U.S. Army Spc. Israel Rivera had just returned to duty at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq last October after minor surgery to remove shrapnel from his face. He was checking his e-mail, he recalls, when another military intelligence soldier approached.
“Hey Izzy, did you hear about those detainees that raped that one kid?” asked the other soldier, Spc. Armin J. Cruz.
Rivera hadn’t heard of the incident and asked what was going to happen to the prisoners. Cruz, Rivera said, responded with an invitation: “Do you want to go see what’s happening?”
The two army intelligence analysts from a reserve unit in Texas walked over to the isolation cellblock at Abu Ghraib and into the middle of the prison abuse scandal that came to light in April. Their faces were among those captured in disturbing photographs of inmates being mistreated.
In a telephone interview with The Times, Rivera described his involvement in the case for the first time, saying that he visited the cellblock largely out of curiosity and that he was stunned by what he saw: detainees being stripped naked, made to crawl on their stomachs and chained into a ball of limbs and flesh on the prison floor.
Rivera, 20, is the first military intelligence soldier to come forward publicly and say that he witnessed a fellow intelligence soldier, Cruz, taking part in the abuse of prisoners in the isolation cellblock at Abu Ghraib. Cruz has also been cited in testimony by Sgt. Samuel J. Provance III, another intelligence officer, who said Cruz “was known to bang on the table, yell, scream, and maybe assaulted detainees during interrogations in the booth.”
Cruz could not be reached for comment this week.
Because they are among only a handful of intelligence soldiers directly tied to the abuse in photographs, Rivera and Cruz are potentially important witnesses for military investigators seeking to determine the scope of the scandal -- specifically whether the torture of detainees had any connection to the interrogation operation at Abu Ghraib.
Rivera disputed such claims, saying the abuse he witnessed had nothing to do with “softening up” prisoners to get information from them.
He insisted that his superiors did not know about the abuse, let alone sanction it.
Rivera said that as he got ready to leave the cellblock amid anguished pleas for help from the prisoners, Cruz stopped him to make sure he didn’t plan to talk.
“Before I walked out of that bay, he looked at me and asked me, ‘Izzy, you’re not going to tell anybody, are you?’ ” Rivera said, speaking by telephone from Baghdad this week.
“And I looked at him and I said: ‘No, absolutely not, Cruz. You have nothing to worry about.’ ”
Rivera said he never informed his superiors and still hasn’t shared his account with military investigators.
When he met with an Army Criminal Investigation Division agent in January, he refused to talk unless he was provided with an attorney.
“The big reason I’m doing this [speaking publicly] is there’s a big sense of guilt that I have,” Rivera said. “I didn’t know there was a huge conspiracy [of abuse at Abu Ghraib], but I did know about that one night.... I should have said to my sergeant, ‘Hey Sergeant, I saw this,’ and a lot of it would have been dealt with if I had.”
The episode Rivera witnessed came about two weeks before some of the most serious abuses took place, including nude prisoners being stacked up in pyramids or forced to masturbate in front of guards.
Rivera said he had not been charged and was not certain of his legal status. He and Cruz are both members of the 321st Military Intelligence Battalion in Austin, Texas, but they were transferred to a Connecticut unit before being deployed to Iraq.
Though the unit returned to the United States months ago, Rivera and Cruz have had their tours involuntarily extended. Rivera said his orders now keep him in Iraq until November.
Late last November, officials said, Cruz and a female interrogator were disciplined after forcing an uncooperative detainee to strip naked.
Rivera’s account is the most detailed description to date of prisoner abuse that is believed to have occurred Oct. 25. According to military records, Rivera appears in photographs taken that night that show as many as seven U.S. soldiers and one civilian interpreter huddled around three naked detainees on the floor.
Several of the soldiers are MPs, including Cpl. Charles A. Graner Jr., who faces court-martial and has been portrayed as a ringleader in the abuses.
But Rivera was among at least four intelligence personnel at the scene, including Cruz; Spc. Roman Krol, an Army interrogator; and Adel L. Nakhla, a civilian interpreter employed by Titan Corp.
Several of the seven MPs charged in the case have said they were encouraged or directed by interrogators to mistreat prisoners as a means of softening them up for questioning.
Rivera said that was not the case. “Anyone who says this was condoned by MI -- no, absolutely not,” he said, adding that Cruz knew about the activities in the cellblock only because he was friends with an MP, Spc. Sabrina Harman, who has since been charged.
Rivera said the abuse was underway around 9 p.m. when he and Cruz arrived at what was known as the hard site, where high-value or troublesome detainees were held in isolation cells.
Three detainees were naked in a room, and an MP was shouting obscenities at them through a megaphone, he said.
When the MPs pulled the prisoners out of the room, “that’s when things got really strange,” Rivera said. First, he said, the prisoners were ordered to lie on their bellies and crawl around the floor, with MPs yelling: “Go left! Go right!”
Then the MPs handcuffed the detainees together on the floor, Rivera said, shouting homosexual slurs at them, and taunting them to admit they had raped a young male prisoner.
Cruz was among those who joined in the abusive behavior, Rivera said.
“Cruz and the other people were making them act as though they were having sex -- using their feet to push on the detainees hips so they would be touching each other,” Rivera said. “The detainees were screaming for Allah, begging them, and begging me to make them stop.”
Rivera said Cruz was ordinarily “very calm, very relaxed, never gets angry. But what happened that night, it was a different Cruz than I had ever seen.”
Krol dumped water on the prisoners from a cup, Rivera said, and threw a foam football at them from the second floor of the cellblock.
“He got up on the top tier of the isolation bay,” Rivera said. “While these guys were on the floor crawling, being screamed at, Krol is up there throwing this football at them.”
Reached at his home near Boston on Tuesday, Krol, 23, denied that he had engaged in improper conduct.
“I don’t know why [Rivera] would say that,” Krol said. “That didn’t happen.”
None of the military intelligence personnel have been charged in the investigation.
Krol acknowledged that he had witnessed abuse and said he didn’t report it because he “didn’t care.”
“I don’t know the rules of engagement of MPs,” he said. “I see something, it’s their business, I walk away.”
Rivera did not accuse Nakhla of abusing detainees, but said Nakhla translated the MPs’ shouts and orders. In a statement included in a report on Abu Ghraib by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, Nakhla said the MPs who directed the abuse that night were Graner and Sgt. Ivan L. “Chip” Frederick II.
“They made them do strange exercises by sliding on their stomach, jump up and down, throw water on them,” Nakhla said in his statement.
Rivera said that he did not personally take part in any abuse that night.
In the pictures, “I’m shown doing exactly what I did that night -- stupidly watching, like a moron,” he said.
After about 15 minutes, Rivera said, he left the cellblock. The next day, Rivera said, he described what he saw to another soldier from his unit, Spc. Hannah Schlegel.
Schlegel urged informing superiors, Rivera said, but he refused. Later that day, she indicated that she had done so herself.
“She comes back and said, ‘Izzy, you know that thing, don’t worry about it, I took care of it.’ ”
Rivera said he and Schlegel also sought to discourage Cruz and Krol from taking part in any future incidents by telling them that military investigators had heard about the incident in late October and were “sniffing around.”
“Krol was mortified, he was like, ‘Please don’t tell anyone,’ ” Rivera said. “Same with Cruz. Just mortified about getting in trouble.”
The matter didn’t resurface until January, Rivera said, when he was on leave in the U.S. and his mother was contacted by military investigators saying they were trying to reach him.
When Rivera returned to Baghdad, he met with a Criminal Investigation Division agent. “He started reading me my rights. I asked for a lawyer, the interview ended,” Rivera said.
Cruz and Rivera both earned Purple Hearts after being wounded in a mortar attack on Abu Ghraib in September. Rivera had shrapnel removed from his jaw area.
Rivera said he hadn’t worked at the prison since January. He now spends most of his days engaged in menial military chores, including cleaning up trash or escorting Iraqi visitors to the military compound where he is based.
He said he occasionally sees others involved in the case, including Cruz, Graner and Harman. Cruz has even tried to apologize, saying, “I’m sorry I got you involved,” according to Rivera.
But Rivera said their relationship had been strained, and that it would probably deteriorate further now that he had publicly implicated Cruz in the abuse.