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Interrogating Iraqi Prisoners:  What Went Wrong? - 2004-05-21

The pictures of brutal treatment of American prisoners in Baghdad have now circulated the world, adding to U.S. problems in Iraq. VOA’s Ed Warner asks some top analysts of intelligence what went wrong.

“I am Osama bin Laden, but I am disguised.”

That was the confession of Saddam Saleh Aboud after he had been hooded, beaten, urinated on, threatened with rape, stripped naked and bombarded with loud music day after day. He told The New York Times he would tell his persecutors anything to escape torture at notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.

Yes, he belonged to the insurgency, which he didn’t. Yes, insurgents were in hiding at a location in the desert, which they were not. Yes, he was a driver for a top Islamic militant, which he was not.

Torture always makes people talk, say observers of the practice, but is it believable? If it’s not, then why do it? And that leads to some very serious questions about motivation.

The U.S. Government is responding to an unprecedented threat, says John Pike, director of Global “I think that the military intelligence community has taken the gloves off in the war on terror, that President Bush and the Congress and both political parties basically realize that September Eleventh has changed the rules and this as a result has changed the rules of interrogation.” When the United States moved into Iraq, it needed still more intelligence, says Mr. Pike. As the insurgency expanded, information that could save American lives was vital, even if it involved rougher interrogation.

“They basically have arrested people who they believe to be associated with the insurgency,” he says. “These could be former regime loyalists, and I think the reason they have been using strong methods on them is that they need information quickly. They need to know where their associates are. They need to know where they are getting their money, where their arms are stored.”

Pressure short of torture can be useful, says Phil Giraldi, former CIA officer in the clandestine services. He sees nothing wrong with making a prisoner uncomfortable, such as placing a hood over his head that inhibits breathing for a limited time.

More than that, he says, does not work: “Obviously, if someone is being subjected to pain in order to produce certain answers, that person will be very likely to produce the answers even if he does not know them. So I think torture as a tool is a very hit-or-miss sort of thing.”

Mr. Giraldi thinks there was little to learn from the prisoners at Abu Ghraib in any case. They had been picked up in a rather casual sweep of suspects. “Virtually, everyone in the prison was caught up in a net,” he says. “In many cases, they did not even know who they had. If you are catching people that are known to be terrorists, you know what you have, I would feel a little more sympathy toward putting pressure on them, although not violent pressure. In this case I think they were torturing a lot of people for reasons which are rather difficult to define.”

There is no reason whatsoever for such behavior, says Milt Bearden, a 30-year CIA veteran who ran covert operations in the Afghan war against the Soviets. Stress, he says, gets you nowhere in an interrogation, especially if you are trying to find non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Bearden says to get useful information you have to win the trust of your prisoner, and this takes time. “You have to bond with your subject,” he says. “A good debriefing or interrogation almost never has anything to do with other than mind games between one human being and another and none of this madness of stress positions and the other hideous stuff we have seen. I cannot imagine that these measures, softening these guys up with this obscenity, this criminal activity could make anybody talk at all. I do not believe it one bit.”

Mr. Bearden says pressure for tougher interrogation had to come from the top, and John Pike agrees. He says the hundreds of pictures taken at Abu Ghraib were carefully posed and constructed.

“Whoever was taking these pictures concluded that the only thing the enemy feared worse than being killed by an American soldier was being humiliated by a female American soldier,” he says. “There is a lot of concern that these low-ranking soldiers who are going to be court-martialed were just following instructions, that it was not simple misbehavior on their part but it was a deliberate policy that was authorized pretty far up the chain of command.”

Some critics say the pictures were intended for distribution outside the prison perhaps to try to demoralize the insurgents. But it may well have the opposite effect and strengthen the insurgency, say others, as well as enflame Muslim opinion elsewhere in the world.

Both President Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld have expressed disgust at the interrogation tactics at Abu Ghraib, and Major General Geoffrey Miller, who brought the tougher techniques from the prison at Guantanamo Bay to Baghdad, says detainees will no longer be subjected to undue stress and hoods will be used only on a very selective basis.