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Trial Illuminates Dark Tactics of Interrogation

January 20, 2006|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

FT. CARSON, Colo. — It was dubbed the "sleeping bag technique."

Interrogators at a makeshift prison in western Iraq, desperate to break suspected insurgents, would stuff them face-first into a sleeping bag with a small hole cut in the bottom for air.

Chief Warrant Officer Lewis E. Welshofer Jr. used it on an Iraqi general as a last-ditch grab for information as Welshofer's unit was in the midst of an offensive against insurgents and desperate for intelligence.

The technique was not in the Army Field Manual, but Welshofer testified Thursday that he believed it was permitted after top commanders told interrogators "the gloves were coming off."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday January 21, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Military abuse trial -- An article in Friday's Section A about the trial of a military interrogator accused of murdering an Iraqi general referred to the prosecutor as Lt. Tiernan Dolan. Dolan is a major.

But Welshofer got no information.

Military prosecutors allege that Maj. Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush, 57, suffocated in the sleeping bag as Welshofer sat on him. Welshofer's murder trial, which began this week at the home base of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment to which he was assigned in Iraq, opens a window into the murky world of military interrogations.

Issues raised by the prosecutors and the defense about how to calibrate interrogations during the war against terrorism echo those made during the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the recent debate in Washington over banning torture.

Welshofer described spending months in Iraq without any clear directives about how to manage interrogations. When rules came down, he said, they were vague and he soon found that his training did not apply.

"There was no preparation from the schoolhouse at all for what we encountered in Iraq," he said. "The doctrine was based on an enemy from 60 years ago."

But the prosecutor, Lt. Tiernan Dolan, said that Welshofer took advantage of, or blatantly neglected, decades of military standards in how to practice interrogation. "You use psychological ploys to let [detainees] know you are in control," he told Welshofer. "But you crossed the line from psychological control to physical control."

When Welshofer and Mowhoush met in the fall of 2003, the insurgency was gaining strength and interrogators were under intense pressure to obtain leads from Saddam Hussein loyalists, such as the captured general.

U.S. commanders at the time had asked for what Welshofer called a "wish list" of new interrogation techniques. Beginning in September, U.S. generals in Iraq issued a stream of rules on the acceptable bounds of interrogation, sometimes shifting them from week to week.

A witness who testified behind a screen on Wednesday -- whom an attorney inadvertently referred to as someone who worked for the CIA -- said Welshofer told him the day before Mowhoush's death that he was aware of the most recent regulations, but that "he was breaking those rules every day."

Welshofer said he did not recall the conversation, but his attorney, Frank Spinner, argued that his client was navigating a gray zone. Spinner cited disagreements within the Bush administration about what techniques constituted torture. "There are not clear-cut rules here," Spinner told the panel of six officers, who will determine whether Welshofer is guilty. He faces life imprisonment if convicted.

The interrogations took place at a converted train station outside of the western Iraqi city of Qaim. Mowhoush was believed to be directing attacks in the region and had surrendered himself to authorities in hopes of helping his sons, who were also in U.S. custody.

At the prison, Welshofer supervised a handful of other interrogators and 40 military intelligence officers. Another interrogator had invented the sleeping bag technique, which Welshofer said was designed to create a claustrophobic effect. Welshofer said a supervisor had approved the technique, but was concerned whether prisoners would be able to breathe, and only allowed Welshofer and its inventor to use it.

Welshofer acknowledged Thursday that when briefing his superior, he omitted that the technique he used involved straddling the detainee's chest.

Welshofer said he started gently with Mowhoush. He said he began by simply questioning the general. When Mowhoush denied his role in the insurgency, the interrogations became more heated. Over two weeks, Welshofer progressed from conversing, to slapping the general in front of other detainees, to having him held down and pouring water in his face.

During that time, Welshofer was in an interrogation room when Mowhoush was severely beaten by a group of Iraqis who, according to published reports, were in the pay of the CIA. One witness said Welshofer appeared to be directing that interrogation, but the defendant said he had "no command and control" over that situation.

Two days later, Welshofer made his final choice. "I had gone through all my techniques and all my experience that might have been applicable -- except that one technique," he said.

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