Monday, August 08, 2005

In Bagram Murders, the Buck Stops Where?

The American soldiers charged with torturing and beating two prisoners to death at Bagram, Afghanistan, are now on trial at Fort Bliss, Texas.

Tim Golden, the New York Times reporter who wrote a series of investigative pieces about the killings, notes that the prosecution and defense attorneys are focusing as usual on whether the soldiers acted on their own, or were following orders, or what they believed to be official policy. Just as in the Abu Ghraib trials, all of the nine soldiers prosecuted so far are below officer rank; and no officers have yet been charged with any crimes, although Army investigators have recommended that charges be filed against four officers.

On paper, the "few bad apples" argument looks like a harder sell this time, because there is documented evidence of conflict over a long period of time between military police and interrogators over certain techniques used against detainees, such as sleep deprivation. And Private Willie V. Brand, the soldier who faces the most serious charges -- assault, maiming, and dereliction of duty -- said in an interview that he and other soldiers were given specific training in how to deliver the knee strikes that killed Mullah Habibullah and Dilawar (a taxi driver identified only by his first name).

In the first interview granted by any of the accused soldiers, a former guard charged with maiming and assault said that he and other reservist military policemen were specifically instructed at Bagram how to deliver the type of blows that killed the two detainees, and that the strikes were commonly used when prisoners resisted being hooded or shackled.
Private Brand, the guard who has faced the most serious charges, was perhaps the most open and self-incriminating in his sworn statements to investigators. In three interviews, he said he repeatedly struck the two shackled detainees above the knee with blows intended to incapacitate the leg by hitting the common peroneal nerve.

Private Brand said he struck the first detainee who died, Mullah Habibullah, about four times so he could force a hood over his head. He said he struck the taxi driver, a slight 22-year-old known only as Dilawar, "somewhere in the area of 37 times, less than 40 for sure," after becoming frustrated with his recalcitrance.

In a court hearing in March, one prosecutor noted that Private Brand also told investigators that the guards were also instructed to use the knee strikes for self-defense and "not for mere resistance."

But in an interview at Fort Bliss, where he is awaiting trial later this month, Private Brand insisted that the knee strikes were taught at Bagram as a basic way to gain the compliance of prisoners. Other soldiers have said the blows were also part of training overseen by sergeants in the reserve unit, the 377th Military Police Battalion, before it deployed overseas.

It shouldn't even be open to question anymore that privates like Brand were doing what they believed they were supposed to do, by training and policy. Either their superior officers knew exactly what was going on and approved it, or guidelines were left unclear and contradictory -- which would have been a highly functional way to implement the policy (of beating and torturing detainees) while ensuring plausible deniability for higher-ups.

If you want to save the policy while avoiding or getting around unfavorable publicity when those policies come into public view, the best way to do that is to scapegoat the guys who do the dirty work while protecting the guys who create the policies and give the orders.

That said, Brand at least did not seem overly concerned about the things he did. I'll say it straight out: He doesn't appear to see anything wrong with what he and others did.

Private Brand said that when his platoon took over the night shift at the detention center, he was told that prisoners would often resist when military intelligence soldiers ordered hoods pulled over their heads.

"So you just give them a common peroneal strike and yank it down and be on your merry way," he said. "It just seemed like the way to control people."

I guess at Bagram Air Force Base, it is.

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