U.S. military leadership in Iraq knew as early as December 2003 that abuse of detainees was widespread, counterproductive, and illegal.
A confidential report to Army generals in Iraq in December 2003 warned that members of an elite military and CIA task force were abusing detainees, a finding delivered more than a month before Army investigators received the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison that touched off investigations into prisoner mistreatment.
The report, which was not released publicly and was recently obtained by The Washington Post, concluded that some U.S. arrest and detention practices at the time could “technically” be illegal. It also said coalition fighters could be feeding the Iraqi insurgency by “making gratuitous enemies” as they conducted sweeps netting hundreds of detainees who probably did not belong in prison and holding them for months at a time.
The investigation, by retired Col. Stuart A. Herrington, also found that members of Task Force 121 — a joint Special Operations and CIA mission searching for weapons of mass destruction and high-value targets including Saddam Hussein — had been abusing detainees throughout Iraq and had been using a secret interrogation facility to hide their activities.
Herrington’s findings are the latest in a series of confidential reports to come to light about detainee abuse in Iraq. Until now, U.S. military officials have characterized the problem as one largely confined to the military prison at Abu Ghraib — a situation they first learned about in January 2004. But Herrington’s report shows that U.S. military leaders in Iraq were told of such allegations even before then, and that problems were not restricted to Abu Ghraib. Herrington, a veteran of the U.S. counterinsurgency effort in Vietnam, warned that such harsh tactics could imperil U.S. efforts to quell the Iraqi insurgency — a prediction echoed months later by a military report and other reviews of the war effort.
Herrington’s report, which was commissioned by Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast, the top intelligence officer in Iraq, said some detainees dropped off at central U.S. detention facilities other than Abu Ghraib had clearly been beaten by their captors.
“Detainees captured by TF 121 have shown injuries that caused examining medical personnel to note that ‘detainee shows signs of having been beaten,’ ” according to the report, which later concluded: “It seems clear that TF 121 needs to be reined in with respect to its treatment of detainees.”
In the 13-page report, Herrington wrote that overcrowding and a lack of resources caused the Army to use “primitive prison accommodations” for even the most important targets. He said that led to the loss of considerable significant intelligence and might have fueled the Iraqi insurgency.
He added that some detainees were arrested because targets were not at home when homes were raided. A family member was instead captured and then released when the target turned himself in — a practice that, Herrington wrote, “has a ‘hostage’ feel to it.”
A separate report by the Center for Army Lessons Learned, issued this past May and intended for internal use, gave the sense that some Army tactics served to “alienate common Iraqis who initially supported the coalition.”
The 134-page CALL report singled out the practice of detaining female family members to force wanted Iraqi males to turn themselves in, similar to Herrington’s findings.
“It is a practice in some U.S. units to detain family members of anti-coalition suspects in an effort to induce the suspects to turn themselves in, in exchange for the release of their family members,” the report stated. The CALL report also was critical of the delays in notifying family members about the status of detainees held in U.S. custody, reminding family members of Hussein’s tactics.
Herrington’s report also noted that sweeps pulled in hundreds and even thousands of detainees who had no connection to the war. Abu Ghraib, for example, swelled to several thousand more detainees than it could handle. Herrington wrote that aggressive and indiscriminate tactics by the 4th Infantry Division, rounding up random scores of detainees and “dumping them at the door,” was a glaring example.
“Between the losers and dead end elements from the former regime and foreign fighters, there are enough people in Iraq who already don’t like us,” Herrington wrote. “Adding to these numbers by conducting sweep operations . . . is counterproductive to the Coalition’s efforts to win the cooperation of the Iraqi citizenry. Similarly, mistreatment of captives as has been reported to me and our team is unacceptable, and bound to be known by the population.”