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IV. Account of Officer C, 82nd Airborne Division

C is an officer with the 82nd Airborne Division and West Point graduate who served in Afghanistan from August 2002 to February 2003 and in Iraq from September 2003 to March 2004. HRW spoke with him more than two dozen times in July, August, and September 2005. Below are excerpts from those interviews grouped by subject matter (the subject headings were supplied by Human Rights Watch).

At FOB Mercury, he was not in charge of interrogations but saw several interrogations in progress and received regular reports from NCOs on ill-treatment of detainees. He felt strongly that abuses there reflected larger policy confusion about what was permitted, and that the officer corps in particular has a duty to come forward and take responsibility.

On Conditions at FOB Mercury

When we were at FOB Mercury, we had prisoners that were stacked in pyramids, not naked but they were stacked in pyramids.  We had prisoners that were forced to do extremely stressful exercises for at least two hours at a time which personally I am in good shape and I would not be able to do that type of exercises for two hours.… There was a case where a prisoner had cold water dumped on him and then he was left outside in the night.  Again, exposure to elements. There was a case where a soldier took a baseball bat and struck a detainee on the leg hard. This is all stuff that I’m getting from my NCOs.

In the PUC holding facility you could have had people that could have been in the wrong house at the wrong time brought in an all of a sudden they are subjected to this. So that’s a big problem, obviously a huge human rights issue.

It’s army doctrine that when you take a prisoner, one of the things you do is secure that prisoner and then you speed him to the rear. You get him out of the hands of the unit that took him. Well, we didn’t do that.  We’d keep them at out holding facility for I think it was up to seventy-two hours.  Then we would place him under the guard of soldiers he had just been trying to kill.  The incident with the detainee hit with baseball bat; he was suspected of having killed one of our officers.   

[At FOB Mercury] they said that they had pictures that were similar to what happened at Abu Ghraib, and because they were so similar to what happened at Abu Ghraib, the soldiers destroyed the pictures.  They burned them.  The exact quote was, “They [the soldiers at Abu Ghraib] were getting in trouble for the same things we were told to do, so we destroyed the pictures.”

On Frustration Obtaining a Meaningful Response within the Military Chain of Command 

I witnessed violations of the Geneva Conventions that I knew were violations of the Geneva Conventions when they happened but I was under the impression that that was U.S. policy at the time. And as soon as Abu Ghraib broke and they had hearings in front of Congress, the Secretary of Defense testified that we followed the spirit of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan, and the letter of the Geneva Conventions in Iraq and as soon as he said that I knew something was wrong. So I called some of my classmates [from West Point], confirmed what I was concerned about and then on that Monday morning I approached my chain of command.

I talked to an officer in the Ranger regiment12 and his response was, he wouldn’t tell me exactly what he witnessed but he said “I witnessed things that were more intense than what you witnessed,” but it wasn’t anything that exceeded what I had heard about at SERE school.13

After that I called the chaplain at West Point who I respected a lot and I talked to him about some things and we were on the same page.  Then I had said well, “I’m going to talk to my company commander and then my battalion commander on Monday.”

My company commander said, “I see how you can take it that way, but…” he said something like, “remember the honor of the unit is at stake” or something to that effect and “Don’t expect me to go to bat for you on this issue if you take this up,” something to that effect. 

I went and talked to my battalion commander.  Again, he clearly thinks he has done the right things and that what I am bringing attention to is within the standards and that he is okay.  He didn’t dismiss me.  He just said “Go talk to JAG. We’ll work this out.”  It wasn’t alarming to him in any way, shape or form that these things had happened.

So I went to JAG and … he says, “Well the Geneva Conventions are a gray area.”  So I mentioned some things that I had heard about and said, “Is it a violation to chain prisoners to the ground naked for the purpose of interrogations?” and he said, “That’s within the Geneva Conventions.” So I said, “Okay.  That is within the Geneva Conventions.” And then there is the prisoner on the box with the wires attached to him, and to me, as long as electricity didn’t go through the wires, that was in accordance with what I would have expected US policy to be and that he wasn’t under the threat of death.  And he said, “Well, that is a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions.” And I said, “Okay, but I’m looking for some kind of standard here to be able to tell what I should stop and what I should allow to happen.”  And he says, “Well, we’ve had questions about that at times.”

Then he said, “There was a device that another battalion in the 82nd had come up with that you would put a prisoner in.  It was uncomfortable to sit in.” And he went to test it out by sitting in it and he decided that it wasn’t torture.  I hear this and I am flabbergasted that this is the standard the Army is using to determine whether or not we follow the Geneva Conventions.  If I go to JAG and JAG cannot give me clear guidance about what I should stop and what I should allow to happen, how is an NCO or a private expected to act appropriately?

When I talked to [an official in the Inspector General’s office about the policy confusion on what was permitted] he says, “You obviously feel very upset about this, but—I don’t think you’re going to accomplish anything because things don’t stick to people inside the Beltway [Washington, D.C.].”  He says, “I worked at the Pentagon and things don’t stick to people inside the Beltway.” 

When the Secretary of the Army came [to my training], I addressed him on numerous issues, which I don’t want to go into. One of those issues was treatment of prisoners.  I mentioned that I didn’t have clear guidance, and the Secretary of the Army said, “Well, we realized that that was a problem but you are a little bit behind the times.  We’ve solved that matter.  And I didn’t get a chance to respond to that.  I should have, I should have pressed that issue a lot harder.  That’s one of my regrets.  Just bringing up the issue at all was stressful, but it hasn’t been resolved because there is no clear guidance.  And through discussions with other officers the problem is not taken care of.  It really is multiple problems. It’s two problems.  One is the Army handling interrogations and the other is the relationship between OGA and prisoners and what they can and can’t do.

The officer also spoke with multiple experts on the U.S. military Law of Land Warfare, his peers, and his soldiers, all of whom, he said, expressed concern that the Geneva Conventions were not being applied in Iraq.  He decided to bring his concerns to the Congress since he felt they were not being adequately addressed by his chain of command. Days before this report was published his brigade commander told him to stop his inquiries; his commanding officer told him that he could not leave the base to visit with staff members of Senators McCain and Warner without approval and that approval was being denied because his commanding officer felt the officer was being naïve and would do irreparable harm to his career.

On Policy Confusion within the Ranks on Coercive Interrogation

[In Afghanistan,] I thought that the chain on command all the way up to the National Command Authority14 had made it a policy that we were going to interrogate these guys harshly. 

[The actual standard was] “we’re not going to follow the Geneva Conventions but we are going to treat you humanely.”  Well, what does humane mean?  To me humane means I can kind of play with your mind, but I cannot hit you or do anything that is going to cost you permanent physical damage. To [another officer I spoke with] humane means it’s okay to rough someone up and to do physical harm.  Not to break bones or anything like that but to do physical harm as long as you’re not humiliating him, which was the way he put it.   We’ve got people with different views of what humane means and there’s no Army statement that says this is the standard for humane treatment for prisoners to Army officers.  Army officers are left to come up with their own definition of humane treatment.

I don’t know for sure [how high up the hierarchy responsibility for the abusive treatment lies]. What I know is that it’s widespread enough that it’s an officer problem. It’s at least an officer problem. You make the standard, and that is what goes up to the executive branch. You communicate the standard, that’s when it’s somewhat the executive branch, but then it comes more into the officer branch, and enforcing the standard is the officer branch…  And in the Schlesinger report15 it even says that when the President made the decision that al-Qaeda wasn’t going to be covered by the Geneva Conventions, there was a clear danger that it was going to undermine the culture in the United States Army that enforces strict adherence to the law of land warfare. That’s in the Schlesinger report.

But anyway, the President makes that decision, and decides that we’re not going to cover them by the Geneva Conventions, which according to the letter of the law, I think there’s a strong argument for that…. [But] then that lack of standard migrates throughout the Army. It filters throughout the Army, so that now the standard, this convoluted, “You’ll know what’s right when you see it,” filters through the whole Army.

If you draw a hard line and you say “Don’t do anything bad to prisoners,” like you bring them in, you give them food, you give them water, and then you leave them alone. If that happens then, yeah, that is an easy line to draw, but when you start drawing shades of gray and you start stripping prisoners, or you start making prisoners do humiliating things and then you tell a soldier to draw the line somewhere, then no.  A soldier is not going to be able to draw that line because as soon as you cross that line and as soon as you start stripping prisoners or you start making people do vigorous exercise, or you start basically putting yourself in a position of authority where you are subjecting someone else to harsh treatment, things are going to get out of hand because everyone is going to draw the line at a different place. Just like the discussion between me and the other officer, where’s the line? What is acceptable and what is not acceptable?  People don’t know.  The West Point officers knew the line coming out of West Point.  We knew where the Geneva Conventions drew the line, but then you get that confusion when the Sec Def [Secretary of Defense] and the President make that statement.  And we were confused. 

[In Iraq, my understanding of how we should treat prisoners] didn’t change.  There are a couple of reasons for that.  Pre-deployment training was minimal going to Iraq because we deployed on short notice from West Point through Fort Bragg to Iraq.  So there might be some disconnect there, but also none of the unit policies changed.  Iraq was cast as part of the War on Terror, not a separate entity in and of itself but a part of a larger war. 

[I didn’t discuss abuse of detainees with my superiors in Iraq because] to me, it was obviously part of the system and the reasons had been laid out about why we’re not following the Geneva Conventions in respect to the detainees.  We did follow them in other aspects and once that was laid out I thought it was pretty clear cut.…  That was just the way I thought we were running things.

Another officer approached me and was like “I’m not sure this is the way you should be treating someone.”  It was almost like an off-hand, kind of like…just a conversation like making a comment.  He said something like “I don’t know if this is right” and my response was “Hey, it’s out in the open and we’ve said that we are doing this.  It’s not like we’re doing it on the sly.”

If I as an officer think we’re not even following the Geneva Conventions, there’s something wrong. If officers witness all these things happening, and don’t take action, there’s something wrong. If another West Pointer tells me he thinks, “Well, hitting somebody might be okay,” there’s something wrong.

What I’m saying is had I thought we were following the Geneva Conventions as an officer I would have investigated what was clearly a very suspicious situation.

On the Implications of the Abu Ghraib Abuse Revelations in April 2004

Someone mentioned to me in passing that there was a really bad prisoner abuse scandal and I took note of it and I thought, “that is horrible. That is going to be bad PR [public relations] for the Army” and I thought, “Okay, rogues did something.”  And then as the week progressed I watched on the news and they showed some of the pictures -- not all of them -- a large portion of the pictures were in accordance with what I perceived as U.S. policy.  Now all the stuff with sodomy with the chem light and all that was clearly beyond what I would have allowed to happen on a personal moral level and what I thought policy was.  But the other stuff, guys handcuffed naked to cells in uncomfortable positions, guys placed in stress positions on boxes, people stripped naked.  All that was…if I would have seen it, I would have thought it was in accordance with interrogation procedures.

I listened to the congressional hearings and when the Secretary of Defense testified that we followed the spirit of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan and the letter of the Geneva Conventions in Iraq… that went against everything that I [understood about US policy].  That’s when I had a problem.

The first concern when this originally happened was loyalty to the Constitution and separation of powers, and combined with that is the honor code: “I will not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do.” The fact that it was systematic, and that the chain of command knew about it was so obvious to me that [until that point] I didn’t even consider the fact that other factors might be at play, so that’s why I approached my chain of command about it right off the bat and said, “Hey, we’re lying right now. We need to be completely honest.”

Congress should have oversight of treatment of prisoners. That is the way; the Army should not take it upon itself to determine what is acceptable for America to do in regards to treatment of prisoners. That’s a value… that’s more than just a military decision, that’s a values decision, and therefore Congress needs to know about it, and therefore the American people need to have an honest representation of what’s going on presented to them so that they can have a say in that.

On Failure of the Officer Corps

It’s unjust to hold only lower-ranking soldiers accountable for something that is so clearly, at a minimum, an officer corps problem, and probably a combination with the executive branch of government.

It’s almost infuriating to me.  It is infuriating to me that officers are not lined up to accept responsibility for what happened. It blows my mind that officers are not.  It should’ve started with the chain of command at Abu Ghraib and anybody else that witnessed anything that violated the Geneva Conventions or anything that could be questionable should’ve been standing up saying, “This is what happened. This is why I allowed it to happen. This is my responsibility,” for the reasons I mentioned before. That’s basic officership, that’s what you learn at West Point, that’s what you should learn at any commissioning source.

That’s basic Army leadership. If you fail to enforce something, that’s the new standard. So I guess what I’m getting at is the Army officers have overarching responsibility for this. Not privates, not the Sergeant Jones, not Sergeant Smith. The Army officer corps has responsibility for this. And it boggles my mind that there aren’t officers standing up saying, “That’s my fault and here’s why.” That’s basic army leadership.

Look, the guys who did this aren’t dishonorable men.  It’s not like they are a bunch of vagabonds.  They shown more courage and done more things in the time that I’ve spent with them than I could cover in probably a week of talking to you.  They are just amazing men, but they’re human. If you put them in a situation, which is the officer’s responsibility, where they are put in charge of somebody who tried to kill them or maybe killed their friend, bad things are going to happen.  It’s the officer’s job to make sure bad things don’t happen.

[Another important] thing is making sure this doesn’t happen again….  [We need] to address the fact that it was an officer issue and by trying to claim that it was “rogue elements” we seriously hinder our ability to ensure this doesn’t happen again. And, that has not only moral consequences, but it has practical consequences in our ability to wage the War on Terror. We’re mounting a counter-insurgency campaign, and if we have widespread violations of the Geneva Conventions, that seriously undermines our ability to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world.

[I]f America holds something as the moral standard, it should be unacceptable for us as a people to change that moral standard based on fear. The measure of a person or a people’s character is not what they do when everything is comfortable. It’s what they do in an extremely trying and difficult situation, and if we want to claim that these are our ideals and our values then we need to hold to them no matter how dark the situation.

On the Role of “OGA”

In Afghanistan we were attached to Special Forces and saw OGA.  We never interacted with them but they would stress guys.  We learned how to do it.  We saw it when we would guard an interrogation.

They [OGA interrogators in Afghanistan] had a horn.  In this case they would involve U.S. soldiers.  There was a really loud horn and any time the detainee would fall asleep they would blare the horn in his ear so that he had to wake up and they would do that until he stood up again and stayed awake.

 [A]t FOB Tiger [near the Syrian border] there were a lot of high value targets and …there was a Special Forces [SF] team nearby and I was going to talk to them just about career stuff and as I was going out I saw someone who I thought was OGA… go into the prisoner detainee holding facility and take one of the detainees out.  And then they took infantry guards and they went into an unoccupied building that they could seal off, closed the door, and they gave orders to the infantry guards not to let anyone in.  The reason I know this is because I was trying to talk to the SF guys and I asked them “Hey, do you know where the SF guys are?” and they were like “Well, maybe some of them are in here but you can’t go in there right now. They are with a prisoner.”  And there were noises coming out of there.  There could have been physical violence but [they were at least] threatening the prisoner,… doing things that weren’t actually causing bodily harm but threatening to do that. 

I talked to an MP who said that he was in charge of holding detainees and that the CIA would just come and take the detainees away.  They would be like, “How many detainees do you have?” and he knew he has seventeen detainees but the OGA would be like, “No, you have sixteen,” so he’d be like “Alright. I have sixteen.”  And who knows where that detainee went.

[12] The Rangers are “rapidly deployable airborne light infantry organized and trained to conduct highly complex joint direct action operations in coordination with or in support of other special operations units of all Services. Rangers also can execute direct action operations in support of conventional nonspecial operations missions conducted by a combatant commander and can operate as conventional light infantry when properly augmented with other elements of combined arms.” Department of Defense Dictionary of Military Terms, available at

[13]   SERE stands for “Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape,” and is a military course of training “encompassing those basic skills necessary for world-wide survival; expedite search and rescue efforts; evade capture by hostile forces; resistance to interrogation, exploitation and indoctrination; and escape from detention by enemy forces.” Available at

[14] The President of the United States and the Secretary of Defense.

[15] The Schlesinger Report, issued in August 2004, was one of seven U.S. military inquiries into detainee abuse by U.S. forces.  The panel that produced the Schlesinger report was chosen by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and determined that leadership failures led to detainee abuse in Iraq.

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