Trial Illuminates Dark Tactics of Interrogation

Times Staff Writer

It was dubbed the “sleeping bag technique.”

Interrogators at a makeshift prison in western Iraq, desperate to break suspected insurgents, would stuff them face-first into a sleeping bag with a small hole cut in the bottom for air.

Chief Warrant Officer Lewis E. Welshofer Jr. used it on an Iraqi general as a last-ditch grab for information as Welshofer’s unit was in the midst of an offensive against insurgents and desperate for intelligence.

The technique was not in the Army Field Manual, but Welshofer testified Thursday that he believed it was permitted after top commanders told interrogators “the gloves were coming off.”


But Welshofer got no information.

Military prosecutors allege that Maj. Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush, 57, suffocated in the sleeping bag as Welshofer sat on him. Welshofer’s murder trial, which began this week at the home base of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment to which he was assigned in Iraq, opens a window into the murky world of military interrogations.

Issues raised by the prosecutors and the defense about how to calibrate interrogations during the war against terrorism echo those made during the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the recent debate in Washington over banning torture.

Welshofer described spending months in Iraq without any clear directives about how to manage interrogations. When rules came down, he said, they were vague and he soon found that his training did not apply.

“There was no preparation from the schoolhouse at all for what we encountered in Iraq,” he said. “The doctrine was based on an enemy from 60 years ago.”

But the prosecutor, Lt. Tiernan Dolan, said that Welshofer took advantage of, or blatantly neglected, decades of military standards in how to practice interrogation. “You use psychological ploys to let [detainees] know you are in control,” he told Welshofer. “But you crossed the line from psychological control to physical control.”

When Welshofer and Mowhoush met in the fall of 2003, the insurgency was gaining strength and interrogators were under intense pressure to obtain leads from Saddam Hussein loyalists, such as the captured general.


U.S. commanders at the time had asked for what Welshofer called a “wish list” of new interrogation techniques. Beginning in September, U.S. generals in Iraq issued a stream of rules on the acceptable bounds of interrogation, sometimes shifting them from week to week.

A witness who testified behind a screen on Wednesday -- whom an attorney inadvertently referred to as someone who worked for the CIA -- said Welshofer told him the day before Mowhoush’s death that he was aware of the most recent regulations, but that “he was breaking those rules every day.”

Welshofer said he did not recall the conversation, but his attorney, Frank Spinner, argued that his client was navigating a gray zone. Spinner cited disagreements within the Bush administration about what techniques constituted torture. “There are not clear-cut rules here,” Spinner told the panel of six officers, who will determine whether Welshofer is guilty. He faces life imprisonment if convicted.

The interrogations took place at a converted train station outside of the western Iraqi city of Qaim. Mowhoush was believed to be directing attacks in the region and had surrendered himself to authorities in hopes of helping his sons, who were also in U.S. custody.

At the prison, Welshofer supervised a handful of other interrogators and 40 military intelligence officers. Another interrogator had invented the sleeping bag technique, which Welshofer said was designed to create a claustrophobic effect. Welshofer said a supervisor had approved the technique, but was concerned whether prisoners would be able to breathe, and only allowed Welshofer and its inventor to use it.

Welshofer acknowledged Thursday that when briefing his superior, he omitted that the technique he used involved straddling the detainee’s chest.


Welshofer said he started gently with Mowhoush. He said he began by simply questioning the general. When Mowhoush denied his role in the insurgency, the interrogations became more heated. Over two weeks, Welshofer progressed from conversing, to slapping the general in front of other detainees, to having him held down and pouring water in his face.

During that time, Welshofer was in an interrogation room when Mowhoush was severely beaten by a group of Iraqis who, according to published reports, were in the pay of the CIA. One witness said Welshofer appeared to be directing that interrogation, but the defendant said he had “no command and control” over that situation.

Two days later, Welshofer made his final choice. “I had gone through all my techniques and all my experience that might have been applicable -- except that one technique,” he said.

Army Spc. Jerry L. Loper, a guard at the prison who is cooperating with the prosecution, testified that Mowhoush was unable to walk after his beatings by fellow Iraqis (those allegedly paid by the CIA), and that even on Nov. 26, he had difficulty moving and was breathing heavily. At 8 a.m., Loper led the general into the interrogation room and questioning began.

The general was issuing blanket denials, and after the final one, Loper said, Welshofer told the detainee: “If you don’t answer, you’re not going to like what’s coming.”

Welshofer said that the general at times appeared tired, but he believed he was faking his fatigue. He ordered that the olive-green sleeping bag be dropped over his head, and that he be wrapped in an electrical cord “like winding a yo-yo” to fasten the bag to his 300-pound frame. The general was lowered to the ground on his back, and Welshofer straddled his chest and continued to ask questions, occasionally putting his hand over the general’s mouth, the interrogator said. He said he was stopping the detainee from calling out to Allah.


Loper and another witness testified that after several minutes, the general became unresponsive and Welshofer stood up. Then, they said, the general emitted a loud gasp and Welshofer expressed relief that he wasn’t dead. Welshofer said he did not recall this occurring.

It was after the general was flipped on his stomach and Welshofer straddled his back that he became silent again. Welshofer said he pulled the bag from the general and saw an odd smile on his face, so he threw water on him to get a response. It was then, he said, that he realized the general was dead or dying, called for medics, and began CPR.

The military contends the general was smothered during the interrogation, but the defense called a pathologist who testified that the cause of Mowhoush’s death was probably heart failure. Mowhoush had an enlarged heart and other signs of heart disease.

Welshofer, who has spent 17 years in the Army, is also charged with slapping another detainee, wrapping him in a sleeping bag, and body-slamming him. He said he wasn’t sure to which of the many detainees he interrogated the charge referred, but said that in one case, he had to use his body weight to control a prisoner who was becoming violent.