By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 17, 2006
A secretive military Special Operations group in Iraq used several unauthorized interrogation tactics on detainees in early 2004 after it erroneously received an outdated policy from commanders in Baghdad, according to a high-level military investigative report released yesterday at the Pentagon.
As a result of the error, interrogators at temporary holding facilities washed down detainees and questioned them in overly air-conditioned rooms, fed them only bread and water when they were uncooperative, and made them kneel for long periods of time as part of an approach using "stress positions." The tactics also included giving detainees minimal amounts of sleep and using loud music and yelling to keep them from sleeping or communicating.
This occurred at the same time similar methods used at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad were under intense internal scrutiny.
Army Brig. Gen. Richard P. Formica found that members of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Arabian Peninsula used official guidance that had been developed in September 2003 to create its own set of rules for interrogations, unknowingly including the forbidden tactics.
Pentagon officials released a heavily redacted version of Formica's report yesterday, more than a year and a half after its completion, as part of its response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union. The final report was issued on Nov. 8, 2004, and Pentagon officials briefed members of Congress last year on its contents.
The September 2003 guidance -- from the office of Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq -- was rescinded and reissued the following month, with fewer tactics allowed. But the September memo has been at the center of the debate about the U.S. interrogation policy in Iraq because its broad approval of controversial methods served as the baseline for interrogations at the Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere.
Previous investigations had found that there was widespread confusion over which tactics were allowed during interrogations in Iraq. Formica's report shows that even the nation's elite soldiers were unclear about the rules.
But Formica concluded that the soldiers using the tactics were not responsible for violating policy or the law from February to May 2004 because they believed what they were doing had been approved. That position in many ways echoes what Abu Ghraib defense lawyers have asserted in military courts over the past two years: That soldiers believed they were following commanders' rules when they used such tactics on detainees.
Unlike in the Abu Ghraib cases, however, Formica said the soldiers were not maliciously attempting to humiliate or hurt the detainees but were trying to follow the rules as they understood them.
"I didn't find cruel and malicious criminals that are out there looking for detainees to abuse," Formica said in an interview with reporters at the Pentagon yesterday. He said it was "regrettable" that the soldiers were given the wrong policy.
He found that the Special Ops temporary facilities -- not named in the report -- were so austere that they "did not comport with the spirit of the principles set forth in the Geneva Conventions," which were designed to protect detainees.
"These circumstances were created by inadequate policy guidance, not personal failures within CJSOTF-AP," Formica wrote. He added that "a more specific implementing policy may have prevented these circumstances."
Formica's investigation focused on three alleged cases of abuse at temporary holding facilities that the task force and the 5th Special Forces Group operated in Iraq. The allegations included claims from detainees that U.S. soldiers and Iraqi forces beat and sodomized them, and shocked them with electricity, and that their captors killed a detainee. Formica found the claims lacking in credibility, citing a lack of medical evidence and indications that the detainees had ties to the insurgency and motives to lie.
There have been other allegations that indigenous forces have been employed to use harsh tactics, specifically that the CIA and the Special Forces used such people -- code-named "Scorpions" -- who, in one case, have been connected to the beatings of an Iraqi general who later died in U.S. custody. Formica recommended the implementation of policy codifying how U.S. forces should interact with Iraqi security forces.
In a briefing yesterday, defense officials said the Formica report should be viewed as a historical document that has been followed up with corrective actions. The Defense Senior Leadership Oversight Council, which was set up to work on the 492 recommendations from a dozen detainee-abuse investigations, has incorporated eight such recommendations from Formica's report, the officials said.
Amrit Singh, an ACLU lawyer who has been following the abuse investigations, said the report is troubling because the inquiry failed to investigate dozens of allegations that secretive task forces such as TF-121 and TF-626 seriously abused detainees.
"It signals what we have known for a while, and that is that the Special Operations forces were operating with impunity in Iraq and Afghanistan for a prolonged period of time," Singh said. "What is revealing about these investigations is what they do not say. What is the government afraid of that it so narrowly circumscribed its investigation and then withheld it from the public for years?"