In sworn statements given to Pentagon investigators last summer, a Defense Department civilian employee assigned to military intelligence units described an incident in which an interrogator in Afghanistan "took a Koran, threw it on the floor and stepped on it," provoking a riot by Muslim detainees.
Along with scores of other documents and depositions concerning alleged prisoner abuse at U.S. military prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the statements by the civilian employee were declassified and released last week in response to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The employee's name is redacted from the depositions delivered in June 2004 to the Arizona headquarters of the 309th Military Intelligence Battalion. Those depositions and the other documents were among previously classified materials used by Gen. Paul Kern, Maj. Gen. George Fay and Lt. Gen. Anthony Jones to prepare an official Pentagon report on the Abu Ghraib scandal last summer.
Detainee charges of Quran desecration have aroused fresh controversy since Newsweek magazine published a news item about a Quran that was allegedly flushed down a toilet in order to demoralize Muslim prisoners at Guantánamo. Spokesmen for the White House and the Defense Department blamed subsequent lethal rioting by Afghan Muslims on the Newsweek report and indignantly denied that any such incidents had occurred.
Amid charges of fabrication and even treason spewed by furious right-wing pundits and bloggers, Newsweek humbly retracted its story. The magazine's embarrassment became a propaganda triumph for the White House and Pentagon, which, at least temporarily, successfully transformed concern over prisoner abuse and lack of official accountability into a debate about press standards.
Yet now the newly released documents again raise the issue of brutal and illegal tactics used against Muslim detainees -- particularly desecration of the Quran and other forms of religious pressure that violate the Geneva Conventions and U.S. law. As first reported by the Washington Post, the documents include numerous allegations of mistreatment of copies of the Muslim holy book -- including one detainee's statement to FBI agents that guards at Guantánamo had "flushed a Koran in a toilet."
Army and Defense Department officials have sought to cast doubt on the detainee allegations, suggesting that former prisoners want to stoke resentment by spreading "unsubstantiated" stories of desecration and abuse. Dismissing a reporter's question about "possible similar desecrations" of a Quran, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita last week replied that "there haven't been credible allegations to that effect."
The Pentagon's denials in the face of dozens of detainee allegations underscore the significance of the civilian employee's sworn statements. Although limited in scope, those statements represent the first independent confirmation of Quran desecration by someone other than a detainee or former prisoner.
The first statement from the civilian employee, dated June 10, 2004, included testimony about working at Abu Ghraib in October 2003 as a member of a small "Mobile Training Team" from Fort Huachuca, Ariz. The team's mission at the Iraqi prison was to "provide an overall assessment of interrogation operations, training, and advice and assistance." The civilian employee noted that the Intelligence Rules of Engagement -- Army regulations setting forth permissible interrogation methods -- "was posted and was very similar to the IROE used in Afghanistan."
While much of the June 10 statement is general and somewhat vague, the civilian employee specifically recalled an informal conversation with an Abu Ghraib interrogator about how to question detainees more aggressively:
"I gave him examples of approaches including Pride and Ego Down where an interrogator took a Koran, threw it on the floor and stepped on it ... I also explained sleep deprivation. I told him that in Afghanistan the interrogators could use an adjusted sleep schedule for detainees. The conversation was meant to explain why these activities were prohibited or restricted ... During my time at [Abu Ghraib], I did not witness any abuse or maltreatment of detainees."
"Pride and Ego Down" refers to methods used to intimidate and break the will of recalcitrant prisoners during interrogation. In a highly controversial September 2003 memorandum authorizing the use of coercive interrogation techniques, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the commander of U.S. military forces in Iraq, specifically mentioned "Pride and Ego Down," which he described as "attacking or insulting the ego of a detainee, not beyond the limits that would apply to an EPW [enemy prisoner of war]." (The Sanchez memorandum also offers a pertinent note of caution: "Other nations that believe detainees are entitled to EPW protections may consider this technique inconsistent with the provisions of Geneva.")
Ten days later, the same civilian employee expanded on the first statement with a second deposition at Fort Huachuca, apparently to provide "relevant background information" about the conversation with the Abu Ghraib interrogator.
Again recounting that conversation, the civilian employee explained that they were discussing ideas about "how to get 'these detainees to talk.'" Evidently certain prisoners were believed to know "the source of the incoming mortars" fired by insurgents at Abu Ghraib, but wouldn't reveal anything.
"During the conversation I told [name redacted] about the Interrogation Rules of Engagement to ensure he knew of their existence ... I told him of a story of an interrogator using a Pride and Ego Down approach. The interrogator took a copy of a Koran and threw it on the floor and stepped on the Koran, which resulted in a detainee riot ... I never personally witnessed the above incidents but heard about them from other interrogation facility personnel."
The civilian employee goes on to talk about other methods, including the use of "barking dogs in the prison" and photographs of "what appear to be [military police] in intimidating positions with detainees." But the June 20 statement doesn't clarify the earlier reference to the Quran-desecration incident, nor does it plainly state that such methods violate U.S. and international law.
Scott Horton, the president of the International League for Human Rights, has demanded full accountability for the military and civilian authorities responsible for abuses in U.S. prison facilities abroad. He has interviewed numerous detainees and examined the civilian employee's deposition and other materials obtained by the ACLU.
"The newly released documents give us a deeper glimpse into the confusion created in Iraq when the Pentagon decided to dispense with the long-established approach mandated by the Army Field Manual and began to apply great pressure on the interrogators to get results quickly about the insurgency," he says.
"The sworn statement of one DOD civilian in which desecration of the Koran is presented as a practice under the 'Pride and Ego Down' technique is especially troubling. If this were one isolated incident involving a single mistaken soldier, it wouldn't be quite so bad. But there appear to be dozens of incidents stretching around the world -- Guantánamo, Iraq and Afghanistan. And it fits in too neatly in a palette of techniques designed to use a prisoner's religious beliefs to break him: forced grooming, use of menstrual blood, enforced nudity, use of military dogs, simulated sexual acts, acts of sexual humiliation. All of this suggests very strongly that techniques have been engineered that break the law, undermine our military effort and are at odds with our nation's ethics and traditions."
Individuals and institutions should be held accountable in proportion to their errors. Newsweek mishandled a news item and honestly accepted responsibility. The Bush administration and the Pentagon have made far worse mistakes -- and keep trying to divert responsibility. Still, there's no escaping the fact that by stupidly removing safeguards against the abuse of prisoners in the war on terror, they have done irreparable damage to the reputation of the American military and the international prestige of the United States.