Pressure to Get Intelligence

From nearly the first day he took command of CJTF-7, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez decried the lack of useful intelligence about the insurgents and militias opposing his command. He pushed hard for a "human intelligence" operation that would capture large numbers of Iraqis and interrogate them about the insurgency. Capturing and interrogating enemy troops to learn enemy intentions is classic military doctrine. But Sanchez and CJTF-7 took it to another level, sweeping in thousands of Iraqi civilians and flooding American detention facilities with people whose only offense was being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks, in his magisterial history of the war, Fiasco, describes these sweeps as one of the great strategic blunders of the war's first year.

Sanchez gives his own account of how this unfolded, and the chain of events that led to the establishment of the Abu Ghraib detention facility, on page 216 of his book:

During those early days at CJTF-7, we were having serious problems accumulating sufficient amounts of credible intelligence. It is a fundamental responsibility of any battlefield commander to know who the enemy is and what the enemy is doing. That's how you win wars. So I made our intelligence operation my highest priority. I set up daily meetings with our intel people, limited in number and experience though they were. I asked lots of questions. "Who is carrying out these attacks on us? Is it the Saddam Fedayeen? Is it al-Qaeda? Are there, in fact, any terrorist groups operating in the country? Where are they located?"

I also pressed for results. "We need actionable intelligence at the strategic and operational level," I said. "Right now, we were not getting it. We're only focusing on the tactical level -- finding the next target to go after. In addition, we cannot just put information into a report and let it sit. The enemy is probably moving around constantly. We have to shorten the cycle from the time we gather the information to the time we move on it. It will save the lives of our soldiers.

"We're in a tough spot here," I told them. "We have too many prisoners and not enough places to hold them for questioning."

During our early offensive operations, we had swept in large numbers of detainees. People were picked up for a variety of reasons. They might have committed egregious offenses, or been caught planting IEDs (improvised explosive devices), or they might have been innocent bystanders caught up in a cordon and search. Unfortunately, there were no operational prisons in the country. Once again, part of our problem was the lack of Phase IV planning for detainment capacity. So we were forced to start from scratch and improvise. We began by erecting concertina wire (a type of expandable barbed wire fencing) in the middle of the desert. We put detainees inside the wire and provided basic human necessities. We fed them with our own rations, water and struggled to provide them with shade. Except for the fencing, these conditions were similar to the expeditionary environment that our own soldiers were experiencing.


Our detention capacity was starting to get pretty grim [by late summer 2003]. We had been sending quite a few detainees down to Camp Bucca in the extreme southern part of Iraq. Several hundred prisoners had also been sent to the facility at Abu Ghraib, a neighborhood on the northwestern edge of Baghdad. But that area presented another problem: It was a Sunni stronghold where we were sure to experience continued resistance. In addition, the Abu Ghraib facility was Saddam Husseins' most notorious prison, a place where many political prisoners had been tortured and killed.

We had many debates over whether to use the Abu Ghraib facility at all, due to the very real emotional implications. But it was really the only prison that had an intact physical infrastructure that would allow us to isolate and conduct operatoins. So in mid-July, Ambassador Bremer made the decision to designate it as a temporary detention facility, until a broader prison capacity was brought online (which was envisioned to be about a year and a half).

This passage is telling because it describes the command climate at the time the Abu Ghraib abuses occurred. Army officers were under pressure from Sanchez and other top commanders for intelligence. They feared their standard Army interrogation doctrine was insufficient. And so they borrowed interrogation practices from the CIA, special operations and intelligence community. At Abu Ghraib, they also took the advice of advisers from Guantanamo Bay and used military police personnel to "set the conditions" for successful interrogations, through means like sleep deprivation and stress positions.

Sanchez's autobiography clarifies his role as the catalyst for all this. He never gave an order for military police to make Iraqi prisoners stand on boxes with wires attached to their fingers, nor did he order prisoners paraded around in the nude. That's not how general officers exercise command. Rather, he issued broad guidance about the need for intelligence, issued memoranda outlining methods to be used, and encouraged his subordinates to achieve results. As I wrote in November 2004:

Consider the iconic image of Abu Ghraib: a hooded Iraqi man standing on an Army rations box with wires extending from his arms in a grotesque pose almost reminiscent of a crucifixion. It turns out that this was among the tactics employed by untrained prison guards and interrogators as a means both of instilling fear and of keeping a detainee awake, in faithful execution of the "sleep deprivation" tactic authorized by the secretary of defense. Even though the wires were actually inert, the detainee was likely told that he would be electrocuted if he moved off the box, which he would do if he fell asleep. And thus, so modestly-named a tactic as sleep deprivation was transformed into something far more sinister. The same tactic could be used in conjunction with the "stress position" technique approved by the Pentagon, according to one former intelligence officer I talked to. A hooded person forced to stand still on a box for hours will quickly lose his sense of equilibrium and orientation. Lower back pain will eventually develop from the strain of remaining upright for such a long time; pain in the legs and feet will follow as blood pools there. Held for several hours without movement, such a position can induce excruciating pain, particularly for detainees not in top physical condition. When the image first surfaced, these officers said they were not surprised by the tactic. It was merely a creative attempt by amateurs to achieve the results desired by their leaders--an unfortunate twist on the old maxim of Gen. George S. Patton: "Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity."

By Phillip Carter |  May 23, 2008; 8:00 AM ET  | Category:  Wiser in Battle
Previous: Torture Trail | Next: Sanchez's Torture Memos


Please email us to report offensive comments.

I just posted a lengthy comment in response to your Sanchez' memos post. Much of what I said actually would be more appropriate in this intelligence pressure post.

I have to say reading this post makes me more sympathetic to GEN Sanchez. It appears that under emergency conditions for which his commmand was unequipped, GEN Sanchez did the best he could with what he had to work with.

When the decision seems clear-cut - either play strictly by rules that matter in the long-view or (Mission First, Soldiers Always) save lives and mission in the near-view - it's a tough choice for any conscientious leader.

As I did in my comment to your Sanchez memos post, I recall the story of LTC Allen West and the violation that ended his career but saved his soldiers' lives.

Posted by: Eric Chen | May 24, 2008 10:51 AM

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