainee Abuse Task Force
  • T-shirt worn by the Detainee Abuse Task Force

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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.

About the Author

Joshua E.S. Phillips
Joshua E.S. Phillips is a journalist, producer and author of None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and...

Former Army interrogator Tony Lagouranis documented the detainee abuse he witnessed in his 2007 book Fear Up Harsh. He agreed that interrogators were unlikely to report on abuse they regarded as permissible. "If people didn't consider what we were doing abuse they had no inclination to report [it]," Lagouranis said. "When people think about torture they're thinking of some kind of horrific cutting off of fingers or burning alive or something like that. But it can be much, much less."

Lagouranis recounted one example. While working in a mobile interrogation unit in Mosul in 2004, he learned that a special operations unit used a combination of flashing lights and loud music, along with ice water and cold temperature to induce hypothermia, on detainees—a regimen nicknamed "the disco" or "the discotheque." Lagouranis's unit eventually copied the technique for its interrogations in Mosul.

Renaud said he heard that the disco was also used at a special ops site in Anbar province in 2003, but he said DATF agents had difficulty getting enough information to investigate it. "It came up in a lot of cases," he said. "I knew it existed. I know folks that had worked there. I knew where it was located. When I'd do a formal request and investigation saying, 'Can you confirm the existence and the location of the disco?' [I was told,] 'We don't have any place like that.' In my role as detainee abuse investigator, I would get zero information."

Renaud was aware that certain units employed harsh interrogation techniques during his first tour of Iraq in 2003, but few such complaints ever reached him. "Not the forced standing, or forced to stay awake, or listen to the loud music," said Renaud. "I don't remember seeing any forced standing. I don't remember any complaints about sleep deprivation. I never saw [complaints related to] dogs used in interrogations."

Former Sgt. Cooper Tieaskie, a member of the DATF during 2005, recalled instances when the DATF would receive records of abuse by military intelligence (MI) units only after they'd been heavily redacted for "operational security reasons."

"Sometimes, it was just like, Here's what we're going to give you—one sentence," Tieaskie said.

"MI became very restrictive about who could participate in or observe their interviews," said Birt, the former head of CID in Iraq, "probably because they were doing something that wouldn't be classically accepted by law enforcement." She explained that charges of abuse would mostly surface if an MI officer or translator who was present, or a member of the medical staff who treated wounds after the fact, chose to report it.

Yet Lagouranis pointed out that medics may have been hesitant to report abuse. "Medics are military people," he said. "If you have a medic who's an E-3 [a private], he's not going to want to make waves and report on anything that his unit is doing."

Kuykendall also explained that any abuse that didn't leave any marks—such as water torture, forced standing, sleep deprivation and other "enhanced interrogation" techniques—was unlikely to be pursued by JAG attorneys. "How are you going to prosecute that?" asked Kuykendall. "That's not to say that they just swept them under a rug. [But] you prosecute what you can prosecute." As a 2006 investigation by the New York Times revealed, the motto of one unit at Camp Nama was "No Blood, No Foul."

Without a medic or unit member documenting abuse, CID would rarely learn of detainee abuse committed by MI forces in the first place. Investigating such units, Birt said, "became increasingly hard because it was hidden from the light."

* * *

Tieaskie and Kuykendall recalled one covert unit based out of Fort Bragg about which there were serious allegations of abuse, but the unit was noncooperative.

"We wouldn't get the interrogators' real full names," said Kuykendall. "We would get their made-up, pseudonym names. Pretty much every case we had with that group of interrogators all went the same way.... We had to close them because there just wasn't enough information to go forward."

According to Birt even noncovert military intelligence would classify the most basic information such as detainee height, weight, age, scars, marks and tattoos. "Something that typically would be in a normal police investigative file," she said, would be labeled classified.

The covert units, said Birt, wouldn't even interface with regular Army CID agents because they had their own dedicated CID agents to "investigate any crimes committed by those soldiers who are black ops." The senior Army official with knowledge of the DATF said these investigators were embedded with special ops units "to keep them on the straight and narrow."

But the former DATF agents said the black ops investigators seldom answered their inquiries about detainee abuse, preferring their own internal review process, which was shrouded in secrecy. The agents associated with the covert unit would "take the initial report...and then it just vanished. I know it exists somewhere, but it does not exist in a manner that we can see or that we can track."

Those agents would never tell the DATF anything about the outcome of their cases—including the cases at Fort Bragg. "We repeatedly asked our command to [look into] it...to go from boss to boss," said Renaud. "Zero support. We could have at least cleared up who was involved in it. But because of the lack of cooperation, and the lack of will, a lot of cases went unresolved."

The former DATF agents said that in some cases ordinary troops also failed to cooperate. Kuykendall vividly recalled one such case, which involved four or five detainees who were severely beaten at Forward Operating Base Iskandariyah, between Baghdad and Karbala, after a soldier was shot in the face during an ambush. According to the complaint, the soldiers took out their anger over the ambush on detainees at the base.

"There was no question about it," she said. "They had black eyes, they had bruises, they had cuts and scrapes—they got beat up. They got the crap kicked out of them." It was the unit's medic who reported the abuse, Kuykendall said, but he wanted to remain anonymous.

"We had to arrange for the commander to get this guy away from his unit so we could interview him and find out what happened," she said. "He talked to us no problem. In that first interview we pretty much find out what happened: who did what, when and how—basically we had just about the whole story."

Then she and her fellow agents started interviewing witnesses for corroborating statements. What should have been "everyday, run-of-the-mill, ordinary witness interviews," she said, "turned into a two- to three-hour interrogation because not a single one of these unit members wanted to talk. Not a one. They were protecting everybody else. They were a real close-knit unit—they were National Guard out of Mississippi...and they weren't gonna rat on their buddy, no matter what."

She pushed on with her investigation, but without corroborating witnesses, it never led to a court-martial.

* * *

Burke and Rohman arrived in Kuwait in June 2005 with a tremendous sense of optimism. They spent hours laying out their findings to Dean and Kuykendall. "We talked about allegations of anal sodomy, with fingers and other objects, allegations of electrocution, sleep deprivation, doused with cold water, rape of women, rape of children and serious visible beatings," said Rohman. He and Burke said they also walked the agents through the various steps they'd taken to corroborate these claims—an account confirmed by extensive notes both Burke and Rohman took during the meetings.

But Dean, now a police captain in Fort Worth, Texas, was dismissive, they claimed. According to Rohman's detailed notes, Dean said, "Yeah, I've heard it all. Steel rods, wooden sticks, brooms, you name it." He dismissed the allegations as rumors, dismissed the possibility that rapes had occurred at Abu Ghraib, dismissed reports that dogs had been used against detainees and repeatedly circled back to what appeared to be his chief concern—that soldiers' careers not be harmed by being subjected to false accusations. (Dean did not respond to repeated calls, e-mails or faxes over a period of months.)

Kuykendall, who described the meeting as "more of a courtesy," did not recall many details but said she and Dean "probably would have had similar reactions. I don't want to say in doubt, but just taking a lot of what they [Burke and Rohman] were saying with a grain of salt." (She did not recall the specific Dean statements quoted by Rohman.)

According to Rohman and Burke's notes, Dean and Kuykendall spoke to the formidable obstacles they faced in pursuing such cases. The agents told Burke that they lacked resources to manage their case loads effectively, that victims and witnesses were often impossible to locate after they had been released from detention, that they faced noncooperation from certain US forces and that they regularly had problems securing physical evidence and medical records. Getting into the field to interview witnesses required securing a military escort, they said, requests that were not always accommodated. And CID could not compel anyone who'd left active duty to cooperate.

In a recent interview, Kuykendall, now studying to become an art teacher in North Carolina, confirmed what she'd told Burke in 2005: that DATF cases were often closed without charges when investigators lacked physical and medical evidence.

Kuykendall also said that DATF would often close cases when agents weren't able to get witnesses and corroboration—including the testimony of abused detainees. "In all of my detainee abuse cases there was only one, maybe two, where I actually got to interview the subjects," she said. Typically, she said she had to depend on transcripts of old interviews conducted at the time the detainee filed the complaint.

Kuykendall said that she and her team rarely pursued alleged victims once they had been released. "There's no tracking people in that country. It's an impossibility," she said.

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