Josh White / Washington Post – 2005-08-03 08:44:23
(August 3, 2005) — Iraqi Maj. Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush was being stubborn with his American captors, and a series of intense beatings and creative interrogation tactics were not enough to break his will. On the morning of Nov. 26, 2003, a US Army interrogator and a military guard grabbed a green sleeping bag, stuffed Mowhoush inside, wrapped him in an electrical cord, laid him on the floor and began to go to work. Again.
It was inside the sleeping bag that the 56-year-old detainee took his last breath through broken ribs, lying on the floor beneath a US soldier in Interrogation Room 6 in the western Iraqi desert. Two days before, a secret CIA-sponsored group of Iraqi paramilitaries, working with Army interrogators, had beaten Mowhoush nearly senseless, using fists, a club and a rubber hose, according to classified documents.
The sleeping bag was the idea of a soldier who remembered how his older brother used to force him into one, and how scared and vulnerable it made him feel. Senior officers in charge of the facility near the Syrian border believed that such “claustrophobic techniques” were approved ways to gain information from detainees, part of what military regulations refer to as a “fear up” tactic, according to military court documents.
The circumstances that led up to Mowhoush’s death paint a vivid example of how the pressure to produce intelligence for anti-terrorism efforts and the war in Iraq led US military interrogators to improvise and develop abusive measures, not just at Abu Ghraib but in detention centers elsewhere in Iraq, in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Mowhoush’s ordeal in Qaim, over 16 days in November 2003, also reflects US government secrecy surrounding some abuse cases and gives a glimpse into a covert CIA unit that was set up to foment rebellion before the war and took part in some interrogations during the insurgency.
Sleeping-Bag Interrogations and Beatings
The sleeping-bag interrogation and beatings were taking place in Qaim about the same time that soldiers at Abu Ghraib, outside Baghdad, were using dogs to intimidate detainees, putting women’s underwear on their heads, forcing them to strip in front of female soldiers and attaching at least one to a leash.
It was a time when US interrogators were coming up with their own tactics to get detainees to talk, many of which they considered logical interpretations of broad-brush categories in the Army Field Manual, with labels such as “fear up” or “pride and ego down” or “futility.”
Other tactics, such as some of those seen at Abu Ghraib, had been approved for one detainee at Guantanamo Bay and found their way to Iraq. Still others have been linked to official Pentagon guidance on specific techniques, such as the use of dogs.
Two Army soldiers with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Fort Carson, Colo., are charged with killing Mowhoush with the sleeping-bag technique, and his death has been the subject of partially open court proceedings at the base in Colorado Springs. Two other soldiers alleged to have participated face potential nonjudicial punishment.
Some details of the incident have been released and were previously reported. But an examination of numerous classified documents gathered during the criminal investigation into Mowhoush’s death, and interviews with Defense Department officials and current and former intelligence officials, present a fuller picture of what happened and outline the role played in his interrogation by the CIA, its Iraqi paramilitaries and Special Forces soldiers.
Determining the details of the general’s demise has been difficult because the circumstances are listed as “classified” on his official autopsy, court records have been censored to hide the CIA’s involvement in his questioning, and reporters have been removed from a Fort Carson courtroom when testimony relating to the CIA has surfaced.
Despite Army investigators’ concerns that the CIA and Special Forces soldiers also were involved in serious abuse leading up to Mowhoush’s death, the investigators reported they did not have the authority to fully look into their actions. The CIA inspector general’s office has launched an investigation of at least one CIA operative who identified himself to soldiers only as “Brian.” The CIA declined to comment on the matter, as did an Army spokesman, citing the ongoing criminal cases.
Although Mowhoush’s death certificate lists his cause of death as “asphyxia due to smothering and chest compression,” the Dec. 2, 2003, autopsy, quoted in classified documents and released with redactions, showed that Mowhoush had “contusions and abrasions with pattern impressions” over much of his body, and six fractured ribs. Investigators believed a “long straight-edge instrument” was used on Mowhoush, as well an “object like the end of an M-16” rifle.
“Although the investigation indicates the death was directly related to the non-standard interrogation methods employed on 26 NOV, the circumstances surrounding the death are further complicated due to Mowhoush being interrogated and reportedly beaten by members of a Special Forces team and other government agency (OGA) employees two days earlier,” said a secret Army memo dated May 10, 2004.
Hours after Mowhoush’s death in US custody on Nov. 26, 2003, military officials issued a news release stating that the prisoner had died of natural causes after complaining of feeling sick. Army psychological-operations officers quickly distributed leaflets designed to convince locals that the general had cooperated and outed key insurgents.
The US military initially told reporters that Mowhoush had been captured during a raid. In reality, he had walked into the Forward Operating Base “Tiger” in Qaim on Nov. 10, 2003, hoping to speak with US commanders to secure the release of his sons, who had been arrested in raids 11 days earlier.
Officials were excited about Mowhoush’s appearance.
The general, they believed, had been a high-ranking official in Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard and a key supporter of the insurgency in northwestern Iraq. Mowhoush was one of a few generals whom Hussein had given “execution authority,” US commanders believed, meaning that he could execute someone on sight, and he had been notorious among Shiites in southern Iraq for brutality.
Mowhoush had been visited by Hussein at his home in Sadah in October 2003 “to discuss, among other undisclosed issues, a bounty of US$10,000 to anyone who video-taped themselves attacking coalition forces,” according to a Defense Intelligence Agency report.
Military intelligence also believed that Mowhoush was behind several attacks in the Qaim area.
After being taken into custody, Mowhoush was housed in an isolated area of the Qaim base within miles of the Syrian border, according to a situation summary prepared by interrogators.
The heavyset and imposing man was moderately cooperative in his first days of detention. He told interrogators that he was the commander of the al Quds Golden Division, an organization of trusted loyalists fueling the insurgency with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, sniper rifles, machine guns and other small arms.
In the months before Mowhoush’s detention, military intelligence officials across Iraq had been discussing interrogation tactics, expressing a desire to ramp things up and expand their allowed techniques to include more severe methods, such as beatings that did not leave permanent damage, and exploiting detainees’ fear of dogs and snakes, according to documents released by the Army.
Officials in Baghdad wrote an e-mail to interrogators in the field on Aug. 14, 2003, stating that the “gloves are coming off” and asking them to develop “wish lists” of tactics they would like to use.
An interrogator with the 66th Military Intelligence Company, who was assigned to work on Mowhoush, wrote back with suggestions in August, including the use of “close confinement quarters,” sleep deprivation and using the fear of dogs, adding: “I firmly agree that the gloves need to come off.”
Another e-mail exchange from interrogators with the 4th Infantry Division based in Tikrit also suggested “close quarter confinement” in extremely claustrophobic situations, because “discomfort induces compliance and cooperation.”
Taking the Gloves Off
A week into Mowhoush’s detainment, according to classified investigative documents, interrogators were getting fed up with the prisoner. In a “current situation summary” PowerPoint presentation dated Nov. 18, Army officials wrote about his intransigence, using his first name (spelled “Abid” in Army documents):
“Previous interrogations were non-threatening; Abid was being treated very well. Not anymore,” the document reads. “The interrogation session lasted several hours and I took the gloves off because Abid refused to play ball.”
But the harsher tactics backfired.
In an interrogation that could be witnessed by the entire detainee population, Mowhoush was put into an undescribed “stress position” that caused the other detainees to stand “with heads bowed and solemn looks on their faces,” said the document.
“I asked Abid if he was strong enough a leader to put an end to the attacks that I believed he was behind,” the document said, quoting an unidentified interrogator. “He did not deny he was behind the attacks as he had denied previously, he simply said because I had humiliated him, he would not be able to stop the attacks. I take this as an admission of guilt.”
Three days later, on Nov. 21, 2003, Mowhoush was moved from the border base at Qaim to a makeshift detention facility about six miles away in the Iraqi desert, a prison fashioned out of an old train depot, according to court testimony and investigative documents. Soldiers with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and the 101st Airborne Division were running a series of massive raids called Operation Rifles Blitz, and the temporary holding facility, nicknamed Blacksmith Hotel, was designed to hold the quarry.
US troops searched more than 8,000 homes in three cities, netting 350 detainees, according to court testimony. Even though Mowhoush was not arrested during the raids, he was moved to Blacksmith Hotel, where teams of Army Special Forces soldiers and the CIA were conducting interrogations.
At Blacksmith, according to military sources, there was a tiered system of interrogations. Army interrogators were the first level.
When Army efforts produced nothing useful, detainees would be handed over to members of Operational Detachment Alpha 531, soldiers with the 5th Special Forces Group, the CIA or a combination of the three. “The personnel were dressed in civilian clothes and wore balaclavas to hide their identity,” according to a Jan. 18, 2004, report for the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.
If they did not get what they wanted, the interrogators would deliver the detainees to a small team of the CIA-sponsored Iraqi paramilitary squads, code-named Scorpions, according to a military source familiar with the operation. The Jan. 18 memo indicates that it was “likely that indigenous personnel in the employ of the CIA interrogated MG Mowhoush.”
Sometimes, soldiers and intelligence officers used the mere existence of the paramilitary unit as a threat to induce detainees to talk, one Army soldier said in an interview. “Detainees knew that if they went to those people, bad things would happen,” the soldier said. “It was used as a motivator to get them to talk. They didn’t want to go with the masked men.”
The Scorpions went by nicknames such as Alligator and Cobra. They were set up by the CIA before the war to conduct light sabotage. After the fall of Baghdad, they worked with their CIA handlers to infiltrate the insurgency and as interpreters, according to military investigative documents, defense officials, and former and current intelligence officials.
Soon after Mowhoush’s detention began, soldiers in charge of him “reached a collective decision that they would try using the [redacted] who would, you know, obviously spoke the local, native Iraqi Arabic as a means of trying to shake Mowhoush up, and that the other thing that they were going to try to do was put a bunch of people in the room, a tactic that Mr. [redacted] called ‘fear up,’ ” Army Special Agent Curtis Ryan, who investigated the case, testified, according to a transcript.
Classified e-mail messages and reports show that “Brian,” a Special Forces retiree, worked as a CIA operative with the Scorpions.
On Nov. 24, the CIA and one of its four-man Scorpion units interrogated Mowhoush, according to investigative records.
“OGA Brian and the four indig were interrogating an unknown detainee,” according to a classified memo, using the slang “Other Government Agency” for the CIA and “indig” for indigenous Iraqis.
“When he didn’t answer or provided an answer that they didn’t like, at first [redacted] would slap Mowhoush, and then after a few slaps, it turned into punches,” Ryan testified. “And then from punches, it turned into [redacted] using a piece of hose.”
“The indig were hitting the detainee with fists, a club and a length of rubber hose,” according to classified investigative records.
Soldiers heard Mowhoush “being beaten with a hard object” and heard him “screaming” from down the hall, according to the Jan. 18, 2004, provost marshal’s report. The report said four Army guards had to carry Mowhoush back to his cell.
Two days later, at 8 a.m., Nov. 26, Mowhoush — prisoner No. 76 — was brought, moaning and breathing hard, to Interrogation Room 6, according to court testimony.
Chief Warrant Officer Lewis E. Welshofer Jr. did a first round of interrogations for 30 minutes, taking a 15-minute break and resuming at 8:45. According to court testimony, Welshofer and Spec. Jerry L. Loper, a mechanic assuming the role of guard, put Mowhoush into the sleeping bag and wrapped the bag in electrical wire.
Welshofer allegedly crouched over Mowhoush’s chest to talk to him.
Sgt. 1st Class William Sommer, a linguist, stood nearby.
Chief Warrant Officer Jeff Williams, an intelligence analyst, came to observe progress.
Investigative records show that Mowhoush “becomes unresponsive” at 9:06 a.m. Medics tried to resuscitate him for 30 minutes before pronouncing him dead.
In a preliminary court hearing in March for Williams, Loper and Sommer, retired Chief Warrant Officer Richard Manwaring, an interrogator who worked with Welshofer in Iraq, testified that using the sleeping bag and putting detainees in a wall locker and banging on it were “appropriate” techniques that he himself used to frighten detainees and make them tense.
Col. David A. Teeples, who then commanded the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, told the court he believed the “claustrophobic technique” was both approved and effective. It was used before, and for some time after, Mowhoush’s death, according to sources familiar with the interrogation operation.
“My thought was that the death of Mowhoush was brought about by [redacted] and then it was unfortunate and accidental, what had happened under an interrogation by our people,” Teeples said in court, according to a transcript.
The CIA has tried hard to conceal the existence of the Scorpions. CIA classification officials have monitored pretrial hearings in the case and have urged the court to close much of the hearing on national security grounds. Redacted transcripts were released only after lawyers for the Denver Post challenged the rulings.
Autopsy Shields CIA
The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology’s standard “Autopsy Examination Report” of Mowhoush’s death was manipulated to avoid references to the CIA. In contrast to the other autopsy reports of suspicious detainee deaths released by the Army, Mowhoush’s name is redacted and under “Circumstances of Death,” the form says: “This Iraqi [redacted] died while in US custody. The details surrounding the circumstances at the time of death are classified.”
Williams was arraigned yesterday on a murder charge and is scheduled for court-martial in November, a Fort Carson spokeswoman said. Welshofer’s court-martial is set for October. Loper and Sommer have not been referred for trial. Commanders are still considering what, if any, punishment to impose.
Frank Spinner, an attorney for Welshofer, said his client is going to fight the murder charge. Reading from a statement prepared by Welshofer during his Article 32 hearing this spring, Spinner quoted his client as saying that he is proud of the job he did and that his efforts saved US soldiers’ lives. “I did not torture anyone,” Spinner quoted him as saying.
William Cassara, who represents Williams, cited Mowhoush’s brutal encounters in the days before he died as possibly leading to his death. He said Williams, who was not trained in interrogation tactics, had little to do with the case.
“The interrogation techniques were known and were approved of by the upper echelons of command of the 3rd ACR,” Cassara said in a news conference. “They believed, and still do, that they were appropriate and proper.”
Staff writer Dana Priest contributed to this report.
© 2005 The Washington Post Company
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.