BC-INTERROGATORS-ADV18:WA – national, world, xtop, itop (1090 words)

U.S. soldier details interrogation tactics used in Afghanistan

(Sunday 7-18 release)


By Elise Ackerman

Knight Ridder Newspapers


WASHINGTON – Soon after he arrived at Afghanistan’s Kandahar Airfield in December 2001, Army Sgt. 1st Class Chris Mackey discovered that the training he and his fellow interrogators had received at the army’s top intelligence school was useless in persuading supporters of al-Qaida and the Taliban to talk.

The captives easily rebuffed the textbook approaches taught at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. Confident that Americans would treat them with restraint, hundreds of prisoners simply repeated the same implausible cover stories. They’d come to Afghanistan to live a purer Islamic life. They were looking for a good Muslim bride. They were studying the Koran.

They said they couldn’t remember names, dates or places.

The creative use of props and psychological ploys yielded some breakthroughs. But as the months wore on, the men and women of Task Force 500 were forced to acknowledge an ugly reality.

“The harder we were on the prisoners, the more likely they were to tell the truth,” recalled Mackey, a 30-year-old tax accountant who ended up supervising interrogations at Kandahar and at the Bagram airfield outside the Afghan capital of Kabul while serving as a reservist during the first half of 2002.

Citing ongoing investigations, the Army has refused to discuss the role its interrogators played in the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad or the deaths of two detainees at Bagram after Mackey’s group left.

Mackey’s account of his seven months in Afghanistan provides a rare insider’s look at how U.S. interrogators struggled to balance humane treatment of prisoners with demands from Pentagon officials to produce intelligence that could prevent another terrorist attack or help soldiers on the battlefield.

While Mackey insists that no prisoner was ever mistreated, he admits Task Force 500 gradually embraced methods such as sleep deprivation and stress positions that have been condemned by human rights organizations and the U.S. State Department.

The interrogators who replaced Mackey’s team at Bagram went even further.

“What was an ending point for us, was a starting point for them,” Mackey writes in “The Interrogators: Inside the Secret War Against Al Qaeda,” a 484-page memoir of America’s Afghanistan war that he co-authored with Greg Miller, a Los Angeles Times reporter who spent two weeks with the task force at the Bagram.

(Mackey is a pseudonym. The authors said they didn’t use real names of soldiers and prisoners.)

Most members of Task Force 500 left Afghanistan by the end of August 2002 after they’d trained replacements from the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion (Airborne) from Fort Bragg, N.C. Members of the 519th were later sent to Abu Ghraib.

Capt. Carolyn A. Wood, who succeeded Mackey at Bagram, went on to supervise interrogators at the Iraqi prison. Army officials said she introduced the same rules of engagement for interrogators in Iraq that she’d used in Afghanistan.

Mackey said he doesn’t believe that the use of “monstering” – or sleep deprivation – by interrogators at Bagram “in any way presaged the behavior of the MPs at Abu Ghraib.” Those MPs, military policemen, “truly were monsters,” he wrote. Since the scandal broke in May, seven military policemen who served at Abu Ghraib have been charged with abuse and other crimes.

But Mackey acknowledged that interrogators and military policemen in U.S.-controlled prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq found themselves subject to “the gravitational laws of human behavior” that take hold when one group is given absolute control over another. “Every impulse,” he wrote, “tugs downward.”

Mackey said he and other interrogators resisted adopting more abusive methods because they were afraid of the consequences of violating the Geneva Conventions. The conventions prohibit violence, torture and cruel, degrading or humiliating treatment.

Even after President Bush announced in February 2002 that the conventions would not apply to captured members of al-Qaida, the interrogators continued to regard the rules as “sacrosanct,” Mackey said.


Soon after the group’s arrival at Kandahar, a sergeant was reprimanded for making a prisoner kneel in a “stress position” with his arms outstretched in front of him.

But as weeks went by and prisoners continued to stick to outlandish stories, the interrogators increasingly felt like dupes, Mackey said.

In mid-February, he said, soldiers uncovered an instruction manual from one of al-Qaida’s training camps for resisting interrogation. While the manual warned fighters of the torture techniques they could expect in countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, it advised them to bait American captors into a physical confrontation so they could complain of mistreatment.

The interrogators fought back with their own deceptions. They dangled the possibility of release, or, conversely, threatened to turn a prisoner over to the Afghan government or another regime known for abuse. When Mackey and other interrogators were transferred to Bagram in May 2002, they became adept at spreading rumors among the local population. At one point, an interrogator who spoke impeccable Arabic pretended to be an Arab colonel from a Gulf country known for torture who was accepting custody of some of the prisoners.

But while some prisoners succumbed to such ruses, others continued to resist. Interrogators tried to manipulate their meal times and sought other methods.

“One of the MPs came up with the idea, “Hey these Arabs are terrified of dogs, you should bring in some dogs’,” Mackey recalled. He vetoed the idea, but finally decided to use sleep deprivation – provided that the interrogator assigned to the prisoner wasn’t sleeping, either. He also approved stress positions as a form of discipline for misbehavior, but not for non-cooperation with interrogators, a distinction he believes kept the group in accord with the Geneva Conventions.


John Sifton, a researcher from Human Rights Watch, said he believes the treatment at Kandahar and Bagram was worse than Mackey admitted. “Many of the detainees we interviewed had credible and consistent testimony about being beaten during interrogation,” Sifton said.


Human Rights Watch published some of those accounts in a report last March.

Miller, the co-author, said he quizzed Mackey and other interrogators about the allegations. “They all strenuously deny that those things happened while they were there,” he said.

It’s clear from testimony before Congress that interrogators who followed Mackey in Afghanistan made even more aggressive use of sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation and environmental manipulation. But how far they went remains unknown.

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


PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): INTERROGATORS

AP-NY-07-16-04 1423EDT

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