Haunted by Abu Ghraib
Having helped reveal abuse at the notorious prison, former interrogator Torin Nelson opens up about why it happened and how it has wrecked his career.
On Oct. 3, 2005, Torin Nelson walked off a U.S. C-5 aircraft at Manas Air Base just outside Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, feeling like all was right with the world. For most of his adult life, Nelson, 36, had been an interrogator, first as a noncommissioned officer in the Army and National Guard, then as a civilian contractor. His most recent job had been as an instructor helping to train new interrogators. But after several months at "the schoolhouse"-the Army Intelligence Center and School at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.-Nelson concluded that he wasn't quite ready to hang up his spurs. His passion still lay in real-world interrogations.
So he couldn't have been happier last September when Doylestown, Pa., defense contractor SYTEX Inc., owned by Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin Corp., hired him and told him to start packing his bags. (Lockheed did not return phone calls seeking comment on this story.) Come October, according to his project manager, Nelson would be winging toward Afghanistan as part of a contract with the Army, interrogating suspected Taliban cadre. So on Oct. 1, 2005, with his 6-foot-5, 260-pound frame wedged into a seat on a military flight out of Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Nelson was feeling like he was back in the saddle. Aside from his inaugural Afghan interrogation-with luck, about 36 hours away-the only thing on his mind was being able to stretch his legs and check his e-mail during a refueling stop at Manas, a lily pad of an air field on the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border.
Though he had no way of knowing, the stop at Manas would not, in fact, be his transit point to Afghanistan. Rather, it would be the first in a series of stops in what has become an occupational limbo, one that seems to Nelson a warning that no good deed goes unpunished.
It all had to do with his work at a place called Abu Ghraib.
Checking his e-mail while the plane refueled, Nelson felt like he'd been sucker punched as he read a note from his project manager. "I must inform you," it began, "that your contract has been terminated by the client." No explanation, no apology for any inconvenience, just an order to return stateside immediately, underscored by a stark final line: "Do not go to Bagram, Afghanistan."
Nelson quickly began going over events-first, from the past few days; next, over his entire career-in an effort to figure out what would cause the Army to send him packing. He'd taken a flight out of Germany a day later than originally planned; surely that wasn't a firing offense. Beyond that, what else could there be? No one had ever questioned his qualifications. He was a decorated, honorably discharged noncommissioned officer with 13 years of field experience that included interrogations in the former Soviet Union, the Balkans, Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and Iraq. He'd been hired to work at Fort Huachuca. Lockheed Martin had hired him for Afghanistan. And the Army certainly hadn't objected after the company forwarded his résumé to its Intelligence and Security Command.
Anxious and perplexed, Nelson wrote back saying he wasn't returning stateside without a more detailed explanation. By the time he reached Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, he had one. He was stunned by what he read: "The decision was based on your association with the high-profile issues surrounding Abu [Ghraib]," his project manager e-mailed. "I've been informed CJTF-76 [Combined Joint Task Force-76, the U.S. military authority in Afghanistan] have expressed concern about employing anyone who was involved in any way with the Abu [Ghraib] incident."
Nelson's eyes went back over one phrase again and again: "involved in any way." If he had been one of those at Abu Ghraib who had violated everything from common decency to international law by beating and terrorizing Iraqi prisoners, he could understand being thrown off the contract. But Nelson says he wasn't one of those people. Abuse by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison became public in April 2004, after The New Yorker magazine exposed it and CBS News broadcast photographs. In fact, as a contractor for Arlington, Va.-based defense contractor CACI International Inc. at Abu Ghraib, he had been one of the first to provide evidence to Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba's investigators, who began looking into abuse allegations in early 2004.
Nelson gave investigators leads about alleged prisoner mistreatment he had just begun to develop after he discovered one of his prisoners had been abused by another interrogator. In a report delivered in February 2005, Taguba found that between October and December 2003, "numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several [Abu Ghraib] detainees." Among those cited as perpetrators and recommended for punishment were John Israel and Stephen Stephanowicz, two CACI contractors. Nelson told Taguba's investigators he believed they merited scrutiny.
Compared with the indignities showcased in the infamous Abu Ghraib photo-graphs, what Nelson witnessed was comparatively tame. When a detainee showed Nelson a badly bruised arm he claimed came from being thrown into a wall by another interrogator, Nelson was skeptical. But as Nelson, at the time a new arrival to Abu Ghraib, began to look around him, the detainee's claims began to seem more credible.
"I saw one guy who had his hands cuffed through the bars of a cell door, and a stereo was facing him so he had to listen to heavy metal music; this was someone's idea of a proper interrogation technique," Nelson says. "I watched another interrogator, a complete amateur, start screaming at a subject and then order him thrown in isolation for being uncooperative. Many of the Army interrogators were fresh out of school or without a lot of experience, and some of the contract interrogators just weren't qualified."
Even so, when Nelson heard about a detainee being thrown from a vehicle and then dragged by his handcuffs, he had a hard time believing standards could have fallen so far. But when he mentioned what he'd heard to a young soldier, the soldier confirmed that he'd seen it while on guard duty. Deeply troubled, Nelson began quietly pulling files and actively looking for signs of malfeasance. About the same time, Army Criminal Investigation Command investigators working for Taguba arrived at the prison. Nelson shared his observations and what little hard information he had.
David R. Irvine, a friend of Nelson's in Salt Lake City and a retired Army brigadier general and former interrogation instructor at the now defunct 6th Army Intelligence School, finds it bizarre that anyone in the Army wouldn't want Nelson with them in the field. "If I were commanding [a military intelligence] interrogation unit, he is exactly the person I would want as a supervisor and mentor for every interrogator assigned to that unit, because I have absolute confidence that he would give me unvarnished information, that he would set and maintain a rigorous standard of lawful operation for himself and those he would direct," Irvine wrote in a letter of recommendation for Nelson last December. "His practical experience in the field is probably unexcelled-he's interrogated all kinds of folks from a variety of backgrounds and nations-and he has a particularly keen ethical sense," Irvine says now.
Nelson's position is that a well-trained, well-disciplined interrogator doesn't need to lay a finger on anyone. Rather, interrogators must hone approaches grounded in patience and cunning. Like many professional interrogators, Nelson is a serious student of interrogation history. Like many pros, he worships at the altar of Hanns Joachim Scharff, a German corporal whose highly effective methods of extracting information from captured Allied pilots in World War II included such techniques as having protracted philosophical discussions with his subjects while strolling through the woods. "He'd get little bits of information each day, so small the prisoners didn't even realize what they'd given up," Nelson says.
Indeed, as South Carolina trial attorney and former Army interrogator David Swanner noted last year on his South Carolina Trial Law blog, "The interrogation course at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School in Fort Huachuca, Ariz., was (at the time I was teaching there) based on the techniques that Hanns Scharff developed. . . . All that seems to have gone out the window in favor of torture now."
Based on his experiences as an interrogator first in the 1990s and later at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, Nelson says a number of factors have converged to replace the very real Hanns Scharff with the very unreal character Jack Bauer of television's 24 as interrogator icon for a new generation.
For today's professional interrogator, says Nelson, popular culture is as much an enemy as terrorists. "I'd say that Holly- wood is partially to blame for some of the bad stuff that's happened in interrogations since 9/11," he says. "At Fort Huachuca, there's a number of kids whose only frame of reference for interrogation is 24. They see someone getting slammed into a wall on TV and it works. But in real life, it doesn't."
That's partly due to the fact that for the war on terrorism, there simply haven't been enough interrogators. According to a 2004 Army inspector general's report, these shortages directly contributed to problems and abuses at Abu Ghraib. An added problem, Nelson says, is that most Army interrogators have been trained not to interrogate terrorists or insurgents, but enemy soldiers fighting a conventional war. "I saw very clearly at [Guantanamo] the idea in action that an interrogator is an interrogator is an interrogator, and nothing could be further from the truth. There's a big difference between interrogating someone about how many tanks and men are coming though the Fulda Gap, and an Islamist who you have nothing in common with," he says. Most Army interrogators are junior enlisted personnel, not necessarily the most mature or worldly bunch, he notes, and just when they start getting seasoned, they get promoted and become administrators.
Irvine also echoes Nelson's view that young interrogators who show promise rarely get to fully develop it because interrogation doesn't offer much in the way of career advancement. "Soldiers are like anyone else-they want to get promoted and want to have a career path that has some promise of advancement or taking them in the direction they want to go," he says.
If the only way to advance is to accept promotion out of the interrogation booth, or if the only way to stay fulfilled is not to accept promotion, then interrogators either move up or laterally into new jobs. Which brings up another problem: Noncommissioned officers overseeing interrogators are either too inexperienced or too overwhelmed to provide mentoring. "I've talked with a number of interrogators who've left the specialty because they were extremely unhappy with the way they were managed," he says. What's more, many officers running interrogation operations have no background in the area. "When officers came through the courses I was involved in, it was primarily to give them a taste of what was involved in the interrogation process with an eye toward their functioning as managers, not so they would actually be doing interrogations," Irvine says.
Nelson says Army units in the field often are slow to corroborate captives' information. And U.S. troops frequently rounded up innocent people, overwhelming the understaffed and flawed system. "In Iraq we referred to [the 4th Infantry Division, then stationed in the Sunni triangle] as the "grab-'em-all-4th ID [because] they were so adamant that at least someone in every group of people they encountered had to be bad," he recalls.
Nelson also is concerned that the Army's new hybrid occupational specialty for interrogators-97E, human intelligence collector-removes the requirement that interrogators become fluent in a foreign language. The Army recently retired the 97E interrogator specialty and merged it with what was the 97B counterintelligence agent specialty. While this might not be a bad thing, Nelson says the Army would be well-advised to consider choosing interrogators from among officers, not from enlisted ranks. "Officers are older, more mature, better educated. I think you could do this without necessarily making it only for officers, but the key is placing a premium on those qualities and real-world experience," he says.
Since last October, Nelson has been solicited or applied for dozens of overseas contract interrogation jobs. He has gotten none. Army Lt. Col. Maricela G. Alvarado, an intelligence staff officer, told Nelson in a recent e-mail that the Army knows that he was "not involved in any incident of wrongdoing" at Abu Ghraib. But, she added, it's "commanders on the ground" who "ultimately make the final decision" about which contractors they allow in theater. And according to an executive who has gone to the mat for him, Nelson provokes someone, whether it's commanders on the ground or Army brass, to move the goal posts. "[Our company] is apparently being asked to be able to 'certify' that deploying you forward would not cause an adverse circumstance at some point in the future," the executive wrote in a recent e-mail to Nelson. "I don't know what that means . . . [but the] basic feeling is that any attention would be unwanted, and they do not wish to accept the risk." Nelson shared this and similar e-mails on the condition that the privacy of companies and executives be honored.
His attempts to ascertain how he would gain certification-and whether it's a legal requirement-have come to naught. "They're saying there's no blacklisting policy, but there's clearly a blacklist," Nelson says. "It's like the word has gone out to blackball me."
Nelson believes he was at best a very minor player in the Abu Ghraib drama. Unlike Army Spc. Joseph Darby, who slipped Army investigators a CD-ROM of abuse pictures, Nelson wasn't the trigger for the investigation. Unlike Spc. Samuel Provance, he didn't go public with his view that the Army's investigation of military intelligence officers, headed by Maj. Gen. George Fay, was defined more by pulled punches and less by a desire to get the whole truth.
All Nelson did was pass on what little he had heard and had been able to document. And as far as he was concerned, he'd already paid a fair price for doing the right thing. It was bad enough that word of his meeting with investigators leaked almost immediately at Abu Ghraib. The ostracization that followed was far from pleasant. Worse were the thinly veiled death threats that convinced even as formidable a man as Nelson that he had no choice but to flee not just Abu Ghraib, but Iraq.
Comparatively speaking, Nelson hasn't had the worst of it. Darby and his family, for example, had to be taken into protective custody after receiving death threats. After Provance spoke to the media about Abu Ghraib and the Fay investigation, his superiors ordered him to cease contact with the press, and subsequently suspended his security clearance, reassigned him and demoted him. Through the graces of Provance's home state senator, torture opponent Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Provance did address a congressional subcommittee on whistleblower protection in February.
By contrast, outside of a cursory letter to the Army's legislative liaison, Nelson says his senators, Utah Republicans Robert Bennett and Orrin Hatch, haven't been particularly helpful. A letter from Hatch was forwarded to the Defense Department inspector general's office in mid-February, and "We're looking at it to see what we can do," says Gary M. Comerford, an IG spokesman.
When veteran national security correspondent David Martin recently proposed a piece on Nelson for the CBS Evening News, the producers turned it down. Martin did, however, discuss the unproduced story on a CBS blog. "I think part of the reason [the story was turned down]," he wrote "was not the news value, but the fact that nobody wants to put those awful pictures [from Abu Ghraib] on television again."
On March 16, Nelson filed as a Democratic candidate for Congress, in Utah's 3rd District, for the seat now held by Republican Christopher Cannon.