"Terrorists until proven otherwise"

Fri May 20, 2005 7:18 PM EDT

Perhaps the ever-growing number of MPs, guards, and interrogators implicated in detainee abuses are all simply sick, demented people. But that's too easy. After speaking with Erik Saar, a former military translator at Guantanamo, last week, it's become clearer to me how situations like these have become so widespread: Those in command are fostering an environment where abuses can occur. Saar writes in his book Inside the Wire, that generals and Congressional staff often came to Guantanamo to observe interrogations. As reported by the press, those in command hence arranged for "choreographed" interrogations with cooperative detainees to make it seem like all was well. But, Saar told Mother Jones, the real surprise was that the visitors knew they were being duped and didn't seem to mind:

They knew we were interrogating people in the middle of the night. They knew there were people that were subject to sleep deprivation. They knew that certain stress positions were allowed. I don't know why, if they were really curious as to what was going on, they didn't ask to see an interrogation where these techniques were taking place. These were leaders. They could have easily said, "I want to go to an interrogation at midnight tonight, and I don't want the interrogator to know that it's being observed by a General or a member of Congressional staff.

The Army criminal investigation report that the New York Times discussed today noted, that at Bagram, "Some of the mistreatment was quite obvious. Senior officials frequently toured the detention center, and several of them acknowledged seeing prisoners chained up for punishment to deprive them of sleep." Those in charge were either aware of the abuses or had to make a concerted effort to avoid becoming aware of them.

And the leadership, in many cases, appears to have been shoddy at best. While Saar worked in Guantanamo, Gen. Geoffrey Miller was in command. Saar told Mother Jones that Miller was widely disrespected because he was an infantry officer who had little or no intelligence experience and, yet, was running an intelligence-gathering mission. Similarly, the Times points out that the company responsible for some of the abuses in Bagram, was composed of counterintelligence specialists, none of whom had a background in interrogation. Meanwhile, one of the Reservists told Army investigators, "There was the Geneva Conventions for enemy prisoners of war, but nothing for the terrorists." And according to senior intelligence officers in the report, detainees "were to be considered terrorists until proved otherwise."

Meanwhile, the atmosphere in the prisons lent itself to abuse. Interrogators, guards, or military police were cheered on for "not taking any" from detainees. ("Specialist Jeremy M. Callaway overheard another guard boasting about having beaten a detainee who had spit on him.") Action to the contrary was frowned upon: According to Sgt. James Leahy, a Reservist who worked at Bagram, "We sometimes developed a rapport with detainees, and Sergeant Loring (the officer in charge of interrogators at the time of the deaths of Dilawar and Habibullah) would sit us down and remind us that these were evil people and talk about 9/11 and they weren't our friends and could not be trusted."

Similarly, the language barrier created a further wedge between soldier and detainee:

The communication between Habibullah and his jailers appears to have been almost exclusively physical. Despite repeated requests, the MPs were assigned no interpreters of their own….When the detainees were beaten or kicked for 'noncompliance,' one of the interpreters, Ali M. Baryalai said, it was often 'because they didn't have any idea what the MP is saying.'

Likewise:

When one of the First Platoon MPs, Specialist Corey E. Jones, was sent to Mr. Dilawar's cell to give him some water, he said the prisoner spit in his face and started kicking him. Specialist Jones responded... with a couple of knee strikes to the led of the shackled man. 'He screamed out 'Allah! Allah! Allah!' and my first reaction was that he was crying out to his god,' Specialist Jones said to investigators. 'Everybody heard him cry out and thought it was funny.' Other Third Platoon MPs later came by the detention center and stopped at the isolation cells to see for themselves…It became a kind of running joke, and people kept showing up to give this detainee a common peroneal strike just to hear him scream out 'Allah,' he said. 'It went on over a 24-hour period, and I would think that it was over 100 strikes.' As Mr. Dilawar grew desperate, he began crying out more loudly to be released. But even the interpreters had trouble understanding his Pashto dialect; the annoyed guards heard only noise. 'He had constantly been screaming, 'Release me; I don't want to be here,' and things like that,' said the one linguist who could decipher his distress.

Saar told Mother Jones that guards at Guantanamo were at times openly hostile to the translators: "The guards viewed any attempt to treat a detainee with any sort of civility as being sympathetic to the detainees." But just as Saar has broken the silence, so too have many others. Starting with Joseph Darby, who revealed the Abu Ghraib photos, soldiers have been coming forward, refusing to accept that these actions can be done in their name, or in the name of the country they choose to put their life on the line for. Indeed, the Army criminal investigation report that the Times obtained was "from a person involved in the investigation who was critical of methods used at Bagram and the military's response to the deaths."

How many more "bad apples" are we going to find before we start to look at the tree from which they're falling? An independent investigation is more than the "right" and "moral" thing to do. At this point, it's the one thing that might allow the Army, and the administration, to maintain a shred of accountability. Better to hear the truth from the top than from a slew of angry, low-ranking soldiers who feel betrayed. As a former Bagram interrogator charged with assaulting Dilawar, Sgt. Selena Salcedo, told the Times, "The whole situation is unfair. It's all going to come out when everything is said and done." It's just a matter of who it's going to come from.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.