‘The Monster’ Testifies at Gitmo Hearing

Created: May 05, 2010 15:05 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

Bagram Soldiers at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan (army.mil)

GUANTANAMO BAY — His nickname wasn’t “Monster,” he admonished the lawyer. It was “The Monster.” That was what the Bagram Collection Point’s interrogators, guards — and most especially detainees — called Army interrogator Damien Corsetti. And it was important to him that the court correctly record his story.

Back then — in 2002 at Bagram, and later at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison — Corsetti was as fearsome as his handle. Although acquitted, he went before a court-martial proceeding related to the abuse of a detainee in Iraq. Now, Corsetti is an unemployed veteran of two wars, unable to work because of post-traumatic stress disorder, and an infamous figure in the U.S.’s post-9/11 history of torture.

[Security1] But he testified on Wednesday morning from a remote location on behalf of one of the former inmates at Bagram whom he used to intimidate and brutalize: Omar Khadr, the 23-year old Canadian citizen who has been in U.S. custody for nearly eight years. The large man once known as “The Monster” — the nickname is tattooed in Italian on his stomach — provided rare sworn testimony about the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody in the Afghanistan war’s early days, the product of what he described as command pressure for intelligence and unclear rules about permissible interrogator behavior.

Corsetti didn’t directly interrogate Khadr, he told the court, but he spoke to Khadr at least two to three times a week from August to October 2002, after which Khadr was transferred here. “He was a child,” said an occasionally emotional Corsetti. “He was a 15-year old child who had been blown up, shot and grenaded. He was in one of the worst places on the earth. How could you not have compassion for that? … He was in the wrong place for a 15-year old child to be.”

It was the first moment during seven days of Khadr’s pre-trial hearing, meant to determine whether the statements Khadr gave to his interrogators may be used against him in his July military commission, that an interrogator described Khadr as a “child.” Other interrogators, testifying for the prosecution, described him clinically as a “15-year old” or “mature” or otherwise resisted the characterization of Khadr as a juvenile. Almost simultaneously with Corsetti’s testimony, Radhika Coomaraswamy, the United Nations special representative for children and armed conflict, called for Khadr’s release and decried the “dangerous international precedent” the Obama administration is setting by prosecuting him for war crimes.

That wasn’t the only time Corsetti contradicted earlier testimony. The witness before Corsetti, Army Col. Donna Hershey, the former chief nurse at Bagram, testified that she never allowed any interrogators to question detainees in Bagram’s hospital. But Corsetti testified that the first time he met Khadr, and the only time he was present for any questioning of Khadr, occurred in the hospital, on July 29, 2002, two days after Khadr suffered near-fatal wounds during his capture after a Khost, Afghanistan firefight.

“I would assume from his condition he was under excruciating pain,” Corsetti said. Despite the pain, and despite the questioning’s presentation to the court as a preliminary, in-processing brief, the questioning appeared to involve the acquisition of intelligence information, including “what kind of military training” Khadr had; what Khadr believed his offenses were that landed him in Bagram; his “knowledge of Soviet-issued weapons”; and general questions to assess “his cooperation and knowledgeability.” That spoke directly to the purpose of the hearing: To determine whether Khadr’s statements to interrogators, and information that followed from them, were coerced from him to a point rendering them unusable by the government at trial.

The pressure to acquire intelligence information was the overriding theme of Corsetti’s testimony. His unit, Alpha Company of the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion, then stationed at Bagram, had to file between “20 to 40 reports a week” or hear from higher command to complain about them “stagnat[ing].” That pressure, Corsetti said, came from the Afghanistan war command and the “Office of the Secretary of Defense” — and produced a command environment that encouraged detainee abuse.

“The only clear cut rules I remember was we weren’t allowed to strike the prisoners,” Corsetti said, and that interrogators couldn’t directly threaten detainees. “But we could do what we called ‘plant the seed’” of threats, and “let their imagination run wild with it.” One example, consistent with an affidavit Khadr submitted about his treatment at Bagram, was to suggest that detainees cooperate with interrogators to avoid being sent for more brutal treatment in other countries. “Egypt and Israel were the two big ones,” he said.

Corsetti also testified that detainees at Bagram were “regularly” placed in forced contorted positions known as “stress positions” (and, later, “safety positions,” according to an interrogator who testified on Tuesday). “Stress positions were used to inflict pain on the prisoners, to elicit information from them,” Corsetti said, rocking back and forth in his chair. “At any given time, there was always one airlock occupied by a prisoner shackled, blindfolded, earmuffed with his hands above his head.” That description came close to matching one given by an anonymous Bagram medic, known as Mr. M, who testified Monday to seeing Khadr shackled to the outermost door of his cell — known as an airlock or sallyport — with his hands shackled at about forehead-level. The level of positioning for a detainee’s restrained arms would “depend on the length of the chain they used from the top of the cage,” Corsetti calmly recounted.

Asked if he knew if Khadr would have been put in a stress position, Corsetti replied, “I can’t say if it was done to him, but it was something I would have done.”

Corsetti’s lack of direct knowledge of Khadr’s treatment repeatedly aroused objections from the chief government prosecutor, Jeffrey Groharing, a retired Marine major, pushing Corsetti’s testimony to nearly two hours. Groharing argued that the defense could only question Corsetti about any treatment of Khadr that Corsetti directly observed. But Col. Patrick Parrish, the judge presiding over Khadr’s military commission, responded that the hearing’s admission of hearsay evidence — ironically, one of the biggest civil-libertarian objections to the commissions — could work in the defense’s favor, as it had for the prosecution.

Groharing has called eight interrogators to testify so far about direct interactions with Khadr. All have largely portrayed their interrogations and interviews with him as free and uncoerced. But later this week, the defense intends to call to the stand someone known to the court as “Interrogator #1,” who interrogated Khadr at Bagram and who is expected to testify to threatening Khadr with rape.

For all the command pressure for intelligence and the harsh treatment that resulted at Bagram, Corsetti said he wasn’t sure whether it resulted in accurate intelligence. “I got some very good information while I was there and I got some very bad information while I was there,” he said.

He last saw Khadr shortly before the detainee’s October 2002 transfer to Guantanamo Bay. “I can’t say if he was afraid or not,” Corsetti said. “I remember he went from a smiling 15 year old kid to a look of defeat before he left.”