Sunday, March 19, 2006

More prisoner abuse

Today's New York Times details yet another interrogation center where abuses took place, this time a place called the Black Room at Camp Nama, the secret headquarters of an interrogation group charged with locating Al-Zarqawi, the leader of the foreign fighters in Iraq.
In the windowless, jet-black garage-size room, some soldiers beat prisoners with rifle butts, yelled and spit in their faces and, in a nearby area, used detainees for target practice in a game of jailer paintball. ... Placards posted by soldiers at the detention area advised, "NO BLOOD, NO FOUL." The slogan, as one Defense Department official explained, reflected an adage adopted by Task Force 6-26: "If you don't make them bleed, they can't prosecute for it." According to Pentagon specialists who worked with the unit, prisoners at Camp Nama often disappeared into a detention black hole, barred from access to lawyers or relatives, and confined for weeks without charges. "The reality is, there were no rules there," another Pentagon official said.

What makes this example particularly bad is that these weren't ill-trained reservists. They were elite counterterrorism troops, occasionally paired with soldiers or intelligence agents who had interrogation skills.

The abuses are described as unsanctioned, but well known to those serving in the area.

It should surprise no one that the abuse was not helpful.

Despite the task force's access to a wide range of intelligence, its raids were often dry holes, yielding little if any intelligence and alienating ordinary Iraqis, Defense Department personnel said. Prisoners deemed no threat to American troops were often driven deep into the Iraqi desert at night and released, sometimes given $100 or more in American money for their trouble.

The good news is that it was complaints from other interrogators -- and institutional actions by their superiors, such as withdrawing CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency interrogators from cooperating with such tactics -- that exposed the abuses.

The bad news is that the unit is still operating, with even less accountability:

In the summer of 2004, Camp Nama closed and the unit moved to a new headquarters in Balad, 45 miles north of Baghdad. The unit's operations are now shrouded in even tighter secrecy.

Senior military commanders insist that the elite warriors, who will be relied on more than ever in the campaign against terrorism, are now treating detainees more humanely and can police themselves.

I would hope there is far better oversight now. But history indicates that that might be more hope than reason.

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