ABU GHRAIB, Iraq—The success or failure of America's war against the Iraqi insurgency depends in part on what happens inside a cluster of converted red shipping containers in a secluded area of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
Here, American interrogators—working under new rules to prevent a repeat of the prisoner-abuse scandal—toil past midnight to pry secrets from tight-lipped detainees, hoping to illuminate a shadowy enemy that continues to kill Americans and Iraqis with alarming success.
On a recent night in the smoky, cramped Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center, a sullen Iraqi prisoner slumped deep into his oversized coat, with only a hand sticking out to tap the ash from his cigarette. In another room, a chatty inmate with almond-shaped eyes made animated gestures between sips of tea.
The military believes the first man has information about missing Americans. The other man is a high school teacher suspected of teaching insurgents how to make bombs. What the two tell interrogators could help save lives.
More than a year and a half into the war, the military's picture of the insurgency is still hazy. U.S. forces don't know exactly whom they're fighting beyond a "mix of former regime loyalists and Islamist foreign fighters." The military lacks reliable human intelligence—agents inside insurgent cells or even walk-in tipsters.
"This is an integral, key part of fighting the insurgency," said Col. Jack Black, who commanded interrogations until his tour ended last week. "It's all part of the puzzle."
Hundreds of new detainees pour into Abu Ghraib with each military offensive. The Marine-led campaign in the former insurgent base of Fallujah in November brought about 900 new prisoners, throwing the debriefing center into high gear with round-the-clock interrogations on insurgent plans, tactics and locations.
Doctors examine inmates before and after interrogation sessions—a change instituted after the prisoner-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib. The Army no longer relies on dogs, "stress positions" or abusive military police to "soften up" detainees for questioning, prison officials said.
"If you're good at this, those type of processes aren't necessary," Black said. "Nobody is willing to risk their personal or professional reputation to do this. There is no piece of information important enough to do such a thing."
There's almost always confusion, however. There are stories of innocents who spend months in prison and of high-profile suspects in custody who initially avoid detection. Iraqi skepticism of the American intelligence operation was confirmed when the military began releasing detainees—uncharged—by the hundreds last year. More will be released when the Fallujah bunch has been sorted out.
The grueling process does produce some successes. Maj. Gen. William Brandenburg, the new commander of U.S.-run prisons in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib, said interrogations at Abu Ghraib were instrumental in dismantling five or six car-bomb factories in recent weeks. Intelligence from the prison also led authorities this month to the shallow grave of William Bradley, a civilian truck driver from New Hampshire who'd been missing since his fuel convoy was ambushed west of Baghdad on April 9.
"Those kinds of victories, each and every one, collectively have an impact on the insurgency," Brandenburg said. "Most of the operations done today are driven by human intelligence."
The Fallujah backlog has lessened now, and the last interrogation of the day begins at midnight. The military has time again for nagging cases, such as the suspect purportedly involved with the missing Americans and the alleged teacher-turned-bomber. Neither detainee was in the hot seat for the first time, Black told a Knight Ridder reporter who was offered a rare glimpse at interrogations under way.
The first man, middle-aged and quiet, was rounded up in a group of people believed to have information on the location of Americans "killed in action," Black said. It was the man's second session in the debriefing room.
The only American soldier reported missing is Army Spc. Keith M. Maupin, who was ambushed along with two civilian contractors last April. A video released to Arab satellite TV channels purported to show Maupin shot in the head in front of a hole dug in the ground. Nine Americans were kidnapped in the ambush; one escaped, and six bodies later were found. There's been no word on the fate of the others.
Black would neither confirm nor deny that the interrogation involved Maupin's and the contractor's whereabouts.
The other man's case was older. He's an Iraqi teacher in his late 40s, and intelligence experts were trying to figure out his role in the insurgency, given his alleged expertise in remote-detonated bombs.
"Let's just say he was using his instructional background for a different kind of teaching," Black said.
During questioning, analysts in adjacent observation rooms compared the suspects' previous statements with the new information they heard through headphones. The detainees didn't know analysts were watching the session on a television monitor and scribbling notes on legal pads.
At the end of a session, which could last for three hours, analysts enter their reports into an electronic database that's accessed only by other intelligence experts throughout Iraq. They scrutinize the notes for lies, inconsistencies or little details that could help another case in another city.
A reporter, who couldn't hear the questioning from the observation room, was allowed to watch the process for about 15 minutes before an irate military-intelligence officer stormed into the trailer and said reporters had no security clearance to watch interrogations.
The center can hold up to 10 sessions at a time. No weapons are allowed in the rooms. Military personnel check their guns at the door, and menacing coils of razor wire surround the buildings to prevent inmates from running. There's a panic button if an inmate grows violent.
Before questioning, interrogators receive background materials on a suspect's tribal allegiance, the circumstances of his capture and his family. Interrogators draw up a detailed list of questions and set the scene, right down to the surroundings. Some rooms at the debriefing center are sparsely furnished with plastic chairs and plywood. If the interrogator wants to reward a detainee for good information or create a more comfortable environment, the session moves to a carpeted room with plush chairs.
"It's very hard work and most of it is done up front, before the interrogation," Brandenburg said. "A good interrogator is part actor and, at some point, he or she makes a value judgment that the suspect has given up everything he's got."
The ultimate prize, of course, would be information leading to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist mastermind who heads the al-Qaida network in Iraq.
"Zarqawi has a very close inner circle and is avoiding contact with the rest of the population to maintain his secrecy," Brandenburg said. "If he was out and about without a very, very close circle protecting him, he'd have been discovered by now. But we're restricting his ability to command and operate."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-PRISON