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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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Burke said she understood the agents' frustration, but thought they had vastly overstated the difficulty of locating Iraqi victims. "With the Internet, e-mail and cellphones, it's not as if these people are impossible to find," she said. Anyway, she added, the agents didn't have to go looking for her clients—she'd offered to deliver them to the DATF, at a safe location of their choice.

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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

We Recommend

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...

The meetings, Rohman recalled, "became increasingly difficult. They strongly discouraged us from providing to them names of other cases to investigate." According to Rohman's notes, Dean finally said that if Burke insisted on sending the cases over, she should wait until December 15, when his reserve duty was up. Dean's remark "would've been a joke," Kuykendall said. "Dean's not that kind of cop." But she does not recall that she or Dean followed up on any of Burke's leads. "The last thing we wanted was a bunch more cases," she said.

"I thought that was the perfect scenario," Renaud said. "We had a lawyer who wanted to come forward and make all these people available in a safe location. Had I handled it, I would have met with every one of these people she represented."

Hearing details of the meeting recently, Birt had stronger words: "We've seriously screwed the pooch here if we have [hundreds of] serious detainee allegations that never saw the light of day. They still deserve to—I don't care if it's ten weeks, ten months, ten years after the offense."

Throughout 2005, Burke said, she repeatedly offered the military access to her clients, at her expense, in stable Middle Eastern countries like Jordan, Kuwait or Turkey. "We weren't saying, 'Go out in the streets of Baghdad and do it,'" said Burke. "We were going to bring the victims to do the interviews in safety."

Her offer was never accepted. Lawyers from the ACLU and Human Rights First, who are representing detainees in similar cases, say that military investigators have never sought out their clients for testimony either—though they did not actively approach the military as Burke did.

At the time of her meeting with the DATF agents, Burke and her team had interviewed more than 140 detainees. Today, Burke's roster of clients has grown to 337 former detainees who have alleged that they were tortured or abused by private contractors or military personnel while in military custody from 2003 to 2005. According to Burke, more than five years after she began writing to military investigators, neither US military investigators nor the Justice Department has interviewed a single one of her clients. "We remain more than willing to put any government official that's investigating torture in touch with victims," she said.

"I don't think it's too late," Burke added. "We ran prisons in a foreign nation, and we permitted torture to go on in those prisons. We have an obligation to identify and prosecute the perpetrators."

After the Kuwait meetings with CID agents, Burke said she provided the military and the Justice Department with documentation of several of their worst cases, including the man hung nude by his hands and feet in Mustansiriya and the woman ordered to pick up feces at Abu Ghraib. No one contacted her.

"I just could not believe it," said Burke. "This is the Detainee Abuse Task Force."

Several DATF agents expressed frustration that their efforts to focus on serious cases were often stymied by CID headquarters. Staff at Fort Belvoir, who were interfacing with Army leadership, would often reopen seemingly dead end cases, overwhelming their case loads.

"We'd close it and bam!—they'd kick it back to us," said Renaud. "So, now you have an open case that you have to do something with that there's nothing to do with."

Renaud explained that his superiors at Fort Belvoir sent him weekly e-mails containing an itemized list of cases they were ordering reopened. He also separately received a list of cases about which the ACLU had filed FOIA requests. And he began to notice a correlation.

"I challenged folks on this. I said, 'Hey, are we reopening these cases because we're going to work them? Or are we reopening them to play hide the ball because we don't want to release them?'"

"We did discuss the potential that they were just sending these back because as long as they're open, they're not subject to FOIA," said Birt. "The rule with [the] Crimes Records Center is: if a case is open, they will not honor a FOIA request because it might jeopardize open and valid investigative pursuits."

"I thought it was borderline illegal what they were doing," Renaud said. "I expressed that, and they assured me it wasn't and...that one had nothing to do with the other."

The senior Army official said, "I'm not aware of that—that would be against our policy." In his experience, cases were reopened because of small reporting lapses or new leads.

Kuykendall too noticed the correlation between the two lists but had a different take on why cases were reopened.

"Would we maybe have opened cases just to rewrite the final reports to make it more clear as to what happened and what we couldn't do and why we had to close it for the ACLU lawsuits? Yes. I'm not surprised if we did that."

Alexander Abdo, an attorney with the ACLU's National Security Project, said, "If it is true that the government deliberately reopened investigations for no other purpose than to avoid transparency under the Freedom of Information Act, that conduct is nothing short of outrageous, and it violated FOIA and the government's obligations of transparency."

* * *

As overwhelmed as they were by their case load, several agents suspected that a vast number of abuse cases never even reached them at all. According to Birt, after detainees were captured they were typically sent to larger detention facilities where medical staff examined and documented their injuries. Sometimes, however, detainees were released from a base without ever being sent to a facility with medical personnel. Birt said that among such detainees, there could have been "a lot" of abuse that was never reported to military investigators.

Sometimes ordinary troops who witnessed abuse faced serious challenges trying to report it. Several military personnel and human rights researchers interviewed for this article said the tone had been set after Abu Ghraib.

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