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U.S. Interrogator Recalls Mass Detentions « The Washington Independent


(Soldiers Media Center, Flickr)

When Joshua Casteel arrived at Abu Ghraib in June 2004 to interrogate detainees, he knew how notorious the Iraqi prison was. He arrived in the wake of a still-notorious scandal. Earlier that spring, CBS News and The New Yorker magazine published the infamous photographs from late 2003, showing U.S. military police torturing terrified Iraqis. With that, the American jail had been transformed into a symbol of U.S. human-rights abuses.

Yet the young Army interrogator, then age 24, never expected to discover a systemic problem just as crippling to the war effort: intelligence collection in total disarray, leading to mass detentions. This, Casteel noted, is precisely the sort of thing that creates terrorists.

Under pressure from his commanders, Casteel was ordered to interrogate detainees at length even after he was convinced they knew little or nothing about the insurgency — a diversion of resources that, he said, wasted time and energy. Worse, he was cut off from the rest of the intelligence process, lacking the ability to judge the reliability of those whose confessions and anonymous tips had led to the detentions of the men he interrogated.

In addition, he was given a quota of so-called “actionable intelligence” he had to get out of his interrogations, regardless of whether those he interrogated knew anything valuable. Then, when his interrogations ended, he was never able to learn if those arrested as the result of his interrogations were dangerous terrorists or innocent people.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The result of this disjointed process is what Casteel describes as the needless detention of untold thousands of Iraqis, something human-rights groups have protested all the way to the U.N. Security Council. “The large nets we were casting,” Casteel, now 28, said over the course of two extended telephone interviews, meant “we would be looking for four [people], and we came back with 80.” These and other problems eventually led Casteel — who has spoken little to the press — to declare himself a conscientious objector.

Casteel, now a graduate student pursuing an MFA in nonfiction writing in Iowa City, grew up in what he described as a right-wing, religious household in Iowa, where he was president of the local Young Republicans chapter. He attended West Point, but when he didn’t graduate — “I hated it,” he said — he decided to join the Army as an enlisted soldier. Casteel was trained at Ft. Huachuca, Ariz., home of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, where the Army prepares its small cadre of professional interrogators according to standards compliant with the Geneva Conventions.

When he arrived in Iraq as part of the 202nd Military Intelligence Battalion, in June 2004, Casteel’s superiors were eager to reinforce his professionalism. With the Abu Ghraib scandal sending shockwaves around the world, the prison’s wardens established a zero-tolerance policy for any further abuse.

“I’d have to have my interrogation strategy approved by my section chief,” said Casteel, “by the chief of the interrogation center, by a psychologist and by the lawyers from the JAG corps.” There were monthly meetings to re-emphasize the prohibition on touching detainees “except on occasion for a gesture of reassurance.” Casteel never witnessed any abuse at the prison.

But despite the lack of abuse, the system was still malfunctioning. During the course of his six months at Abu Ghraib, he estimated he performed more than 130 interrogations, lasting from 20 minutes to five hours. His interrogation strategies varied. Sometimes he’d share a cigarette and an off-color depiction of President George W. Bush with his subjects. Other times, he’d offer to move the families of his interrogation subjects to safer places in Iraq if they’d cooperate — despite such promises being outside of his power to deliver.

Yet the interrogations often didn’t end even though Casteel might have been convinced a subject didn’t have usable, relevant or reliable information. When he would write a report concluding that he had exhausted his interrogation strategy, his superiors, under pressure to get information to combat a vicious insurgency, would “say I had not tried all available methods.” Sometimes, he said, a detainee who Casteel believed didn’t know anything would have to be needlessly re-interrogated “for months. … I wasted time because of this.”

The case of the five brothers remains fresh in his mind. Allegedly graduates of terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and Yemen, five Iraqi brothers had landed at Abu Ghraib as the result of a tipster. Casteel was assigned to their cases. One of the most important things he wanted to know was who “dimed them out” — but he couldn’t find anyone who kept track of the Army’s so called “human sources,” more commonly known as “snitches.” A series of “very fruitless interrogations” led Casteel to believe that none of the five brothers knew anything about the insurgency.

But he wasn’t able to secure their release from Abu Ghraib. Four of the brothers underwent polygraph examinations during Ramadan — when the traditional Muslim fast threw off their biorhythms, Casteel believes — and two of them failed. Policy at the prison held that anyone who failed a polygraph would continue to be detained.

Frustrated, Casteel asked a visiting general — he doesn’t remember who, he said — how the Army was keeping track of the reliability of its human informants. The general, in Casteel’s recollection, “went into a description of an electronic database I had never heard of,” he said. Confused, he asked his chief what the general had referred to. As Casteel recalls, “The chief said ‘The Pentagon somehow believes we have a database that doesn’t exist.’”

Pentagon spokespeople did not respond to a list of emailed questions about Casteel’s account of Abu Ghraib and the interrogation process. But the portrait of a fractured intelligence process rang true to A.J. Rossmiller, who spent 2005 in Baghdad as a civilian analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

“Interrogators often get detainees with little or no information along with them, and even after they are interrogated, there is little feedback to help the interrogators know whether the detainees were honest in their statements,” emailed Rossmiller, author of a book about intelligence in Iraq, “Still Broken.” “Interrogators and analysts alike rarely get information about follow-on operations based on their work, again making it impossible to evaluate how they’re doing. Further, when units send a detainee to be interrogated, they rarely get the results, so they don’t know whether they got a bad guy or somebody who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

There may not have been an informants’ database, but there was a relentless push for so-called “actionable intelligence” — that is, intelligence that might lead to the defeat of an enemy attack; discovery of a weapons cache, or the roundup of insurgents. Casteel and his colleagues had to meet a quota for actionable intelligence.

“We had to have an actionable-intelligence report of everyone we interrogated,” he said, “Every interrogation. It was asinine.”

To meet his quota, Casteel and his colleagues would write reports that could lead to the arrest of practically anyone. “People started writing [in the reports,] ’5-foot-8 Arab male in eastern Falluja; works with the Mujahideen.’” The result was widespread arrests — but Casteel never learned whether anyone picked up as the result of his interrogations in fact possessed any worthwhile intelligence.

“In this war, they only want to hear they got the right guy, even if he is the wrong guy,” emailed Malcolm Nance, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. intelligence community who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan and now runs the International Anti-Terrorism Center for Excellence in Hudson, N.Y. “This is a really bad way to do business as the impact on the population is pretty heavy. It creates many more insurgent recruits as fast as we can throw them into Camp Bucca.”

It is unknown precisely how many Iraqis have been detained since the March 2003 invasion. But in June, Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to the U.N. Security Council expressing concern about the approximately 22,000 detainees held as of May 2008. “Human Rights Watch shares the concern of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq that many detainees are held for lengthy periods without judicial review and under review processes that do not meet international standards of due process as applicable during a non-international armed conflict,” the human-rights group wrote.

Some veterans of the intelligence community gave a qualified defense of the fractured process. Nance pointed out that security concerns often demanded compartmentalization of information, even among interrogators. “Military interrogation is not like police interrogation — where knowledge of all aspects of the case is key,” Nance said. “I know it sounds illogical, but it’s for operational security.”

Another intelligence veteran, who recently left the intelligence community but requested anonymity, made a similar point. “The U.S. military had thousands of people into the detention system at any given moment, and there weren’t enough interrogators to follow any particular strand to its conclusion,” said the intelligence vet in an email. “Sometimes this needle in the haystack method works– sometimes we get lucky. But as a grand strategy, it’s not a great one.”

While the Pentagon did not respond to queries about what might have changed in the intelligence process, there is at least some reason to believe that improvements have taken place. The U.S. military command in Iraq maintains a database of biometric information about the so-called Sons of Iraq — ex-insurgents now on the U.S. payroll — which suggests that an actual database for human sources of intelligence is not, at the least, beyond the U.S.’s capabilities.

Furthermore, U.S. commanders have said for nearly a year that the so-called “population-protection” strategy instituted by Gen. David H. Petraeus has engendered an increase in intelligence tips from Iraqis, though it is impossible to verify whether the result has been an increase in quality information.

Rossmiller is skeptical. “There continues to be a massive problem with intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination in the U.S. operation in Iraq,” he said in an email. “Everyone tends to err on the side of detention, to the detriment of classic counter-insurgency doctrine, not to mention basic communication and common sense.”

As Casteel sees it, common sense eventually prevented him from being able to complete his mission.

“I kept encountering things that put my duty and my job in conflict with my faith,” Casteel remembered. Five months into his Abu Ghraib tour, he interrogated a 22-year old who, by his own admission, had come to Iraq from Saudi Arabia to fight U.S. troops. When it became clear to Casteel that the Saudi had “never fired a gun,” the two men began talking frankly about politics and religion. “He tried to convert me to Islam,” Casteel said.

And then the jihadi said something that Casteel couldn’t put out of his mind. “You’re a very strange man,” the jihadi told Casteel. “You call yourself a Christian, but you don’t do what Christ does, you don’t turn the other cheek.”

Casteel, by his own account exhausted by his stint at the prison, had a religious awakening. “I said, ‘I think you’re right,’” he remembered. “The most important people in my life have been prisoners: Jesus, Dietrich Bonhoffer, the apostle Paul. It was then that I had broken objectivity.” Casteel notified his chain of command that he would “follow all lawful orders” but sought conscientious objector status. He left Iraq shortly thereafter, and ultimately got out of the Army on May 30, 2005.

Afterward, Casteel — now a committed Catholic — linked up with Catholics United, a liberal Catholic activist group, and Iraq Veterans Against the War. In March, Casteel testified as part of Iraq Veterans Against the War’s Winter Soldier conference, in which Iraq and Afghanistan veterans spoke about what they characterized as systemic abuses in the U.S. occupation of Iraq. He is currently part of a Catholics United effort to raise awareness about U.S.-sponsored torture in Iraq, Afghanistan and the detention complex at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And he remains unsure if, over the course of interrogating 130 detainees at Abu Ghraib, he ever gathered valuable, truthful information.

“One guy was charged with tons of things, [like] throwing grenades,” Casteel remembered. “He did nine months prison, and I interrogated him 30 times. All we did was smoke cigarettes and make fun of George Bush.” The interrogator encouraged the suspected insurgent to “tattle” on people he was enemies with. “I got information and the higher-ups thought it was valuable,” Casteel continued. “There were bombs dropped, and raids on houses, but I never knew if the information was worth something.”

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