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.
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.