Iraqi detainees to severe beatings and other torture at a base in
central Iraq from 2003 through 2004, often under orders or with
the approval of superior officers, according to accounts from
soldiers released by Human Rights Watch today.
The new report, "Leadership Failure: Firsthand Accounts of
Torture of Iraqi Detainees by the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne
Division," provides soldiers’ accounts of abuses against detainees
committed by troops of the 82nd Airborne stationed at Forward
Operating Base Mercury (FOB Mercury), near Fallujah.
Three U.S. army personnel—two sergeants and a captain—
describe routine, severe beatings of prisoners and other cruel and
inhumane treatment. In one incident, a soldier is alleged to have
broken a detainee’s leg with a baseball bat. Detainees were also
forced to hold five-gallon jugs of water with their arms
outstretched and perform other acts until they passed out. Soldiers
also applied chemical substances to detainees’ skin and eyes, and
subjected detainees to forced stress positions, sleep deprivation,
and extremes of hot and cold. Detainees were also stacked into
human pyramids and denied food and water. The soldiers also
described abuses they witnessed or participated in at another base
in Iraq and during earlier deployments in Afghanistan.
According to the soldiers' accounts, U.S. personnel abused
detainees as part of the military interrogation process or merely to
"relieve stress." In numerous cases, they said that abuse was
specifically ordered by Military Intelligence personnel before
interrogations, and that superior officers within and outside of
Military Intelligence knew about the widespread abuse. The
accounts show that abuses resulted from civilian and military
failures of leadership and confusion about interrogation standards
and the application of the Geneva Conventions. They contradict
claims by the Bush administration that detainee abuses by U.S.
forces abroad have been infrequent, exceptional and unrelated to
"The administration demanded that soldiers extract information
from detainees without telling them what was allowed and what
was forbidden," said Tom Malinowski, Washington Director of
Human Rights Watch. "Yet when abuses inevitably followed, the
leadership blamed the soldiers in the field instead of taking
Soldiers referred to abusive techniques as "smoking" or "fucking"
detainees, who are known as "PUCs," or Persons Under Control.
"Smoking a PUC" referred to exhausting detainees with physical
exercises (sometimes to the point of unconsciousness) or forcing
detainees to hold painful positions. "Fucking a PUC" detainees
referred to beating or torturing them severely. The soldiers said
that Military Intelligence personnel regularly instructed soldiers to
"smoke" detainees before interrogations.
One sergeant told Human Rights Watch: "Everyone in camp knew
if you wanted to work out your frustration you show up at the PUC
tent. In a way it was sport… One day [a sergeant] shows up and
tells a PUC to grab a pole. He told him to bend over and broke the
guy’s leg with a mini Louisville Slugger, a metal bat."
The officer who spoke to Human Rights Watch made persistent
efforts over 17 months to raise concerns about detainee abuse with
his chain of command and to obtain clearer rules on the proper
treatment of detainees, but was consistently told to ignore abuses
and to "consider your career." He believes he was not taken
seriously until he approached members of Congress to raise his
concerns. When the officer made an appointment this month with
Senate staff members of Senators John McCain and John Warner,
he says his commanding officer denied him a pass to leave his
base. The officer was interviewed several days later by
investigators with the Army Criminal Investigative Division and
Inspector General’s office, and there were reports that the military
has launched a formal investigation. Repeated efforts by Human
Rights Watch to contact the 82nd Airborne Division regarding the
major allegations in the report received no response.
The soldiers’ accounts show widespread confusion among military
units about the legal standards applicable to detainees. One of the
sergeants quoted in the report described how abuse of detainees
was accepted among military units:
"Trends were accepted. Leadership failed to provide clear
guidance so we just developed it. They wanted intel [intelligence].
As long as no PUCs came up dead it happened. We heard rumors
of PUCs dying so we were careful. We kept it to broken arms and
legs and shit."
The soldiers’ accounts challenge the Bush administration’s claim
that military and civilian leadership did not play a role in abuses.
The officer quoted in the report told Human Rights Watch that he
believes the abuses he witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan were
caused in part by President Bush’s 2002 decision not to apply
Geneva Conventions protection to detainees captured in
"[In Afghanistan,] I thought that the chain on command all the way
up to the National Command Authority [President Bush and
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld] had made it a policy that
we were going to interrogate these guys harshly. . . . We knew
where the Geneva Conventions drew the line, but then you get that
confusion when the Sec Def [Secretary of Defense] and the
President make that statement [that Geneva did not apply to
detainees] . . . . Had I thought we were following the Geneva
Conventions as an officer I would have investigated what was
clearly a very suspicious situation."
The officer said that Bush’s decision on Afghanistan affected
detention and interrogation policy in Iraq: "None of the unit
policies changed. Iraq was cast as part of the War on Terror, not a
separate entity in and of itself but a part of a larger war."
As one sergeant cited in the report, discussing his duty in Iraq,
said: "The Geneva Conventions is questionable and we didn’t
know we were supposed to be following it. . . . [W]e were never
briefed on the Geneva Conventions."
Human Rights Watch called on the military to conduct a thorough
investigation of the abuses described in the report, as well as all
other cases of reported abuse. It urged that this investigation not be
limited to low-ranking military personnel, as has been the case in
previous investigations, but to examine the responsibility
throughout the military chain of command.
Human Rights Watch repeated its call for the administration to
appoint a special counsel to conduct a widespread criminal
investigation of military and civilian personnel, including higher
level officials, who may be implicated in detainee abuse in Iraq,
Afghanistan or elsewhere.
Human Rights Watch also called on the U.S. Congress to create a
special commission, along the lines of the 9/11 commission, to
investigate prisoner abuse issues, and to enact proposed legislation
prohibiting all forms of detainee treatment and interrogation not
specifically authorized by the U.S. Army Field Manual on
Intelligence Interrogation and all treatment prohibited by the
Convention Against Torture.
"When an experienced Army officer goes out of his way to say
something’s systematically wrong, it’s time for the administration
and Congress to listen," Malinowski said. "That means allowing a
genuinely independent investigation of the policy decisions that led
to the abuse and communicating clear, lawful interrogation rules to
the troops on the ground."