By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
There is a "conflict between obtaining accurate, timely information and treating detainees humanely," concluded the Army colonel overseeing the initial investigation of the December 2002 deaths of two Afghan detainees at the Bagram air base detention facility in Afghanistan. The colonel's assessment was included in a 2004 report by the Army's Criminal Investigation Command.
The report shows how dozens of senior and junior Army officers and enlisted men at Bagram, facing the post-Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist threat and under pressure to get information, ignored or directly violated interrogation elements in the Army Field Manual then in effect. That manual said the U.S. government did not authorize or condone the use of force, mental torture, threats, insults or inhumane treatment of any kind.
The 2004 report, more than 1,000 pages, offers an important lesson for today, especially because a revised 2006 version of that Army Field Manual has become the bible not only for military interrogators facing uncooperative "unlawful combatants," but also for CIA operatives. The lesson: When the rules don't seem to get results, people tend to ignore them.
One of the 2002 Bagram dead was Mullah Habibullah, an Afghan about 30 years old who was captured by a warlord Nov. 28, 2002, and turned over to the CIA. Two days later, agency personnel delivered him to the Bagram Collection Point, where the prime purpose of interrogations was to gather tactical intelligence and to determine who was of high enough value to be shipped to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Military intelligence interrogators ordered Habibullah, alleged to be the brother of a former Taliban commander, to be deprived of sleep during his four days at the Bagram Collection Point. He was forced to stand, his wrists chained -- at chest height -- to a fixture attached to the ceiling. If he nodded off and his body sagged, the chains would jerk him by the wrists, preventing him from dropping to the floor, and wake him. He was also repeatedly beaten on his legs with wooden batons, particularly behind the knees, as a means of getting him to kneel during interrogations. In the end, according to the autopsy report, "a blunt force injury to Habibullah's left leg was where a fatal blood clot formed." But, according to the autopsy finding cited in the report, "the prolonged, enforced standing . . . significantly aided in formation of the blood clot."
When asked where the techniques being used at Bagram came from, a lieutenant colonel told investigators that Army Field Manual 34-52, then in effect, "contained 'approaches' which were very vague."
"I do not believe there was any written policy in existence prior to our identification of a need for it. . . . But I believe the impetus for that guidance was the unfortunate deaths of those two detainees," added the lieutenant colonel, who in 2002 was the Joint Task Force deputy Army judge advocate general, or the military lawyer.
However, the former Joint Task Force intelligence operations officer, who was at Bagram when the events took place, told investigators he contributed to and reviewed an August 2002 Joint Task Force standard operating procedure (SOP) paper for the interrogation facility. It "was constantly under revision," the former operations officer said. It contained sleep deprivation, he said, but he saw only one case in which a detainee was chained to the ceiling.
Normally, he said, the Military Police officers "yelled or made loud noises at them to wake them up, made them stand, made them walk around, the lights were always on."
The operations officer said he did not know who authorized use of sleep deprivation at the Bagram facility. "It was in practice when I arrived there, so I assumed it was acceptable," he said.
Investigators then showed the intelligence operations officer an "annex" to the Joint Task Force August 2002 SOP titled "Use of Force." (The 2004 report does not disclose what the annex said.)
The operations officer replied, "I've never seen that."
Knowledge of the activities at the Bagram detention facility was widespread.
An MP supply officer, when asked by investigators who beyond his Military Police platoon was aware of detainees being subjected to standing restraints, sleep deprivation and baton strikes on the legs, responded: "The commander knew of all those things. Everybody knew about standing restraints."
The Joint Task Force provost marshal, a major who in 2002 controlled operation of the Bagram facility but not MP operations there, told investigators what he observed on visits: "Hooding, hooding with handcuffs in the airlock [a device on the ceiling], sometimes chained to the airlock and sleep deprivation," he said.
In 2002, the practices were relayed to the military intelligence noncommissioned officer in charge, who, according to the investigative report, "excused it as necessary to the mission, did nothing to stop the behaviors and failed to report it or prevent further occurrences."