Inside the Detainee Abuse Task Force | The Nation


Inside the Detainee Abuse Task Force

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Sgt. Joseph Darby was the soldier who provided the Abu Ghraib photos to military investigators. At the time, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld praised "his courage and his values," but in so doing made his identity public. During his remaining nights in Iraq, Darby slept with a pistol under his pillow, fearing that he'd be attacked. Back home, Darby's house was vandalized so badly that he had to leave his hometown and seek out the military equivalent of witness protection. His experience had a chilling effect.


  • 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.

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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...

"I think it all stemmed from that case," said Renaud. "I don't care what you say, these guys are tight—they're fighting a war together. If they give information on their buddy, there is legitimate fear that there could be some retaliation. Anybody who says there isn't is kidding themselves."

"Most troops don't report abuse because they think it's a waste of time—and they're right," said John Sifton, a former senior researcher on terrorism and counterterrorism at Human Rights Watch. "It's a waste of time to risk angering your fellow troops and your commanding officer."

In 2008 the AP investigated the way the military had handled whistleblowers in cases of alleged misconduct or wrongdoing and found that "the Pentagon inspector general, the internal watchdog for the Defense Department, hardly ever sides with service members who complain that they were punished for reporting wrongdoing." The inspector general's office, the AP found, stood by the military and came down against whistleblowers more than 90 percent of the time.

"You know that most likely your commanding officer is not going to listen to you, is not going to take any action to correct what is going on," said Sifton. "It was perfectly reasonable to think that by reporting abuse you were putting yourself at risk. Even if you weren't putting yourself physically at risk, you were putting yourself at professional risk."

Asked if troops reporting abuse felt discouraged, ignored or even threatened, Kuykendall said, "I have no doubt about that happening at all. These commanders are not going to want to have CID all up in their unit asking about detainee abuse."

Sometimes troops who went through the proper channels to report abuse found that their complaints went nowhere. Specialist Stephen Lewis, a friend of Tony Lagouranis, the former interrogator, served in Iraq at the same time and was equally frustrated by the military's follow-through on his reports. Lewis, also a former interrogator, detailed various brutal cases of prisoner abuse he witnessed, including "detainees being beaten, sodomized with a squeegee handle, locked in confined spaces like shipping containers in the heat, mock executions, degrading treatment while being naked, degrading treatment from females—playing on them being Muslim and so forth." He said that he filed at least a dozen reports—but like Lagouranis, who had also filed several reports to CID, he got little reaction.

"CID didn't respond at all, really," he said. "They talked to me twice, I think, and never really followed up."

The former DATF agents also pointed to the problem of internal unit investigations, known as 15-6s, which rarely reached their desks. A 15-6 is a nonjudicial process whereby a superior officer assigns an officer or civilian to investigate misconduct in his or her unit. A 15-6 does not have to be referred to CID unless there is a finding of criminality.

Former DATF agents pointed out that it was up to a commander's discretion whether to initiate a 15-6; if the commander thought the allegations were invalid or didn't warrant follow-up, the inquiry stopped there. Most commanding officers, in their experience, genuinely wanted to root out abuse and misconduct in their units, but for some officers, they said, protecting their troops may have been a higher priority.

Even with a committed commanding officer, the subordinate officers tasked to investigate 15-6 abuse cases typically lacked any experience. They aren't "proper investigators," said Tieaskie. "They don't really know what they're doing."

"When you're talking about detainee abuse cases, highly publicized in the States, possibly resulting in death and/or confinement for somebody...to do a 15-6 and have a noninvestigative person do it is extremely irresponsible," Renaud said. "You're investigating your brother in arms. So, I could be a platoon leader investigating my platoon sergeant, or I could be the executive officer investigating the platoon I was just in charge of six months ago.... There's very little unbiased investigation."

CID agents said that as a result of these dynamics and the lack of trained 15-6 investigators, there were likely many 15-6 cases that were never referred to CID.

"I have no doubt that there are probably hundreds, if not thousands of unit-level investigations that were conducted, founded or unfounded, that nobody is aware of...that have never seen the light of day, that never got to CID," Renaud said.

"I don't think that's without merit," said Birt, when asked about Renaud's estimate of the number of unreported cases of abuse. "I think that's a reasonable conclusion."

* * *

In 2009 Barack Obama, who had campaigned on promises to reverse many of the Bush administration's worst detainee practices, made a decision to block the release of additional photographs requested by the ACLU that may have contained fresh images of detainee abuse. "Individuals who violated standards of behavior in these photos have been investigated and held accountable," Obama said. "Nothing has been concealed to absolve perpetrators of crimes."

Despite such assertions, there has still been little serious accountability for US abuse and torture. Punishment for detainee abuse has been doled out to a handful of soldiers. Few officers have seen the inside of a military courtroom, much less a lengthy sentence. Not one political official has been held responsible.

In 2006 the UN Committee Against Torture found accountability for US military abuses inadequate and issued a statement urging the United States to eradicate torture and to "promptly and thoroughly investigate such acts, prosecute those responsible for such acts and ensure they are appropriately punished." In response, the State Department announced that the military had taken action against 250 service personnel, producing 103 courts-martial and eighty-nine convictions. US officials have often invoked such figures to show how vigilantly they have addressed these cases.

"That's the thing that was so galling," said Burke. The Bush administration claimed that the military was doing a good job by citing "the sheer number of cases that they had investigated and closed." But closing a case, she said, may only mean "it has run into a dead end."

"By the Numbers," the 2006 report by the three human rights groups, found that "of the hundreds of personnel implicated in detainee abuse, only ten people have been sentenced to a year or more in prison." In the course of updating another 2006 report, "Command's Responsibility," Human Rights First found that at least 184 detainees have died while in the custody of US forces since the launch of the "war on terror." "No high-level military officials have faced responsibility for the death of a detainee," said Daphne Eviatar, an HRF senior associate. "No CIA personnel have ever been charged with wrongdoing in the death of any detainee, despite clear evidence in the military's own investigations of CIA involvement in several deaths [and] the longest sentence of any US government personnel in any torture-related death continues to stand at five months."

These failings have not been lost on the international community. In November, during the UN's Universal Periodic Review process, several governments criticized the United States for "the persistent impunity" of officials involved in torture policies and personnel who carried out detainee abuse. Brazil, Norway and Russia have called for more thorough investigations and for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.

Also in November, State Department legal adviser Harold Koh, appearing before the UN, affirmed that the United States was abiding by anti-torture treaties, investigating torture allegations and prosecuting perpetrators. Koh assured the assembled nations that "to our knowledge, all credible allegations of detainee abuse by United States forces have been thoroughly investigated and appropriate corrective action has been taken."

None of the DATF agents interviewed for this article could recall a single case that advanced to a court-martial hearing, known as an Article 32. "As far as I remember, not a single one," said Kuykendall, who served a full year on the DATF. "I would've remembered if one of our cases went to an Article 32." The senior Army official could not recall such an instance either.

"There's no way that you could have hundreds of cases opened, investigated and closed and not have some type of adjudication," said Renaud. "There had to be some wrongdoing. Somebody had to have looked at some of these investigations and found fault somewhere. But nobody was ever tried for ours."

Of the few CID cases that were prosecuted, most of those convicted avoided severe punishment. In one of many conversations, Birt referred to the case of Army Col. Allen West, who, in 2003 in Taji, used mock execution to interrogate an Iraqi police officer accused of insurgent attacks on US forces. The military released the police officer, Yehiya Kadoori Hamoodi, forty-five days after his arrest, realizing that he didn't possess any intelligence about insurgent attacks. According to press reports, Hamoodi remains traumatized from the experience and panics when he sees US troops on Iraqi streets. West's commanders charged him with aggravated assault for threatening a prisoner at gunpoint. West accepted an Article 15 nonjudicial punishment; his sentence amounted to a $5,000 fine and a demotion. West submitted his resignation, but seven years later was elected to represent Florida's 22nd Congressional district on the Republican ticket.

Birt, who retired as a chief warrant officer in 2007, was most deeply troubled by the lack of accountability for cases involving detainee deaths. She was the primary investigator on a case that has stayed with her, involving incidents in Afghanistan in 2002 in which US military police working in the Bagram detention facility beat two Afghan detainees until they died. The victims were Mullah Habibullah, the brother of a Taliban commander, and a 22-year-old taxi driver simply named Dilawar, who was later found to be innocent of any insurgent activity.

"I'd never seen just regular old soldiers chain a guy to a ceiling and beat him until his legs look like he was run over by a bus," said Birt, referring to Dilawar. She and other CID agents thoroughly investigated the allegations, producing a case file thousands of pages long, and the MPs and interrogators involved were court-martialed. The final outcome of the case "had a profound effect on my trust of the justice system," Birt recalled.

"We had eighteen people who confessed to complicity in two homicides, and no one served over six months in jail," she said. "People were convicted and given a slap on the wrist." Of the twenty-seven Army personnel charged in the Afghans' deaths and related abuses, only four troops were sentenced to jail time.

Birt had wanted to be a police officer ever since she was 8 and passionately believed in accountability through sober law enforcement. Yet the minimal punishment for the Bagram beating deaths rattled her.

"The outcome of that investigation and the lack of justice was my primary reason for leaving the military," she said. "We tell people all the time that we're going to be exempt from the Geneva and Hague war crimes tribunal because we're going to police our own. But we didn't police our own."

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