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ON POINT II: Transition to the New Campaign

The United States Army in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM May 2003-January 2005

Part II

Transition to a New Campaign

Chapter 6
Detainee Operations


US Army Detainee Operations in Iraq: Planning, Invasion, and the Transition to the New Campaign

When planners at CENTCOM and CFLCC began thinking about designing a campaign aimed at the toppling of the Saddam regime, they considered requirements for Coalition forces to deal with enemy prisoners of war (EPWs), but did so using previous conventional operations like DESERT STORM as their templates. Because of this assumption, planning for EPW operations in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF) focused on accommodating large numbers of surrendering Iraqi soldiers who would be classified as EPWs. Looking back, Major General Barbara Fast, who was serving as the senior intelligence officer (J2) on the staff of US European Command (EUCOM) when OIF began and became CJTF-7’s senior intelligence staff officer (CJ2) in the summer of 2003, described how the planners saw this aspect of the campaign: “Those who made the predictions were betting on units surrendering in place so there wasn’t as much attention paid to really having a plan as there should have been. . . . We were, as a force, much more prepared for prisoners of war and the idea that at the end of major hostilities, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions . . . prisoners are released.”2

Driven by these assumptions, in the early days of the invasion Coalition forces made plans for the use of two facilities, one at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq near the city of Umm Qasr and the second at Camp Cropper in the Baghdad International Airport complex.3 The success of the initial invasion and the corresponding belief by US Soldiers that a rapid redeployment was in the future also significantly affected the early stages of detainee operations. In May 2003 Soldiers of the 800th MP Brigade, a US Army Reserve (USAR) unit that was one of the key CFLCC units designated to deal with EPWs, held only 600 prisoners. By organization and doctrine the brigade could operate as many as 12 EPW facilities, and plans called for this unit and others that held EPWs to transition the Iraqis from Coalition control to Iraqi authorities soon after the cessation of hostilities. However, because the Coalition did not empower a new Iraqi political authority in the wake of the toppling of the Saddam regime, this transition did not happen. Exacerbating the problems created by this situation was that some of the MP units originally slated in the CENTCOM plan to deploy to Iraq remained at home when the regime collapsed in April 2003. The 800th MP Brigade remained the Coalition’s main asset to deal with detainees, and as the insurgency increased in magnitude that summer, the large numbers of detainees brought under US control overwhelmed the brigade.4 Simply put, no one in the Coalition had foreseen these developments. Fast stated, “We stopped having prisoners of war when the [1 May 2003] declaration of the cessation of hostilities occurred. Everything after that constituted a civilian internee or a criminal.” She added that after May, “We had to put things into place from scratch.”5

Lieutenant General Sanchez, the CJTF-7 commander, and his staff began work on establishing a new system of detainee procedures and facilities. Beginning in June and continuing through the fall of 2003, CJTF-7 issued a series of fragmentary orders (FRAGOs) and policy statements, and held a number of detention summits, all focused on the establishment and enforcement of rules and procedures for Coalition detainee operations. Early in this process, however, Sanchez realized that he and his command faced one overwhelming challenge in the arena of detainee operations: MP resources available in Iraq were far too few to handle the growing set of detainee tasks. Although he had tactical control of the 800th MP Brigade, that unit belonged to CFLCC and had multiple missions across Iraq. In fact, the 800th MP Brigade’s single largest responsibility had nothing to do with the escalating insurgency, but instead dealt with the internment of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a military force of approximately 4,000 well-trained and well-equipped Iranians who opposed the government in Tehran. Supported by the Saddam regime because of its hostility to the Iranian Government, by 2003 the MEK had become an elite element in the Iraqi Army and had fought against Coalition forces in March and April of that year. After capitulating to Special Operations Soldiers of the Joint Special Operations Task Force–North (JSOTF-North), the MEK leaders agreed to move to Camp Ashraf, a large internment facility 60 miles northeast of Baghdad. The 530th MP Battalion, one of the units in the 800th MP Brigade that had experience with internment of EPWs and civilian internees, was charged with the mission of detaining the Iranian soldiers for the next year.

The variety and scale of the military police mission across the country weakened the 800th MP Brigade’s ability to focus on detainee operations.6 In addition to being overstretched, only a portion of the 800th MP Brigade’s Soldiers had trained to conduct detainee operations. The majority of the Soldiers in the brigade had trained to execute other MP missions such as law and order and securing lines of communication. Brigadier General Janis L. Karpinski, commander of the 800th MP Brigade, claimed her chain of command in CFLCC understood the brigade had neither the assets nor the training for the detainee confinement mission in Iraq.7 Additionally, Sanchez noted that he and his staff realized in mid-2003 that “there is no MP unit in the country, and probably within the Army, that has the experience or that has ever been involved with this level of detainee operations.”8 Still, the experience and training of the 800th MP Brigade made them the unit best prepared for the detainee mission.

While the CJTF-7 staff attempted to assist the 800th MP Brigade by finding resources, establishing facilities, and creating processes and procedures, the number of detainees and the overall scale of the detainee problem mounted. Sanchez recognized this, stating:

In the June/July timeframe it becomes very clear that what we have is a burgeoning number of detainees that is growing exponentially. The problem manifests itself across the entire command. A central collection point [Baghdad Central Confinement Facility] is established and we begin to move the detainees from our cordon and search operations to Baghdad. The divisions are trying to move the detainees out of their sectors as quickly as possible as the numbers continue to grow. This creates major challenges with handling procedures at all levels and strains the facilities.9

With the detainee population growing and MP assets quickly overwhelmed, tactical units began playing a much larger role in detainee operations. Although this was not how Army doctrine dictated the handling of detainees, there was little choice on the ground. Combat arms units in the US Army did not have the mission of detaining and holding prisoners for any length of time. Neither did they have authority or training to conduct interrogations. Certainly, none of the planners of OIF expected tactical units to be heavily involved in detainee operations. What they did assume is that each brigade would maintain a collection point where subordinate units would bring in EPWs and detainees and drop them off for a short time, not to exceed 72 hours. Next, the detainees would be moved “up the chain” to a division collection point, and remain there for no longer than 96 hours before being taken to their final destination—a semipermanent detention facility staffed by qualified MP and MI personnel. The timeframe for moving prisoners out of the areas where combat actions were ongoing presumed that detainees’ continued presence in those areas represented a burden to commanders and their Soldiers. The combat unit’s primary mission was to close with and destroy or capture the enemy. The Soldiers in these units traditionally viewed detainee matters as a distraction from the mission.

In Iraq in the summer of 2003, however, detainee operations became a critical mission for almost every tactical unit. As the previous chapter noted, the need for actionable intelligence at the tactical level led companies, battalions, and brigades to create tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) that secured detainees and established facilities for questioning and interrogations. An early example of this type of improvisation was found in an area near the town of Bayji in the Sunni Triangle where the 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry (1-508th IN), a unit belonging to the 173d Airborne Brigade (173d ABN), created a new concept called the “hasty detention facility.” Lieutenant Colonel Harry Tunnell IV, the battalion commander, described the origins of the idea:

Whenever we conducted raids or operated with extended lines of communication, we needed the means to secure and interrogate captured and detained personnel for short periods of time. It seemed to us that the brigade headquarters already had its hands full and could not realistically offer much assistance. It was not resourced to maintain detainees for extended periods, and it had to establish its own ad hoc procedures for a facility, the rules of detaining people, and the criteria for their release.10

Tunnell recognized that his Soldiers were not trained to conduct detainee operations. Nevertheless, the situation demanded that he and his chain of command adapt established TTPs to meet the requirements of the situation on the ground:

Even though we, like most battalions, did not have the training and expertise to establish an enemy prisoner of war holding cage, we knew how to conduct noncombatant evacuation operations (NEO). The establishment of a control cell to search, inspect, and process NEO evacuees parallels some of the functions necessary to control detainees. During combat operations we modified the NEO task and the Headquarters and Headquarters Company established an area (with concertina [wire,] guards, etc.) that was used to sort out detainees. This arrangement was called the battalion’s ‘hasty detention facility.’11

Tunnell then described how his unit used the improvised detention facility:

We normally kept the hasty detention facility at the OSB [operational support base] and brought it forward during raids. In the middle of an operation, a company simply turned detainees over to the battalion facility and continued fighting. During extended operations, the facility was established near the battalion CP [command post] and trained military intelligence personnel conducted field interrogations. This process allowed battalion leaders to determine which suspects should be immediately released because they were of no intelligence value (they were in the wrong place at the wrong time), who should be held briefly (curfew violation, etc.), and who was of intelligence value and should be sent to a higher echelon for further exploitation.12

As it became more evident to leaders like Tunnell that US Soldiers were faced with an insurgency, intelligence became increasingly important and commanders at all echelons realized detainees were critical sources of information and thus a major focus of their operations.

Still, there was a challenge that accompanied the growing involvement of combat units in interrogation and detainee operations. To be actionable at the tactical level, intelligence had to be current. The longer it took to interrogate a detainee, the less likely the intelligence gathered from that detainee would be of value to a commander looking for ways to make an immediate impact in his AOR. Yet the Army had not trained infantrymen, artillerymen, and other Soldiers in tactical units to conduct interrogations. By doctrine, the MI Soldiers responsible for interrogations worked at echelons above the battalion level. Movement of detainees to facilities where formal interrogations could take place required time; thus, doctrinal procedures reduced the likelihood that detainees could provide actionable intelligence to tactical units.

As the number of detainees increased sharply in the summer of 2003, several significant problems with detention procedures and intelligence requirements emerged. Lieutenant Colonel Frank Rangel, an MP officer who served in Iraq from June 2003 to March 2004 as executive officer for the 720th MP Battalion in Tikrit, provided an MP’s perspective on how the increase in detentions clashed with established procedures and assumptions made during the planning for OIF:

Now, doctrinally, how the detention system was set up was for collecting points in the BCTs [Brigade Combat Teams], about 72 hours max you want to keep them there. Then you want to move them up to the division collecting point, there for no more than 96 hours. It never worked out that way, though. If you were at a FOB [forward operating base] and you had an MP element there, it was closer to working out that way; but if you were doing it as a battalion, then you were evacuating to your own battalion [collection point]. Infantry unit[s] and those guys were playing loosey-goosey with some of the [detainees].13

(The term “loosey-goosey” described the tendency for tactical units to retain a detainee for periods of time longer than the prescribed 72 hours.)

If indeed, as Rangel phrased it, combat arms units were acting “loosey-goosey” in their conduct of detainee operations, they did so for a good reason: the increasing need for accurate and timely tactical intelligence. Lieutenant Colonel Troy Perry, who served as a battalion and brigade operations officer in the 4th ID, emphasized that detainee operations often fulfilled this need:

The challenge for the battalions was they wanted to keep the detainees for as long as they could to do as many things as they could with them, meaning if they could peck away at getting some intelligence because they knew the specific intelligence they needed. Once you get higher, they can ask questions, but it may not be how are you tied to this specific guy, or family members come and now you have another source where you can say, ‘It is interesting that you are here to see so and so. By the way, we are not going to release him, but what do you know about X, Y, and Z.’ So you have this natural tension of the battalion wanting to keep them as long as possible.14

Tunnell, commander of the 1-508th IN, echoed these concerns, suggesting that valuable human intelligence (HUMINT) was lost if battalions and brigades relinquished control of detainees to higher echelons:

Unfortunately, we soon lost access to any useful information the further up the detention chain a suspect would climb because there were not any feedback loops to update us with information from subsequent interrogations. Realizing that this type of information is perishable, the results of the initial interrogations at the higher level would still have been useful.15

This imperative to collect actionable intelligence became so evident even the MPs could agree tactical units needed to adapt Army doctrine to the realities of the new campaign in Iraq. Lieutenant Colonel Rangel conceded, “You lose continuity of the effort of interrogation when you evacuate [detainees] to different levels, because now you have different handlers along the way. And there were so many of them that you just can’t hand off the key issues and how to work them [to Soldiers at the higher levels].”17 The attitudes displayed by Tunnell, Perry, and many others at battalion and brigade levels betray the biases of tactical leaders interested in information that could immediately affect their operations. They were less interested in the strategic-level intelligence that a longer, more deliberate interrogation at upper levels could produce. While the views of these tactical-level officers might seem somewhat myopic, they reflect the widespread hunger for intelligence at the lower state of the tactical-level of operations.

Chapter 6. Detainee Operations

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