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Abu Ghraib interrogators involved in earlier Afghan abuse probe

WASHINGTON—Army investigators believe that some of the military interrogators who were implicated in the abuse scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were involved in earlier deaths and abuses of detainees held by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Yet even as investigators were uncovering troubling evidence of prisoner abuse in Afghanistan, orders were cut to transfer the military intelligence company involved to Iraq and to Abu Ghraib. And within weeks of the deaths of two Afghan detainees, the officer in charge at the Bagram Collection Center, where the men died and where others are thought to be mistreated, was awarded her first of two Bronze Stars for "exceptionally meritorious service."

To date, no one has been formally charged with a crime in the Afghan abuse case despite investigators' belief that charges are warranted against six interrogators.

Critics say the Army's handling of the Afghan investigation amounts to a cover-up. And they say the fact that no one has been held accountable for the deaths and other abuse at the facility in Afghanistan suggests that high-ranking officers didn't consider mistreatment of detainees to be a serious offense until the graphic pictures of Abu Ghraib prisoners were broadcast around the world.

The Army refused to release details of the investigation into the deaths of the two Afghan detainees, who died in December 2002, because they say the inquiry is continuing. However, three senior intelligence officials who are familiar with the investigation or the circumstances of the deaths spoke to Knight Ridder. Key aspects of their accounts were later confirmed by Army public affairs.

The first detainee to die at a U.S. Army detention facility in Afghanistan, according to records released by the Army, was a 28-year-old Afghan named Habibullah, or "God's beloved."

The details of Habibullah's arrest are sketchy. Coalition soldiers fighting a shadowy guerrilla war against the remnants of the hard-line Taliban movement picked up Habibullah, who like many Afghans had only one name, at the end of November 2002.

It isn't known whether Habibullah resisted capture or was beaten after he surrendered. By all accounts, his body was badly battered when he was delivered to the cavernous concrete structure known as the Bagram Collection Point, where U.S. Army interrogators sort through detainees who were thought to have information about the Taliban or al-Qaida.

Habibullah was the brother of a former Taliban commander, but it's unclear what information interrogators thought he possessed. Though he was wounded, the interrogators decided it was necessary to isolate him in a "safety" position, with his arms shackled and tied to a beam in the ceiling. It's not clear when that happened.

Habibullah was left in that painful position for days, but not forgotten.

An intelligence officer who worked at Bagram after the deaths, who asked that his name not be used out of fear of retribution from the Army, said the Army's rules required soldiers to look in on detainees regularly. "It's like a baby," the officer said. "You have to check on them every 20 minutes."

Habibullah was found dead, still hanging from the ceiling, on Dec. 3, 2002.

A week later, a 22-year-old part-time farmer and taxi driver named Dilawar died after he was interrogated at Bagram. Dilawar also was injured when he arrived. For unknown reasons, he was roughed up by military police and interrogators, who beat him and stood on top of him, resting their weight on his groin. Dilawar died Dec. 10.

The Army launched a criminal inquiry, but the investigation proceeded slowly and didn't appear to have a high priority.

In January 2003, the small platoon of 15 interrogators who'd been working at Bagram when Habibullah and Dilawar died returned to their base at Fort Bragg, N.C. In mid-March, they were sent to Iraq, and at the end of July they were assigned to Abu Ghraib, along with another 15 or so fellow soldiers from Company A of the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion.

Carolyn Wood, the 34-year-old captain who'd led the platoon of interrogators at Bagram, was put in charge of a far larger effort at Abu Ghraib. The move surprised intelligence officials who were familiar with the circumstances of the Bagram deaths.

A second intelligence officer, who spent months working at the Bagram Collection Point and who asked not to be named out of fear for his safety, said Wood should have been aware of everything happening in her facility, especially since interrogations were taking place down the hall from her office.

The officer said the acoustics of the former Soviet machine shop were such that he easily heard screams, moans or other loud noises coming out of the interrogation and isolation rooms. He added, however, that detainees who were put in "safety" positions—also called stress positions—sometimes were gagged.

Col. Billy J. Buckner, a spokesman for Fort Bragg, said members of Company A were sent to a second combat zone because the unit as a whole wasn't considered to be under investigation for wrongdoing, even though criminal investigators had interviewed some of its soldiers.

Buckner said an informal inquiry ordered by Lt. Gen. Dan McNeill, then commander of U.S. and coalition forces for Afghanistan, showed that two interrogators and two military police officers had acted inappropriately but their actions "were determined not to be the cause of the deaths."

Buckner said the rules of engagement for interrogations were modified after the Afghan deaths. A senior officer also was assigned to the Bagram facility. The first intelligence officer said, "Shackling detainees to any fixed object was strictly forbidden."

In May of this year, Col. Marc Warren, the top Army lawyer in Iraq, told a Senate committee looking into abuse allegations that Wood and other interrogators from Company A had taken the same techniques to Iraq that they'd used in Afghanistan.

The second intelligence officer said Wood appeared to have taken the old rules, not the new ones. A poster-sized list of guidelines that Wood created for interrogators in Iraq included the use of military dogs and stress positions for up to 45 minutes—techniques that were no longer allowed in Afghanistan.

"There was absolutely no stress positions whatsoever," the officer said. "That was found to be one of the issues that led to the deaths of those two detainees."

Not long after their arrival at Abu Ghraib, some of the Company A interrogators who'd been under criminal investigation at Bagram came under renewed scrutiny.

On Oct. 6, 2003, two specialists and a sergeant from Company A allegedly took a female Abu Ghraib detainee to a vacant room and ordered her to take off her clothes. At least one of the soldiers had been involved in one of the deaths in Afghanistan.

The incident sparked a second inquiry.

Meanwhile, the Afghanistan investigation continued. In November, Army investigators began hearing troubling stories of ill treatment from civilian interpreters who'd worked with Company A interrogators at the Bagram Collection Point, suggesting a pattern of abuse and beatings that extended beyond the two deaths.

In December, the Army's Criminal Investigative Command sent Fort Bragg the names of six Company A interrogators who investigators thought should be charged with abuse. Two of them had been involved in the incident with the female detainee at Abu Ghraib.

Buckner said the interrogators were immediately "flagged" by their commander, meaning they couldn't move to another post, receive awards or be promoted until the commander had reviewed the completed investigation and decided whether to press charges.

For reasons that are unclear, nothing else has happened.

All the company's interrogators had returned home from Abu Ghraib by the end of December. Buckner said the six named in the abuse investigation were in limbo, waiting for their names to be cleared or action to be taken against them.

To date, the only action taken against Company A interrogators was a nonjudicial punishment imposed Jan. 4 by Col. Thomas Pappas, the commander of Abu Ghraib, on the three soldiers accused of mistreating the female detainee.

Pappas reduced the interrogators' ranks and ordered them to forfeit between $500 and $750 each for conducting interrogations at unapproved times and in unapproved locations.

In a statement made later to investigators, Pappas said the report he received didn't "show beyond a reasonable doubt that detainee abuse occurred."

In contrast, seven members of the 372nd Military Police Company out of Cresaptown, Md., face charges of abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. One, Jeremy Sivits, pleaded guilty and is serving a year in a military prison.

After Wood left Afghanistan and Iraq, she received two Bronze Stars for "exceptionally meritorious service" for her time abroad, including her service as officer-in-charge at the Bagram Collection Point.

She received the first medal on Jan. 22, 2003, just a few weeks after the second prisoner died at Bagram. The second medal honored her work in Iraq and was issued May 8, 2003.

Wood is now taking a career course for military intelligence captains at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. Army spokeswoman Tanja Linton wrote in an e-mail that "Wood is declining all interview requests and has asked that the media respect her privacy."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.