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When They Knew

When American troops rolled into Baghdad last April, 43 percent of Iraqis viewed them as liberators, according to a poll of 1,620 Iraqis conducted for the State Department. By October, the share had sunk to 15 percent. A whopping 67 percent of Iraqis across the country—in Sunni and Shia areas alike—instead described Americans as an occupying force. What changed?

In that period, their uninvited American guests began to mistreat them seriously—randomly locking them up and even killing them—and they did so long before the bout of homosadistic detainee abuse uncovered in the recent investigation of Abu Ghraib prison.

When the news first broke, administration officials, desperate to contain fallout from the mushrooming scandal in an election year, maintained it was an isolated incident, and as far as they knew, the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees was not systemic.

But it was widespread, involving several prisons in addition to Abu Ghraib, which holds less than 1,500 of the roughly 10,000 Iraqis detained by American forces. And not only was the problem pervasive, it’s been widely known by at least Pentagon brass for almost a year as evidenced by after-action reviews written last year by U.S. Army intelligence. I obtained two of the internal Army reports, known inside the military as “lessons learned,” before the Pentagon recently locked them away. (All future reviews will be classified, which I’m told is an unprecedented move.)

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The first report was prepared July 1, 2003, by the Center for Army Lessons Learned in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., which cataloged the observations of a team of four Army investigators in Iraq: Lt. Col. Bob Chamberlain, Maj. Dan Pinnel, Cpt. Mike Liverpool, and Staff Sgt. Norris Whitford. They found that “detention facilities throughout Iraq were overcrowded, and there appeared to be no standard release criteria” for Iraqi detainees. “It’s like the Roach Motel, ‘They can check in, but they never check out!’” they observed.

One prison located at Baghdad International Airport, or BIAP, “was growing daily at an alarming rate,” the report said. “The facility was built to detain 300 persons, but is currently detaining over 800 persons.” The small BIAP “cage” was run mainly by contractors working for the CIA and other agencies, an Army intelligence official told me.

Many of the detainees were not even enemy suspects but merely victims of circumstance, “who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” according to the report. Others were “randomly accused of crimes by vindictive neighbors and enemies.” Yet they remained in custody.

Another U.S. prison in Tikrit, north of Baghdad, held 218 detainees even though it was built for 80, the investigators reported, and most were being held without cause. “Approximately 80 percent of the persons are unnecessarily detained and were probably just victims of circumstance,” they said in the report. That figure mirrors one found in the March 3 report on the Abu Ghraib prison, which notes that more than 60 percent of the civilian inmates there were deemed not to be a threat to society, which should have triggered their release.

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“We were not winning the battle [for] the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Iraqi people,” the team warned ominously—and as it turns out, presciently—in their July report. “Randomly detaining civilians will create future enemies of the U.S.”

Those conclusions contradict contemporaneous statements made by top military officials. Just nine days after the July internal review was completed, the senior American commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, told reporters in Baghdad that innocent detainees “get released immediately.” Pressed to provide numbers, he could not.

And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a different story two months later. He said in a Sept. 16 press conference that the military police don’t lock up any Iraqis they don’t need to. “We let them all go,” he said. “There are a group of people in Iraq that were scooped [up]. And they’re in the net, but we don’t want them. They’re not going to go steal cars, they’re not going to go become a foreign terrorist or something, and they’re not Ba’athists. They’re just foot soldiers,” Rumsfeld said. “And we let them go. I mean, we must have let, I don’t know, 8- 10- 12,000 of these people go.”

So how did so many innocent Iraqis still wind up in jail? Another Army investigative team, deployed to Iraq in August, found one answer: bad intelligence. “Many units are targeting off of single-source, unconfirmed reports,” they said in an internal report dated Sept. 17, 2003, and authored by Chamberlain, chief of military intelligence at the Army’s Joint Readiness Training Center. “Yes, units have to act fast, but conducting operations against the wrong targets is having an adverse effect.”

Unnecessary arrests are not the only fruit of such misguided raids. They have also led to many Iraqi civilians getting killed, Army intelligence officials say. “There’s a lot of killing of Iraqis going on over there that you don’t hear about,” said one senior intelligence official who toured some 20 Iraqi cities in the fall. “I would estimate at least a dozen a day.” At that rate, some 4,000 Iraqis can be expected to be killed each year during the planned 10-year occupation, for a combined toll of 40,000—on top of the estimated 10,914 civilians and 6,370 military already killed.

Even Iraqi journalists are being killed. In March, the Army admitted soldiers killed two Iraqi TV correspondents after mistaking them for insurgents at an Army roadblock in Baghdad. The journalists were shot several times while driving away from the roadblock. Arab reporters walked out of a press conference in Baghdad by Secretary of State Colin Powell to protest the shootings.

Alleged murders at U.S.-run prisons also are being investigated. Army investigators made a number of recommendations in their reports last year including: training and deploying more military police, human-intelligence collectors, and Arabic interpreters (many of whom are local “cab drivers” with questionable loyalties) to better screen the good guys from the bad guys and devising standard procedures for operating the Iraqi prisons.

Apparently their recommendations were not taken seriously, because this year’s Abu Ghraib report repeated the recommendations.

Administration officials from the president to the defense secretary to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs have all expressed shock over the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. President Bush said he was “shaken” by the news. Rumsfeld acted as it was the first he had heard of it and then claimed it was too early in the investigation to say if the mistreatment was systemic.

Their reaction is odd. The earlier “lessons learned” reports, starting with the summer review, essentially gave the Pentagon advance warning of an impending human-rights disaster at a number of its Iraqi detention facilities—an issue that directly influences the Iraqi people, many of whom have relatives still locked up in those facilities. And of course winning hearts and minds is the key to the success of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Still, military brass did nothing to remedy the situation until it was too late.

The mistreatment of Iraqi detainees is now a full-blown scandal, complete with graphic images, played out for all the Arab world to see on Al-Jazeera. It threatens not only the administration’s already quixotic goal of bringing democracy to Iraq but also the lives of more U.S. soldiers and, as jihadists point to the abuses as further justification to attack Americans, the all-important war on terrorism itself.

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Paul Sperry, formerly of Investor’s Business Daily, is a Hoover Institution media fellow and author of Crude Politics.