The detainee in the yellow jumpsuit took a long gulp of soda, placed the can back on the table next to the white plastic lawn chair where he sat and resumed talking, his chapped hands making broad gestures as he spoke through an interpreter to a U.S. military intelligence soldier.
A camera relayed the image and sound to a plywood booth, where an analyst listened through headphones to what the detainee was saying. The analyst, a civilian who had pictures of his children propped up beside the TV monitor, twirled the headphone cord through his long fingers, occasionally chuckling.
An interrogation at Abu Ghraib prison is rarely witnessed by anyone other than military and civilian security personnel. But last week, reporters were given a limited glimpse of such a scene, minus the sound. The lengths to which interrogators in Iraq go to extract information from suspected insurgents was one of the military's closely guarded secrets -- until the scandal in which seven military police officers were charged with beating and humiliating detainees last fall.
Now, military and civilian interrogators who have long relied on the element of surprise and fear of the unknown find themselves having to explain their methods.
Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, the head of U.S. military detention operations in Iraq, acknowledged the difficulty of responding to the scandal in the midst of operations to quell a violent insurgency. "We're here to defeat the insurgency," he said during a recent interview at the prison. "We're immensely capable. But 90 percent of what we do must be below the surface."
Lt. Col. Mark Costello, director of the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center, the formal name of the interrogation operation, said the basics of the job remain the same: "We sit, we watch, we look at what's going on."
The latest Army investigation of abuses at Abu Ghraib found that the wrongdoing resulted from a combination of leadership failings, lack of discipline at the prison and confusing policies about "military intelligence tactics, techniques and procedures." The report, written by Maj. Gen. George R. Fay and made public on Wednesday, indicated that military intelligence troops will ultimately be implicated and charged with criminal offenses.
But as the findings of the Fay report and that of a commission led by former defense secretary James R. Schlesinger are examined and discussed in Washington, it falls to the interrogators and commanders here to show that they no longer tolerate abuse. The trick, they said, is doing so without compromising the closely held operation, which some Pentagon officials say has already been hampered by the attention from the scandal.
Interrogations at Abu Ghraib are conducted in a row of plywood booths, each furnished a little differently. One booth was outfitted with two plush velvet chairs resembling thrones and a red, flowered carpet. Another was decorated more simply, with plain plastic chairs and blue carpeting that covered the walls to improve the acoustics for the audio feed.
All soldiers are required to check their weapons before entering the small interrogation complex, which is guarded by military police officers who monitor everyone who enters.
On a recent night around 9:30, five detainees dressed in yellow jumpsuits lounged in plastic chairs in an outdoor waiting area, looking slightly uneasy as they awaited their turn to be questioned. Whether they might get a cold soda would be up to the interrogator in charge of the interview, said Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Adkins of the 202nd Military Intelligence Battalion.
"The interrogator will set the mood of the interrogation," Adkins said as he stood, poker-faced, just inside the wooden booth where the civilian analyst was watching the monitor.
Adkins watched the interrogation on the screen without listening to the sound. "Sometimes it's better without hearing it," Adkins said. "You can get an idea of his reactions. You're focused on it."
Discussing his work at Abu Ghraib, Adkins expressed a sentiment heard in dozens of interviews with military police and intelligence soldiers at the prison during the past two months: They were not here when the abuse occurred last fall. They do not want to be blamed. They do not want to have to keep answering for it.
"We'd like to go home to a welcome instead of a tomato," said Adkins, whose unit has been assigned to the prison since February.
Among the many investigations into abuse here, one consistent finding was that high-ranking officers were vague when giving direction about what was allowed during interrogations. The various reports also criticized a lack of standard operating procedures to guide soldiers.
Costello, the interrogation center director, said that has changed. Intelligence soldiers now operate under strict rules concerning what tactics can be used. For example, he said, detainees are not allowed to be restrained in the interrogation booth unless the interrogators get Costello's permission.
"Anything out of the ordinary has to be approved by me, and I don't approve anything," Costello said.
As director of intelligence-gathering, Costello said he lived on the site and was on call 24 hours a day. He said soldiers have not hesitated to wake him up in the middle of night if they have a question.
Prison commanders have instituted weekly training for intelligence soldiers and analysts. Interrogation teams are required to draw up plans for gathering information, and those plans are then reviewed by leadership. At the end of each interrogation, an after-action review is written.
Miller, the head of U.S. military detention operations in Iraq, said the changes ultimately should improve the quality of information the interrogators obtain.
"We have to play by the rules," he said. "If we don't play by the rules, we will lose. We work very hard to set the environment for successful interrogations. On occasion, we will make mistakes. But they will be good-faith mistakes."
At the same time, Miller said, prison commanders are aware of what is at stake. "We have an ongoing insurgency that we're fighting here every day, whether it's outside the walls or inside the walls," he said.