Terrorism's Training Grounds

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Yousif Hassen has bloodshot eyes and a too-tight orange jumpsuit. He is sitting in a sterile interrogation room, chain-smoking cigarettes otherwise prohibited, and describing the day when he was arrested by Iraqi officials, then brought to an American detention facility.

"I had just returned from a business trip in Amman and was I driving home from dinner when I was stopped on the street by Iraqi police," said the Jordanian Iraqi and importer of household electronics.

"They told me they were looking for a grey Mercedes. 'But my Mercedes is not grey,' I told them." Then they saw that the lifelong resident of Iraq had a Jordanian passport. Only when he arrived at the Brigade Internment Facility (BIF) run by the Second Brigade 10th Mountain Division did Hassen learn he was suspected of meeting with terrorists and having direct connections to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist mastermind.

"I was so surprised," he said of the accusations. "I have been threatened by many people because I'm a successful businessman. But Americans are a source of my business; why would I do anything to them?"

"We used to call it DWI: Driving While Iraqi," said Staff Sgt. Michael Nowacki, a military intelligence officer who strongly recommended the prisoner's release after his initial interrogation. Yet Hassen was not released.

Military officials call it a matter of security. Nowacki says it's an example of the arbitrary and dragnet-style arrests by the U.S. military in Iraq -- a style that is more likely to create more terrorists than destroy them.

"I've actually had a commander tell me 'If I arrest 10 people and one of them is bad, then I'm doing my job.' But what about the other nine?" Nowacki said.

"These people are living day to day, and when the men are in prison their family doesn't have any income. ... If there were legal recourse in this country, these kinds of things would never happen."

The 32-year-old, blue-eyed patriot -- a U.S. policeman from the Illinois National Guard -- has become an unlikely advocate for Iraqi victims' rights. He came to Iraq with a fervent desire to protect the flag and a belief that Iraqis were intrinsically bad. "I hated them," he said flatly. "I also had never met one, or ever sat down and talked to one." By the end of his tour Nowacki couldn't stand what he saw. The practices are not only wrong on principal, he said, but also counterproductive to the U.S. mission.

"Arbitrary detentions make the people hate us and want to fight us. If they respect us, they'll be less likely to want to kill us," he said. "I want our mission in Iraq to be successful."

Nowacki, more than most, sees the long and arduous road ahead.

The Brigade Internment Facility (BIF) sits at the outer edge of Camp Victory by the Baghdad Airport, surrounded by barbed wire and dust covered trees. The temporary detention facility held up to 160 detainees around last year's election, but normally has a population between 40-60. They are held in 8-man cells and given a mattress, blanket, slippers, prayer rug and a copy of the Koran. The hallways reek of stale sweat. Nowacki and his team interrogated well over 700 detainees during his tour, averaging about 200 a month.

In the beginning there were big success stories: criminals caught red-handed and caches of weapons exposed. Then began a flood of seemingly innocent civilians who were not released despite his recommendations detailed in intelligence reports. Nowacki began to feel uneasy.

There was the retarded man accused of high-level surveillance activities (Division said retarded people can be used as tools by sophisticated terrorists); the Jordanian businessman accused of being a Zarqawi accomplice (Nowacki said 90% of people with foreign passports are sent to Abu Ghraib despite a lack of corroborating evidence); or the Baghdad University professor who spoke against the U.S. occupation (despite a plea by the University president to the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. had not released the professor, arguing he is anti-coalition).

In all these cases, Nowacki recommended release.

"Let's just say we've busted enough bad guys to be able to tell who's telling the truth, but often they'll [higher officers] go for the informant over military intelligence."

U.S. officials call it a matter of national security.

"It's a tough call and commanders want to err on the side of caution," said Lt. Kristen Boyden, who works with human intelligence sources for the 10th Mountain Division. "We'd rather detain them and possibly step on their supposed civil rights than let them go, and then have them kill a soldier. The worst case [if they're innocent] is they'll spend a couple months in Abu Ghraib."

Boyden said many of the human sources they work with have volunteered themselves and their information. For example, a person will hand a convoy a note, she said, adding that the most important vetting process is trying to determine the informant's motivation. "We joke that everyone is turning in their landlord."

In cases that soldiers suspect are driven by vendetta or a desire for money, intelligence officers usually wait until they have two sources before targeting an individual and bringing him in. And though it's difficult to be sure of accuracy, Boyden said they have a "very high success rate" of detaining people who will ultimately be imprisoned. Meaning, "Once people go to Abu Ghraib, they stay there. The courts decide to keep them [based on the evidence provided]," she said.

Plus, a military intelligence report goes through several levels of review, and is only one of many items considered before a person is released, detained for further questioning or sent to Abu Ghraib prison where they appear before the criminal court known to Iraqis as the "$10,000 court" for its supposed corruption.

Lt. Boyden admits that Hassen could very well be innocent and in fact her initial intelligence report did not recommend detention because of the lack of evidence. But Iraqi detectives brought him in anyway.

Lt. Col. Michael Infanti, one of the last reviewers, said that the numerous levels of review and cumulative years of experience of the reviewers -- the final decision being that of the bridgade commander -- are meant to offset the instances of innocent people being held without reason. "It'll burn you not because a story will get out, but because he'll go back and tell people or he'll learn how to make a bomb."

Infanti said he values the military intelligence reviewers, but that he and the other higher-level officers have access to information the interrogators may not, such as evidence seized. Hassen, for example, had terrorist propaganda in his car. Nowacki counters that he sees all evidence before an interrogation and that "terrorist" leaflets are common, often plastered on the windshield of every car on a street. Another example of weak evidence is the use of X-spray to detect explosive residue on a suspect's hands. Nowacki said tests come back positive half the time as it also detects automotive grease, tobacco, fertilizer and urine. Yet it's cause enough to detain someone.

In Hassen's case, he was eventually sent to Abu Ghraib, said a spokesman for the 10th MNT.

Theia Elhaz Abdel Mohammed was brought with his three brothers to the detention facility early this year, suspected of making IEDs. U.S. military had come to his house in the middle of the night; they found the four military-aged men, some money, and suspicious-looking ceiling fan controls. Nowacki's report recommended immediate release, explaining that soldiers often don't distinguish between suspect electronics and common household items ("washer and dryer timers are used almost exclusively for IEDs, light switches are not").

Sitting nervously, with his hands squeezed between his knees, Abdel Mohammed said the people at the facility treat him well. But there are eleven children at home, plus his elderly father who used to deal in electronics, and he doesn't understand why he and his brothers aren't being let go.

"We are a peaceful family. We don't involve ourselves in these things," said the frail flower vendor from the town of Abu Ghraib. "The Americans know my stand. They are stationed by me every day and even came to apologize when insurgents hit my house." Asked if he knows anyone who might have a vendetta against him he responds, "Only God knows such things." He was eventually released.

Now only God knows whether Mohammed will feel more gratitude at being released, or resentment for having been unjustly detained.

Nowacki has since returned to the United States but not before detailing his concerns and offering suggestions for improvement in a four-page letter to the brigade executive officer. Despite his critique, Nowacki said he loves his job and wants to use his skills to help the people of Iraq, possibly by training other officers in the U.S. with the lessons he's learned. And he hopes to write a book.

Of the prisoners he's left behind, he prefers not to think too much about them or follow their cases after they've left the BIF; it would upset him too much, he said. "You can get attached to some of these people. Especially when it's so obvious they're innocent."

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