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New Chief of Prisons Defends His Role in Iraq

Maj. Gen. Miller headed a team that suggested last summer that U.S. guards at Abu Ghraib take a more active role in interrogations.

May 09, 2004|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Even as he touted a host of reforms to help shield Iraqi prisoners from further cases of abuse, the Army's new detention chief in Iraq found himself on the defensive Saturday over his role in a proposal last year that guards take a more active role in the interrogation process at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.

Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, who headed an expert team that visited the U.S.-run prison west of Baghdad last summer, vehemently denied that his team's suggestions might have contributed to mistreatment by overzealous military police officers there. An internal Army investigation of the abuse has challenged Miller's approach.

"I stand by those recommendations," Miller told journalists here. "Those recommendations were based on a system that provided humane detention, excellent interrogation, all within the bounds of the ... Geneva Convention."

Miller, a two-star general who headed the U.S. lockup at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for 18 months before arriving in Iraq, has been lauded by Army brass as the man who can clean up Abu Ghraib, the site of the abuse documented in photographs seen across the globe.

The native Texan and former paratrooper arrived last month and is in charge of detention and interrogation policies throughout Iraq -- one of the most sensitive military posts here, given the scandal that has shaken the Bush administration and damaged U.S. prestige.

U.S. officials say the entire detention process in Iraq is being revamped, with an emphasis on a quick release for prisoners not deemed threats or of intelligence value. The detention of tens of thousands of suspects in the last year has been a major irritant for Iraqis.

Abu Ghraib's overcrowding problem is also being eased, commanders said. Once home to about 8,000 prisoners, the population is now down to 3,800 -- thanks in large part to an accelerated review process that has sprung thousands of prisoners not deemed dangerous.

U.S. authorities have also moved to improve training of detention officers, many of whom have no previous experience working in a jailhouse. A team of 31 military police officers who specialize in detention procedures are in the region and have begun to implement some basic training, Miller said. By June 30, when the U.S. is scheduled to hand over sovereignty to Iraqis, every detention officer should have received training certification, Miller said.

"We'll strive to make every trooper, soldier, leader who is involved in this as qualified as we possibly can," he said.

In another move, Miller has modified interrogation techniques, banning controversial practices such as placing hoods on prisoners and subjecting them to sleep deprivation and painful "stress positions." Visiting rights are being expanded and detainees are now getting two hot meals a day, instead of packaged meals ready to eat.

But Miller's role in last year's proposals continue to draw scrutiny. A scathing internal Army investigation of the abuse took issue with his philosophy of encouraging guards to assist in the interrogation process -- a system that Miller had put in place at Guantanamo, where he says he oversaw 22,000 interrogations. The success of his specially trained "Tiger Teams" in grilling terrorist suspects won Miller praise from his superiors.

Consequently, Miller was dispatched to Iraq last August as the head of a 30-member team of experts to review detention and interrogation procedures at a time when U.S. commanders were eager to garner intelligence on an unexpectedly stubborn insurgency.

Miller promptly proposed a Guantanamo-style interrogation regimen for Iraq. He urged better use of the military police officers who, he noted Saturday, "observe detainees on almost a 24-hour-a-day basis" as part of their job.

"It is essential that the guard force be actively engaged in setting the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees," Miller's team wrote in its assessment after visiting Abu Ghraib and other detention facilities in Iraq during a 10-day trip. It is unclear how many of the recommendations were implemented.

But on Nov. 19, the U.S. command in Iraq issued an order placing Abu Ghraib under the authority of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade. The order was signed by Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top field commander in Iraq. It gave the Army intelligence wing, which controls interrogations, control over the military police, who oversee detention policy. The Army inquiry into Abu Ghraib found this change in command to be a mistake.

"This is not doctrinally sound due to the different missions and agendas assigned to each of these respective specialties," concluded Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, who wrote the internal Army investigation that painted a picture of Abu Ghraib as a facility virtually out of control.

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