Fine Print: Report Says Military Was Split on Interrogation Tactics

Interrogations at the Guantanamo Bay facility are now governed by the 2006 Army Field Manual.
Interrogations at the Guantanamo Bay facility are now governed by the 2006 Army Field Manual. (By Brennan Linsley -- Associated Press)
By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Disagreements continually arose among U.S. military personnel in 2002 and 2003 over which harsh interrogation techniques used on detainees at Guantanamo and in Afghanistan and Iraq were legally permissible, according to a report released last month by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

With today's interrogations governed by the latest, 2006 version of the Army Field Manual, those past differences are worth examining. The questionable interrogation methods employed back then were in accordance with the Army Field Manual in effect at the time and were supplemented by the defense secretary's guidance, according to the Senate report.

How differently individual Defense Department personnel viewed interrogations is vividly illustrated by the conflict in the fall of 2003 among three specialists sent by the Pentagon to Baghdad to assist a U.S. Special Forces group called the Special Mission Unit Task Force. That group was responsible for carrying out interrogations of highly valued detainees.

The three specialists were associated with the Pentagon's elite Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), which previously had trained U.S. military officers to resist harsh enemy interrogation techniques, including waterboarding. Beginning in 2002, some JPRA personnel had switched to training special American military and intelligence personnel in "offensive interrogation," using the enemy's techniques against detainees brought to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or held in Afghanistan and later Iraq.

One of the three was an Army Reserve officer trained in interrogation; the second was a civilian JPRA manager who had conducted interrogation-related training; and the third was a contractor who gave instructions on how to resist interrogations. The three were to attend interrogations by the task force personnel and "support their current interrogation operations," the Senate report said.

They were present Sept. 6, 2006, when an interrogator used "selected physical pressures" that consisted of putting the detainee on his knees and later using "insult slaps every 3-4 seconds for an extended period of time," according to the JPRA manager's notes. The Army Reserve officer described the detainee being on his knees with the interrogator in a chair. After a question was asked and interpreted for the detainee and the answer was given and interpreted for the interrogator, "the detainee was slapped across the face. . . . And that continued with every question and every response," the report said.

The Army Reserve officer reported that the slapping had gone on for 30 minutes and that he considered it a "direct violation of the Geneva Conventions"; the two others said they "saw nothing wrong." The JPRA manager thought "they were only insult slaps and were not inflicting any pain to the detainee" and were "consistent with the facility's operating instructions." In addition, the manager said individuals held by the task force were unlawful combatants not protected by the Geneva Conventions.

At a separate time, the JPRA manager and the contractor participated in another interrogation, initially without the Army Reserve officer. In that case, the interrogation began with what was described as a "simulated release." The detainee was permitted to clean up, dress and leave the holding facility and then was taken to a bus stop. There he was seized again and taken back to what the JPRA manager and the contractor called "a holding cell." The Army Reserve officer described it as a "bunker that was about a story . . . into the ground -- cement, cold dark."

The JPRA manager said the detainee was "forcibly stripped" naked in the holding cell, something that was regularly done to U.S. military personnel in their training to resist interrogation. The manager told the committee that the detainee was naked only for "however long it took to have his clothes taken off and put the new [prison uniform] on."

The Army Reserve officer gave a different account. He said his colleagues "ripped" the outer garment off the detainee, who was hooded, then tore off his underwear, took his shoes and "shackled him by the wrist and ankles." The guards were ordered to have him stand there for 12 hours "no matter how much he asked for help, no matter how much he pleaded, [and] unless he passed out the guards were not to respond to any requests for help."

In the aftermath, the Army Reserve officer described in a report how he disagreed with his colleagues' approach. The JPRA manager told the committee that the isolation and sleep-deprivation techniques he had employed were "in accordance with the [unit's] existing guidance."

This special mission unit's commander failed on several occasions in July 2003 to sign the interrogation policy of his unit, according to the Senate report. The policy permitted "sleep deprivation, loud music, light control, isolation 'comfort positions,' and military working dogs," according to the report.

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