All 23 American prisoners of war captured by Iraqi forces during Operation Desert Storm, including two U.S. servicewomen, were tortured or abused by their captors, a top Defense Department official told U.S. lawmakers Thursday.
In several instances, Iraqi interrogators broke bones, perforated eardrums and threatened to shoot or dismember the American prisoners in their custody, Army Col. Bill Jordan said in testimony before Congress’ Human Rights Caucus.
One Bush Administration official, interviewed separately, said that the two women POWs--Army Specialist Melissa Rathbun-Nealy and Maj. Rhonda Cornum--were both subjected to sexual threats, and one was fondled by her captors.
The congressional testimony represents the Defense Department’s first public accounting of the scope and severity of Iraqi mistreatment of U.S. prisoners of war. The disclosures could prompt more calls for war crimes trials against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his military commanders.
During the Persian Gulf War, when battered U.S. airmen were appearing in televised Iraqi interviews, President Bush denounced Baghdad’s “brutal treatment” of American military captives. But since the war’s end, Defense Department officials have said only that U.S. prisoners of war were “certainly mistreated” in interrogations.
As evidence of mistreatment has mounted, members of Congress and Pentagon officials have said privately that they believe that the Administration should press for war-crimes trials, which probably would be convened under the auspices of the United Nations. The apparent White House reluctance to initiate such proceedings has caused some officials to speculate that the Pentagon may have deliberately played down Iraq’s mistreatment of U.S. POWs.
Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who convened Thursday’s congressional hearing, called Jordan’s testimony “the most revealing information we’ve had to date” on mistreatment of U.S. prisoners of war by Iraq. But Weldon said he remains frustrated by the Administration’s failure to document Iraqi violations of international law and to push for war-crimes trials.
“All this rhetoric about holding Saddam Hussein accountable for his actions is nice,” Weldon said in an interview after the hearing. “But if you don’t have evidence gathered, all of this is for naught. I don’t feel good about it. Perhaps there is some quiet effort not to pursue this, and I am not going to stand for that.”
During testimony that detailed a wide range of Iraqi human rights abuses, including crimes against Kuwaiti residents and property, Jordan said Iraqi captors used “threats of death, graphic threats of dismemberment, beatings and/or electric shock” against American POWs.
In one case, Iraqi soldiers threatened to sever the fingers of an American GI, he said. In another, Jordan said, the captors put a handgun--unloaded, as it turned out--to the head of an American prisoner of war and pulled the trigger.
Jordan, who was part of a Pentagon team that debriefed the POWs after their return, said the Iraqis employed the same “torture techniques” they had “used historically,” including electric shocks and beatings with sticks and rubber hoses.
Much of the physical abuse appeared to be “designed for pain, without leaving outward visible signs of torture,” he said.
In one case, Jordan said, the electric current emitted by a crude torture device caused a captive U.S. serviceman’s tooth to “explode from its socket.”
Although Jordan did not identify any POWs by name, some of the incidents he described were discussed previously by the servicemen who experienced them.
The victim of the shock treatment, Air Force Maj. Jeffrey Tice, said during a news conference in March that the torture device--called the “Talkman"--was wrapped around his head from ear to ear and apparently attached to a car battery.
Other American POWs have reported beatings with rubber hoses, ax handles and pipes, whippings with leather straps and shocks from electric cattle prods.
U.S. officials had not previously disclosed the sexual abuse of the two women POWs, who were captured and held separately. Two knowledgeable officials who requested anonymity confirmed their mistreatment, noting that the details had been withheld out of respect for the women’s privacy.
Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams acknowledged Thursday that “sexual advances were made” by the women’s Iraqi captors, but he added that the women “acted to rebuff them, assisted in some cases by U.S. soldiers nearby.”
During the Gulf War, the American public seemed to accept the inevitability that some U.S. servicewomen would be killed or captured. The absence of a severe public backlash against the deployment of women in Operation Desert Storm has become an important factor in a move to repeal laws excluding women from combat.
Williams denied that the Defense Department or the Bush Administration has been unwilling to publicize Iraqi violations of international law, including the mistreatment of POWs in the Persian Gulf.