Intelligence: May 5, 2004


Pictures of American soldiers humiliating and intimidating Iraqi prisoners have become a major news item. What is generally left unsaid is what influence this will have on intelligence work in Iraq, and elsewhere, in pursuit of terrorists. The Iraq incidents apparently involved civilian contractor interrogators and a number of reservist MPs. Many of the reservists were men and women who had recently been converted from other military jobs to Military Police (MPs). The Iraq operations required a lot of MPs, and one of the traditional MP jobs is guarding prisoners. It was always feared that the newly trained MPs, lacking many experienced MP NCOs and officers to supervise them, would get into trouble. There was also a problem with MP commanders at several levels. Even before the brutality became a news items, several MP unit commanders had been relieved.

In Iraq, thousands of Iraqis have been arrested on suspicion of supporting or participating in attacks on coalition troops, or on Iraqis who support the new Iraqi government. Since these attacks began to escalate last Summer, the pressure was on the intelligence troops (who did the interrogating and analysis of information obtained) to find out who was doing it. That effort was successful, as an increasing number of raids shut down more and more of the Sunni Arab groups who were still fighting to preserve the traditional position of Sunnis as the rulers of Iraq. By early this year, many, if not most, of the remaining attackers were concentrated in the Sunni city of Fallujah and surrounding towns. The Abu Ghraib prison, where much of the notorious incidents took place, was in a combat zone, surrounded by armed Sunni Arabs. Iraqi prison guards were easily bribed, and sometimes smuggled pistols to prisoners. It was not a pleasant atmosphere. 

But late last year, a number of American soldiers began to complain to their superiors that the methods used on the Iraqi prisoners seemed to be excessive, if not illegal. Investigations were conducted and those found violating the army regulations (on how to deal with interrogations) were being identified and prosecuted under military law. But the army investigations became known to the media earlier this year, along with pictures of Iraqi prisoners being brutalized, and the matter became a major media event.

The interrogations of Iraqis was always a tricky business, as the brass were increasingly demanding more information towards the end of 2003. In past wars, situations like this meant that the treatment of tight lipped prisoners became increasingly brutal. In most cases, these incidents never reached the media. The crises passed, the war ended, and everyone went home. 

During the Vietnam war, there was a media increasingly hostile to the military, and an increasingly unpopular war. Some of the brutal Vietnam era interrogation incidents became news stories. Nothing much came of it, and there was little talk of similar incidents in earlier wars. 

The Vietnam experience was remembered by the intelligence and MP communities, and regulations were laid down describing what could, and could not, be done when trying to get life and death type information out of prisoners. Off the record, and usually over a few drinks, it was acknowledged that in a future war, if the situation became serious enough (Americans were in immediate danger if prisoners were not made to talk), the regulations would be ignored. But no one said it out loud, and most hoped that they would not be in command of an intel or MP unit under those conditions. But it did happen, and now the officers, NCOs and troops involved will be punished. Its another cost of war. Speeches and promises will be made about how horrible it all is, and how it will never happen again. But it will. 

There are less brutal, and effective, methods of getting information out of prisoners. But these methods (best described as psychological pressure and mind games) require skilled interrogators that speak the same language as, and understand the culture of , the prisoners. No way these conditions are going to be achieved in Iraq or Afghanistan in the short term. The Iraqis themselves, or Arab police in general, did not favor such techniques, but usually went straight to methods far more brutal than what the American soldiers are accused of. 

The uproar over the excessive interrogation methods will lead to numerous restrictions on interrogators and much more scrutiny of how interrogations are conducted. Because the incidents have become major media and political issues, the interrogations will be less productive for a while. As a result of this, attacks on coalition troops will be more frequent and successful. In war, information is a matter of life and death. So more Americans will die as a result of all this. Few will raise the issue in these terms. Instead, much will be made about how unnecessary and counterproductive the brutality was. However, the Iraqis most likely to be angered by the brutality are the Sunni Arabs, who have provided the support (and manpower) for the attacks all along. A major reason for the attacks is the Sunni Arab realization that once elections are held, and the Shia Arabs and Kurds (80 percent of the population) are in power, the treatment of prisoners will get a lot worse. The Shia and Kurds have long lists of Sunni Arabs they know (or strongly suspect) committed atrocities against them for decades. The Shia and Kurds will want justice, and they will conduct interrogations to obtain additional information. Despite training of a new Iraqi police force, the Shia interrogations of Sunnis will most likely revert to the traditional Arab methods.

The Arab media made much of the brutality of American interrogators, but said little about Saddams decades of interrogations in the Arab style. Apparently if Arabs are brutal to Arabs, it isnt news. But if non-Arabs do it, its a war crime, or worse. Not that it matters much. War is brutal, and tends to get more brutal as the death rate increases. That does not appear to have changed much over several thousand years of human history.

Ultimately, the Sunni Arab violence and brutality are an Iraqi problem. The coalition had hoped they could contain it until they handed power over to an elected Iraqi government. At that point, all the foreigners could go home, and safely criticize the democratically elected Iraqi government for their brutal treatment of the Sunni Arabs. That will happen, but with more coalition deaths in the meantime.




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