LONDON—President Barack Obama stepped into the White House pledging to end George W. Bush’s gloves-off approach to interrogations and detention—but a flood of leaked documents suggests that old habits were hard to break.
Field reports from the Iraq war published by WikiLeaks show that, despite Obama’s public commitment to eschew torture, U.S. forces turned detainees over to Iraqi forces even after signs of abuse.
Documents also show that U.S. interrogators continued to question Iraqi detainees, some of whom were still recovering from injuries or whose wounds were still visible after being held by Iraqis.
“We have not turned a blind eye,” said U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, noting that one of the reasons why U.S. troops were still in Iraq was to carry out human rights training with Iraqi security forces. “Our troops were obligated to report abuses to appropriate authorities and to follow up, and they did so in Iraq.”
Crowley added, “If there needs to be an accounting, first and foremost there needs to be an accounting by the Iraqi government itself, and how it has treated its own citizens.”
Obama signed three executive orders shortly after taking office, vowing to return America to the “moral high ground” in the war on terrorism. The implication was that the United States would do more to make sure terror suspects weren’t tortured or abused—either at the hands of U.S. forces or by governing authorities to whom the detainees were handed over for detention or interrogation.
WikiLeaks recently published almost 400,000 U.S. military logs, mainly written by soldiers on the ground, detailing daily carnage in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion: detainees abused by Iraqi forces, insurgent bombings, sectarian executions and civilians shot at checkpoints by U.S. troops.
In one leaked document from a U.S. military intelligence report filed Feb. 9, 2009—just weeks after Obama ordered U.S. personnel to comply with the Geneva Conventions—an Iraqi says he was detained by coalition forces at his Baghdad home and told he would be sent to the Iraqi army if he didn’t cooperate. According to the document, the detainee was then handed over to Iraqis where he was beaten and electrocuted.
U.S. interrogators also cleared detainees for questioning, despite signs that they had suffered abuse from Iraqi security forces, the documents show.
One report by a U.S. interrogation detention team based in Baghdad on April 2, 2009, summarizes claims made by a prisoner who said he was hog tied and beaten with a shovel as part of dayslong torture ordeal at the hands of the Iraqi army. The report noted he had a catalog of “minor injuries,” including “rope burns on the back of his legs and a possible busted ear drum.”
A second report from April 2009 describes an Iraqi detainee as being covered in bruises and a scar from being bludgeoned with a pickax.
In both cases, the men were still cleared for U.S. interrogations.
A fourth report in May of 2009 goes even farther. “There are indications of abuse. Detainee has been medically cleared for interrogation,” the document reads.
The field reports also showed that there were signs of abuse upon regular inspections of Iraqi police stations and holding facilities.
A U.S. military police brigade filed a report in May last year saying they had discovered two wounded Iraqi prisoners, one of whom said he had been so badly beaten he was urinating blood. An American officer tried to get the men some medical attention, but the Iraqis refused.
One report, filed in September of 2009, described how American forces inspecting an Iraqi army facility found a detainee with two black eyes, scabs, bruises, and what the report described as a neck that had turned “red/yellow.”
The report said the detainee had been electrocuted to elicit a confession. The Iraqis claimed he suffered the injuries while trying to escape.
Gen. George Casey, who was the top U.S. commander in Iraq from 2004 until early 2007, told reporters Monday that the policy during the Bush administration was to report abuse.
“Our policy all along was if American soldiers encountered prisoner abuse, to stop it and report it immediately up the U.S. chain of command and up the Iraqi chain of command.”
The Pentagon has condemned WikiLeaks for publishing the documents, saying that U.S. and Iraqi lives could be put at risk—an allegation that WikiLeaks has dismissed. On Monday, founder Julian Assange defended his decision, swatting away suggestions that the leaked intelligence was of historical interest.
“Certainly for Iraqis this war is not history,” said Assange.
While there’s no proof in any of the files that the U.S. or its allies have directly mistreated detainees, the AP counted at least four allegations of prisoner abuse leveled against coalition forces after Obama signed his executive order.
One of those incidents occurred last year in Mosul, Iraq, when a soldier allegedly choked a detainee and threatened to kill his family. A fifth, more ambiguous report, states that a detainee was “kicked around for several moments” while awaiting transfer from U.S. custody.
It’s not clear if the charges were ever substantiated, and, if so, whether they yielded any kind of disciplinary action.
“This is official evidence that there was a cover-up of crimes, either by turning suspects over or torturing them directly,” Dan Ellsberg, who is credited for leaking the 1971 Pentagon Papers that exposed secrets about the Vietnam War, told The Associated Press on Monday night.
But Ellsberg said he wasn’t sure the leak would have much of an impact—either in Iraq or in the United States. Coverage of the documents has been widespread in Europe where public opinion against the Iraq war swelled for years.
“The truth is the Pentagon Papers did affect public opinion. It did not affect Nixon’s policy,” Ellsberg said. “I don’t have confidence that even a massive change of public opinion will have an effect, but even if there is a small chance it could change policy it is worth it.”