Shortage of interpreters foreshadowed prison excesses
By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN
Published May 20, 2004
It is one of the best-read reports in years - Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba's explosive findings that U.S. soldiers committed "sadistic, blatant and wanton" acts of abuse against inmates at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison.
But little attention has been paid to earlier reports foreshadowing problems that could have contributed to the brutal treatment: a critical shortage of Arabic-speaking interrogators and the Army's slowness in adapting to a world in which "the enemy" includes not just nations but shadowy terrorists and insurgents.
"The challenge military intelligence has in Iraq is that this is not a war most of them were organized, trained and equipped to fight," says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a nonpartisan research organization.
"They were basically geared up for the major combat operation phase of the war. They have not been primarily focused on counterinsurgency - they don't like it, it's not much fun, it's not what they had planned on doing in Iraq."
Within weeks after President Bush stood under a banner declaring "Mission Accomplished," it became clear that coalition soldiers who so easily defeated the regular Iraqi army faced a far greater threat from a combustible mix of foreign fighters, Saddam Hussein loyalists, Islamic radicals and even secular Iraqis angry at the U.S. occupation.
As thousands of people were rounded up, the challenge was to get "actionable intelligence" out of them - information that could be used to track down insurgents and end the violence.
But in January 2002, more than a year before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the General Accounting Office warned that the Army was so short of translators fluent in Arabic and other difficult languages that "it does not have the linguistic capacity to support two concurrent major theaters of war." In other words, the Army, already heavily engaged in Afghanistan, lacked the translators to also support a major operation in Iraq.
According to the GAO, the Army had 84 authorized positions for interpreters but had filled only 42 - a 50 percent shortfall. That meant intelligence soldiers trying to extract information from inmates at Abu Ghraib have been forced to use Iraqi translators of dubious reliability.
In another report, dated Sept. 17, 2003, Lt. Col. Robert Chamberlain said some interpreters had led soldiers to the wrong targets.
If an interpreter receives even an unconfirmed report of hostile activity, "he immediately brings this up the chain of command without conducting any analysis," Chamberlain wrote. "Then this information is nominated at the next target meeting, and bam, the wrong target is engaged and the media is there saying what bad things soldiers are doing."
Chamberlain said a shortage of good interpreters has hurt the occupation.
The Army's own interrogators and intelligence soldiers are trained at Fort Huachuca, a sprawling base 75 miles southeast of Tucson, Ariz.
The fort, home to 7,000 troops, vaulted into the news as the names of two top officers surfaced in connection with the prisoner abuse scandal. Fort Huachuca's deputy commander, Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast, has spent the past year as chief intelligence officer in Iraq. She was criticized in Taguba's report for delaying the release of detainees, thus contributing to overcrowding at Abu Ghraib. Fast is due to return to the fort this summer as head of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, in line to become the only female three-star general on active duty.
Col. Thomas Pappas, a former division chief at Fort Huachuca, faces reprimand for failing to properly supervise his soldiers at Abu Ghraib.
During a media tour last week, the outgoing commander of the intelligence center, Maj. Gen. James Marks, said interrogators are taught only "humane" ways to glean information from detainees.
The abuses at Abu Ghraib are "not what we train," he told journalists. "I'm disgusted by it just like you are."
But the same day, two former interrogator trainees at the fort told ABC News they were taught how to cause physical pain while technically adhering to the Geneva Conventions on humane treatment of prisoners. Techniques included "putting (detainees) in humiliating positions, stress positions, sleep deprivation," Margaret Chaiken said. She and her husband left the program in October after a dispute over attending classes on Jewish holidays.
Founded during the Indian wars of the late 1800s, Fort Huachuca has had to adapt in recent years to the unprecedented intelligence-gathering demands of a global war on terror.
After a visit to the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in late 2002, officers from the fort said they realized intelligence soldiers needed better training to get information out of al-Qaida detainees. In January 2003, Fort Huachuca began a new course, "Intelligence Support to Counter-Terrorism," that includes instruction in cultural awareness.
This March, the fort graduated its first class of Arabic interpreters, 99 percent of whom will go to Iraq.
And just last month the fort graduated its first class of reservists and National Guardsmen able to quickly deploy as a unit and provide "actionable intelligence" in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Whether the fort should be doing even more to improve intelligence gathering and avoid the kind of abuses seen at Abu Ghraib "really depends on who you think the next president ought to be," said Pike of GlobalSecurity.org.
"The administration's view of the matter is that this is just a lack of discipline and training pretty low in the chain of command while some Democratic senators seem to think these problems are the result of deliberate policy at the highest levels. To ask what's going on at Fort Huachuca, you can't answer without showing how you plan to vote in November."