An Army captain and two sergeants from the 82nd Airborne Division who were responsible for supervising prisoners in Iraq have come forward with allegations that members of the unit routinely beat, tortured and abused detainees in 2003 and early 2004.
The Pentagon announced Friday that it opened a criminal investigation of the accusations this week, after learning of the charges recently from the Senate Armed Services Committee and Human Rights Watch.
Capt. Ian Fishback, a West Point graduate, contacted the Senate panel with the charges within the last 10 days, saying he was frustrated that his superior officers had failed to respond, said committee aides.
Fishback and the two sergeants, whose names have not been disclosed, also made allegations of abuse to Human Rights Watch. The captain is the first officer to go public with allegations of detainee abuse in Iraq since the Abu Ghraib prison scandal erupted in April 2004.
In recent letters to several members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Fishback said he witnessed detainees being stripped, deprived of sleep, exposed to the elements and “forced into uncomfortable positions for prolonged periods of time for the express purpose of coercing them into revealing information other than name, rank and service number.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch said Friday that one of the sergeants told the group, “We would give them blows to the head, chest, legs and stomach, pull them down, kick dirt on them. This happened every day.” The sergeant reportedly described the mistreatment at a base near Fallouja as “just like” Abu Ghraib, saying, “We did that for amusement.”
According to Human Rights Watch, the sergeants said they saw soldiers break prisoners’ legs. The group said the sergeants had related that they watched and participated in some of the violence.
Neither the sergeants nor the captain -- who wrote to Senate committee members including Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.), ranking Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan and John McCain (R-Ariz.), a victim of torture in Vietnam -- could be reached for comment Friday.
If substantiated, the allegations would represent one of the most serious episodes in the mistreatment of detainees by American military personnel since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. This is the first time that soldiers in the regular Army have been implicated in widespread abuse. Previous abuse cases have involved misconduct by relatively untrained National Guard and Reserve troops.
The 82nd Airborne is one of the most storied units in the U.S. military. The division has a record of distinguished service stretching for nearly a century, and its members are considered highly trained professionals. Formed during World War I, the division was reactivated during World War II, when its handpicked paratroopers landed behind German lines to prepare for the D-day invasion of Europe.
Based at Ft. Bragg, N.C., it is the largest paratroop force in the world. Its members served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and various brigades have served several tours in Iraq.
In such a unit, evidence of a significant breakdown in discipline would call into question the Army’s contention that previously disclosed abuses did not reflect systemic problems. The misconduct reported by Fishback and the two noncommissioned officers was said to have begun in September 2003 and continued through the following April. The abuses at Abu Ghraib occurred within that period, mainly the fall of 2003, and were publicly revealed in April 2004.
A Capitol Hill aide familiar with the new allegations said they were considered “very credible.”
In their disclosures, Fishback and the sergeants said that detainees feared for their lives and referred to members of the 82nd as the “Murderous Maniacs” because of the level of brutality inflicted on prisoners.
At the Pentagon, Army spokesman Paul Boyce said Friday that the military believed the accusations were serious enough to warrant a full-scale criminal investigation. “These are allegations of potential felony crimes,” Boyce said. “We want to speak to anyone else who might be able to corroborate this information. These things should be looked into thoroughly.”
Asked whether the Army’s criminal investigation was launched only because the Senate committee had been told of the allegations, Boyce said, “We began to investigate as soon as it came to our attention.”
The two sergeants provided detailed accounts of prisoners held in the area around Fallouja routinely being tortured. Fallouja has been the scene of some of the worst fighting of the war.
“One day a sergeant shows up and tells a PUC [person under control] to grab a pole,” Human Rights Watch said one of the sergeants recounted. “He told him to bend over and broke the guy’s leg with a mini Louisville Slugger, a metal bat.”
The sergeants were part of a forward operating base called Mercury.
In their statements, the three said that collectively they witnessed soldiers delivering blows and kicks to prisoners’ faces, chests, abdomens and extremities, pouring chemical substances on skin and eyes, and forcing detainees into stress positions such as holding heavy water jugs with outstretched arms.
In retrospect, one of the sergeants acknowledged in an interview with Human Rights Watch, “what we did was wrong.” At the time, he said, “everything we did was accepted; everyone turned their heads.”
He said the mistreatment continued after his unit learned about the events at Abu Ghraib.
The other sergeant said soldiers often bragged about abusing detainees. “I saw hard hitting, I heard a lot of stories,” he said. “Guys were always talking about what they did to the PUCs. Guys mentioned stuff, but I couldn’t care less.”
Trying to explain the severe treatment, the sergeant said, “Putting guys with frustration in charge of prisoners was the worst thing to do.” The frustration among the troops the sergeant referred to apparently was the result of their experiences with insurgent attacks in the Fallouja area that claimed many American lives.
Fishback’s unit returned from Iraq in the spring of 2004. By then, he said, he and his soldiers and paratroopers already knew of the Abu Ghraib abuses.
As at the notorious penitentiary near Baghdad, Fishback told the Senate panel, soldiers photographed prisoners being coerced into talking -- and, he said, the coercion was meted out under the direction of military intelligence officers who wanted prisoners softened up for questioning.
Fishback was described by Senate aides as a quiet, conscientious, by-the-book officer who was reluctant to see the Army subjected to the kind of public embarrassment it endured amid the Abu Ghraib scandal.
“Some paratroopers took pictures of detainee interrogations in Iraq, but then destroyed them after the Abu Ghraib scandal because other soldiers were getting in serious trouble for things we were told to do,” Fishback said in a letter to the Armed Services Committee.
He said he was disgusted, as well as worried that his unit had crossed the line too. He said he discussed what he had seen and heard in Iraq with West Point classmates and the academy chaplain.
He told the committee that, over the last 17 months, he first wrote a memo to his company commander, saying the military was violating the Geneva Convention. He said he was told to consider the honor of his unit, and the commander said “he would not stand up for me if I took my issues higher,” one of Fishback’s letters said.
Fishback said he “immediately took my concerns to my battalion commander,” who told him this was a “gray area.” He spoke with Army lawyers, he said, and was told the same, that things like “stripping prisoners and chaining them to the floor can be in accordance with the Geneva Convention.”
Still frustrated, he called his congressman. Then early this month, he approached the Senate panel, which had held hearings on events at Abu Ghraib.
Fishback said he was especially bothered when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told the committee last year, right after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, that the military was obeying the rules of the Geneva Convention.
“I was immediately concerned that the Army was taking part in a lie to the Congress, which would have been a clear violation of the Constitution,” he said.
“Interrogation techniques that violated the Geneva Convention found their way into Army systems. The problem was systemic, and it was widespread.”