Pressure at Iraqi prison detailed

June 18, 2004, Friday, FINAL EDITION
BYLINE: This story was reported by Blake Morrison, John Diamond, Toni Locy, Donna Leinwand, Dave Moniz and Tom Squitieri, and written by Morrison and Diamond
LENGTH: 2640 words

WASHINGTON — The officer who oversaw interrogations at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad testified that he was under intense “pressure” from the White House, Pentagon and CIA last fall to get better information from detainees, pressure that he said included a visit to the prison by an aide to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Army Lt. Col. Steven Jordan, in a sworn statement to Army investigators obtained by USA TODAY, said he was told last September that White House staffers wanted to “pull the intelligence out” of the interrogations being conducted at Abu Ghraib. The pressure stemmed from growing concern about the increasingly violent Iraqi insurgency that was claiming American lives daily. It came before and during a string of abuses of Iraqi prisoners in October, November and December of 2003.

Jordan, the top military intelligence officer at Abu Ghraib, described “instances where I feel that there was additional pressure” to get information from detainees, including a visit to the prison last fall by an aide to Rice that was “purely on detainee operations and reporting.” And he said he was reminded of the need to improve the intelligence output of the prison “many, many, many times.”

Rice staffer Fran Townsend said Thursday that she spent about two hours at Abu Ghraib last November and recalls that Jordan was her guide. Townsend, then deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism, said she did not discuss interrogation techniques or the need to obtain more information from detainees, and neither witnessed nor heard about abuse of detainees.

Townsend said in an interview that she was in Iraq to learn more about the nature of the anti-U.S. insurgency and was particularly concerned about ensuring that whatever information was collected by various agencies there could be shared effectively. Townsend said she spent about 15 minutes in the detention areas at Abu Ghraib and remembers that her guide was “exceptionally polite.” But she said that if his implication was that she was pressuring him to extract more information from detainees, that’s “ridiculous.”

Examination of Jordan’s statement and other internal Army documents provides new insights into the intensity of the demands on commanders at Abu Ghraib to deliver useful intelligence, and the relative lack of emphasis on treating prisoners in accord with international standards. While the documents obtained by USA TODAY do not answer questions about how high approval of the abuses went, they show there was intense interest in the Abu Ghraib operations at the highest levels of the Pentagon and the White House staff.

Jordan said his immediate superior, Army Col. Thomas Pappas, told him at least twice “that some of the (intelligence) reporting was getting read by (Secretary of Defense Donald) Rumsfeld, folks out at Langley (CIA headquarters in Virginia), some very senior folks.” Jordan testified that Pappas said pressure came from superiors “at the very beginning,” well before the fall of 2003, when the documented abuses occurred.

Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday that he recalled imploring, ” ‘Help, intelligence community and CIA. Give us more information.’ Certainly that’s a fairly typical thing in a conflict.” He said he could not recall “any specific conversations” about improving intelligence results at Abu Ghraib.

The Defense secretary also acknowledged that, at CIA Director George Tenet’s request, he ordered an Iraqi terror suspect held for seven months without registering him on prison rolls or notifying the Red Cross, as is customary. The move delayed access by Red Cross inspectors to the detainee, a suspected member of the terror group Ansar al-Islam. But Rumsfeld said “there is no question at all” that the suspect was treated humanely. The terror suspect was never held at Abu Ghraib, but the incident illustrates the involvement by high-level administration officials in prisoner handling.

Jordan does not emerge from the documents as an entirely credible witness. Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who headed an investigation of the Abu Ghraib abuses, suggested Jordan be reassigned for lying to investigators when he denied witnessing prisoner abuses, since several other witnesses put him at the scene. Even so, Jordan’s testimony is undisputed on some key points, and the statements of Jordan and others dramatize the pressures and conflicting agendas surrounding the handling of Iraqi prisoners at an understaffed, overcrowded prison that was under frequent attack by militants outside.

Among the key points that emerge from the documents:

* The message from the Bush administration reaching military intelligence officials at Abu Ghraib was to gain more information from interrogations about attacks on U.S. soldiers and to learn more about foreign terrorists in Iraq. There is no indication in the documents that officials in Washington were actively reminding prison officials to treat inmates humanely.

* The guards and interrogators at Abu Ghraib lacked adequate body armor, armored vehicles and manpower to cope with a surging inmate population and the threat of armed inmate revolt.

* Inmates at Abu Ghraib did produce some highly valuable intelligence. One female detainee, for example, provided detailed information on the disguises and whereabouts of ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

How much the White House knew — or wanted to know — about the interrogation techniques being used at Abu Ghraib remains unclear. The documents reveal no explicit approval by Bush administration officials of harsh treatment. Administration officials have said they knew nothing of the behavior of prison guards who beat prisoners, forced them into sexually humiliating positions and took photos of them.

The Army next week begins prosecuting four of the seven reservists, all enlisted personnel, accused of abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. One has already pleaded guilty. Pentagon officials have said they expect more charges in the Abu Ghraib abuse cases, and investigations continue into prisoner deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hunting Saddam

There was valuable intelligence to be gleaned from detainees at Abu Ghraib. That much became clear within weeks of Jordan’s arrival at Abu Ghraib on Sept. 17. A female inmate at the prison told U.S. military intelligence that her family had ties with “Black List One,” the military’s code name for Saddam when he was a fugitive.

The woman told one of the interrogators that Saddam “had a big white beard, that he was basically living in a hole, that he was driving a taxi,” Jordan testified. The woman gave a general location for Saddam and said the ousted Iraqi dictator was driving around in a cab. Jordan thought the account far-fetched but soon learned that other Iraqis were providing similar information. In fact, Saddam was found hiding in a hole and wearing a long, gray beard. A taxi was found near his hiding place.

Yet the disarray at Abu Ghraib, a prison under frequent small-arms and mortar attack from hostile Iraqis in the area 20 miles west of Baghdad, comes through in another incident linked to Saddam.

Sometime in November, Jordan said, Army officers told him they were prepared “to do an operation on Black List One, Saddam.” Superiors told Jordan that they wanted to have on call a team of four interrogators and four civilian linguists. The team would be sent quickly to an interrogation site once Saddam was in custody.

But despite the high priority, neither the prison staff nor Army headquarters was able to muster the armored vehicles necessary to safely transport this team out of Abu Ghraib through a feared gauntlet of hostile fire. It appears from his testimony that the team never was sent and did not become involved in the interrogation of Saddam. Saddam was captured Dec. 13. Jordan’s last day at Abu Ghraib was Dec. 22

Before coming to Abu Ghraib, Jordan had amassed a long resume of sensitive intelligence assignments, including electronic warfare, communications intercepts and analysis of satellite photos. He was expert at “exploitation,” or gleaning valuable information from raw intelligence reports, such as prisoner interrogations. What he said his resume lacked was anything beyond a “passing familiarity” with the rules and laws governing prisoner treatment.

While he reported to Pappas, it was Army Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast, head of military intelligence in Iraq, who assigned Jordan to Abu Ghraib. He arrived Sept. 17, weeks before the rash of prisoner mistreatment. Some of the guards who testified said they were told to abuse prisoners by military intelligence officers under Jordan, and Jordan was aware of the abuse.

Though he acknowledged he was at Abu Ghraib “24-7” from Sept. 17 until he was reassigned Dec. 22, Jordan insisted under questioning by Taguba that he had seen interrogations only occasionally. And he said he witnessed no abuse. Taguba strongly and repeatedly questioned those assertions.

Jordan, an Army reservist from Fredericksburg, Va., who is still assigned to Iraq, has declined repeated requests for interviews. He told Taguba that he handled reports of abuse, including the stripping of detainees, and once told military police serving as guards at the prison to stop covering the heads of prisoners with sandbags with messages on them such as “kick me,” “I’m stupid” and “I don’t play well with others.”

But Jordan pleaded ignorance to abuses that Red Cross inspectors readily uncovered in early October. His main mission, he testified, was bringing some order to what had been a chaotic intelligence reporting system. The pressure from “higher headquarters” was palpable, Jordan said. In addition to the visit from Rice’s staffer and reports that the CIA and Rumsfeld were keenly interested in Abu Ghraib interrogation results, Jordan said Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, was pressing for intelligence that would help combat the rash of attacks on U.S. forces that summer and fall.

“I know Gen. Sanchez was in our knickers,” Jordan said, “to get more information from detainees.”

Although Jordan had not been disciplined or accused of any crime in connection with abuse, the documents make clear that his veracity is in question. While Jordan says he did not supervise interrogations, Army Capt. Donald Reese, commander of the 372nd Military Police Company at Abu Ghraib, told investigators that Jordan “was very involved with the interrogation process and the day-to-day activities that occurred” at Abu Ghraib. When Reese raised concerns about keeping detainees nude, threatening them with dogs and depriving them of sleep, Jordan replied that “this was an interrogation method and it was something they used,” Reese testified.

Pappas, Jordan’s immediate superior, said his understanding was that the military intelligence mission at Abu Ghraib was force protection, including securing the prison from attack from outside and revolt from within. He said nothing in his testimony about pressure from Washington, though Taguba didn’t ask about it. Pappas complained that Jordan was “a loner who freelances,” and though he did not discipline him, he requested that he be reassigned from Abu Ghraib in December.

Jordan, for his part, accused Pappas of being too lenient in at least one case in which a prisoner was stripped to his underwear during an interrogation on Nov. 15 and then forced to walk outside, back to his cell, on a cold night. Jordan said that when he suggested serious disciplinary action in the matter, “I was told to stay in my lane” by Pappas, and that Pappas refused to start even an administrative disciplinary action.

But while many aspects of the prisoner-abuse case are unclear, there is no question that senior commanders were desperate to get a clearer intelligence picture of the burgeoning insurgency that was claiming a growing number of American lives.

Chaos at Abu Ghraib

Some of the U.S. casualties were occurring within the walls of Abu Ghraib. On Sept. 20, a barrage of mortar rounds killed two Army soldiers, narrowly missed Jordan, and injured 13 U.S. personnel and 67 Iraqi prisoners. On Oct. 26, another mortar attack killed an Army policewoman.

Guards at Abu Ghraib gradually realized they had a security problem among Iraqi police who sometimes brought weapons into the prison to inmate friends. Jordan witnessed one incident in which a prisoner opened fire, wounding a guard, and was then shot and wounded.

The picture of life at the prison that emerges is of a dirty, overcrowded complex under frequent attack by Iraqi militants outside the walls as guards struggled to maintain order within against hostile, sometimes violent inmates. Discipline was poor among guards. The documents describe military police in guard towers whiling away hours with Gameboy computers, and officers and enlistees regularly out of uniform and neglecting to salute. Jordan reported that on one inspection he encountered “apparent hookers there living with a couple of the MPs.”

The disarray extended to the intelligence-gathering portion of the Abu Ghraib operation. Some units doing interrogations weren’t sharing their information, Jordan said. Representatives of “other government agencies,” or OGA, a euphemism for the CIA, along with special operations forces searching for high-level Iraqis, were behaving in a “cowboyish” fashion and not sharing intelligence, Jordan said.

A joint intelligence-special forces group called Task Force 121 was in the habit of capturing suspected insurgents, driving to the prison gates and “just dropping them off and leaving,” Jordan said.

Seeking to shape up the intelligence-gathering at Abu Ghraib, the Bush administration ordered Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, commander of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to examine the prison in Iraq.

Miller, who would later be put in charge of detainee operations in Iraq, recommended that some of the same techniques used to break al-Qaeda fighters at Guantanamo be applied to prisoners in Iraq.

The problem was that under Bush administration policy, Guantanamo prisoners did not enjoy the protections of the Geneva Conventions, while prisoners in Iraq, other than terrorist detainees, did. Miller has vehemently denied encouraging abusive treatment.

But the report he produced from his initial tour of the Iraqi prison makes clear he wanted guards and military intelligence officers to work together on inmates in a coordinated fashion to maximize the results of interrogations.

Regardless of Miller’s intended impact on Abu Ghraib, two facts emerge from the documents: Discipline did not improve in the fall of 2003; if anything, it deteriorated. And harsh treatment of a limited number of inmates became a regular occurrence.

Jordan described a “joint venture” he had worked out with CIA interrogators to hide “ghost detainees” from Red Cross inspectors who inspected Abu Ghraib in October. Five or six inmates brought in by the “other government agency,” or CIA team, had not been entered on the books. On Pappas’ orders, Jordan said, they were moved so they would not be found by the Red Cross inspectors.

Jordan said Pappas and CIA counterparts also reached an understanding in which military intelligence would provide translators and interrogators even though these ghost detainees were not on the rolls.

One of these detainees died under questioning, a death that has become subject of an internal CIA investigation. Jordan said Pappas was concerned about such a development and demanded a memorandum of understanding with the agency. Jordan quoted Pappas as saying, “Well, if I go down, I’m not going down alone. The guys from Langley are going with me.”

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