Abu Ghraib Translator Unschooled in Geneva Conventions

By Leon Worden
Signal Multimedia Editor

Thursday, April 21, 2005

*MEDIA—MANDATORY CREDIT: The Signal newspaper of Santa Clarita, Calif.

ore than a year after he gave it, John B. Israel's sworn testimony in the initial Army investigation of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal has found its way into the public domain.
    Testimony of the Canyon Country copier and printer technician-turned-Army intelligence translator, still considered classified, paints a picture of a man who received little training in military procedures before being pushed into service, and minded his own business to the extent that he was oblivious to the abuses that were going on around him.
    During the questioning, Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba gives Israel no indication that he thinks Israel is lying.
    In fact, at the conclusion of the Feb. 12, 2004, interview, Taguba tells Israel reassuringly, "For now, sir, you are not being suspected of anything. We just want to gain your knowledge of conditions and information associated with Abu Ghraib."
    However, in his final report less than a month later, Taguba said he "suspected" that Israel, along with the interrogator with whom Israel worked most closely and the two senior Army intelligence officers at the prison, "were either directly or indirectly responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib."
    Taguba recommended "immediate disciplinary action" and a second inquiry "to determine the full extent of their culpability."
    While several military police officers were court-martialed for offenses at Abu Ghraib, no intelligence officer has been court-martialed, and no charges are known to have been brought against Israel or any other private military contractor.
    The second investigation was conducted, but all names were omitted from reports released to the public.
* * *
    Israel told Taguba he had no prior experience as a military translator before going to work at the notorious prison.
    Born in Baghdad in 1955, Israel told Taguba he entered the United States in 1981 and attained U.S. citizenship.
    He told Taguba he worked as a senior field technician for Ikon Office Solutions, a document management service with several Los Angeles-area offices, for 12 years before going to work for a subcontractor to San Diego-based Titan Corp., the Army's main provider of civilian linguists in Iraq.
    Israel arrived at Abu Ghraib on Oct. 14, 2003 — about two weeks before MPs took the widely publicized pictures of stripped and hooded inmates. He was still working as a translator in February 2004 when Taguba interviewed him; neighbors have said he was back home in Canyon Country by the first week of April 2004.
    Taguba asked whether Israel had been told upon arrival in Iraq that the Geneva Conventions applied at Abu Ghraib. Israel said yes.
    "I believe they gave us some paper to read, and we had to sign it at the time," Israel said. "To be honest with you, Geneva Convention, I might have read it. I might have signed it, but I don't recall too much."
    Taguba asked if he knew what the Geneva Convention is.
    "You know, how to — if somebody has a prisoner of the war, you have to treat them nicely, because it's a mutual situation," Israel said.
    Taguba asked again about the Geneva Conventions at the end of the interview.
    "They might have mentioned it, but I don't recall it," Israel said. "They may not have mentioned it because it didn't register in my mind. They might, but you know, the situation is so stressful. I might forgot (sic) about it. I apologize for that."
    Israel told Taguba his "job is just a translator, no more, no less," and that he took his directions from the interrogator.
    (Each interrogation team, known as a Tiger Team, consisted of an interrogator, a translator and an analyst who interpreted the intelligence information gained from the prisoners. Any or all of the personnel could be military or civilian.)
    At the time of his testimony, Israel had been working closely with Steven A. Stefanowicz, a civilian interrogator sent to Abu Ghraib by CACI International Inc., a private military firm in Arlington, Va.
    Israel told Taguba that he and Stefanowicz were currently working on "a special project."
    "I have to be quiet," Israel said. "Even, I can't tell you anything unless if you want to go ahead and ask, that's up to you."
    Taguba didn't.
    However, after Taguba discovered that Israel had no security clearance — contrary to Army policy — he took the military intelligence commander, Col. Thomas M. Pappas, to task.
    TAGUBA: "Did you also know ... that one of your translators does not even have a security clearance, that he is performing duties of collection and gathering and interpretation of sensitive information?"
    PAPPAS: "No, sir. When the interpreters came to us from a Titan contract ... my understanding is that when we received those interpreters, they came with a secret clearance."
    TAGUBA: "Well, I advise you now that you're no longer the (Abu Ghraib) commander, that at least one of them is still pending a security clearance. And I will advise you that that one particular individual is working on a special project of a highly sensitive nature whereby he's collecting intelligence information to which he may not have access to. ... You may be violating another set of circumstances called the protection of security information."
* * *
    There are discrepancies between Israel and Stefanowicz's depositions, taken only an hour apart by Taguba. For instance, Stefanowicz — who arrived at Abu Ghraib a week before Israel — said interrogations were sometimes conducted in prisoners' cells. Israel said they weren't; the cells were too small.
    Stefanowicz said the interpreter was always placed closest to the door during an interrogation for the interpreter's own protection; Israel said he could have been sitting or standing anywhere.
    While Stefanowicz said he was disturbed by something he heard while an interrogation suspect was being transported by MPs — the prisoner made a sound as if he'd been punched — Israel told Taguba he had no information and heard no rumors about prisoner abuses.
    When interrogators and analysts or MPs talk together, Israel said, "A lot of times I walk behind them. ... I don't want to interfere. Because once my job is done, I'm so tired. ... And sometimes, you know, it's a peace of mind for me to keep quiet, just walk to my place."
    Taguba asked whether he'd noticed "anything peculiar like detainees without their clothes on."
    "That I didn't see," Israel said. "I hate to see people naked. Until now, I don't take a shower as a naked person. I have to go by myself."
    Taguba didn't like the fact that the civilian contractors often didn't use their real names and that military and civilian personnel were frequently indistinguishable by their clothing.
    "Because of security reasons, I don't want anybody to know my name down there (in the cellblock)," Stefanowicz told Taguba. "It's a common practice to use a pseudo name (sic), if you need to, especially in that environment."
    Taguba said he would recommend that interrogators and interpreters be required to identify themselves correctly to MPs because "those MPs," he told Stefanowicz, "in the performance of their duties, do not know who you are. They commonly refer to you as an MI (instead of civilian) interrogator. They think Mr. Israel, for that matter, is an interrogator, when in fact, he is not. He is part of the investigation team."
    "Mr. Stefanowicz," Taguba scolded, "especially in the context of your understanding of the Geneva Convention" — he said he received no specific instruction in it — "you could be held liable for anything as an employee of the United States government. Protection, obviously, is OK, but ... my recommendation would be that it be made a common practice to govern and protect the interest of the United States government inasmuch as we protect the interest of the detainee."
* * *
    In his interviews of Israel, Stefanowicz, Pappas, and Pappas' second-in-command, Lt. Col. Stephen L. Jordan, Taguba was particularly interested in an event involving the use of military dogs on Nov. 24, 2003, when there was a shooting incident that involved a prisoner Stefanowicz and Israel were supposed to interrogate the same evening.
    All said the dogs were used to search prison cells for smuggled explosives. If a prisoner were in the cell during the search, however, the presence of military dogs might have contravened the Geneva Convention.
    Taguba asked Pappas whether he was aware that "a team of interrogators, who we were told were civilians, wearing civilian clothes, and also an interpreter, entered the cell of the individual, the shooter, or someone associated with the shooter, where dogs were called to either intimidate or cause fear or stress on that particular detainee?"
    "No, sir," Pappas said, adding that he "witnessed the use of dogs as they were being used in a security role, not for interrogations."
    "As they were shaking down some of (Saddam's) police," Pappas said, "I witnessed dogs being used on the other side in a — they were not muzzled; they were barking in an effort to control these potential suspects as they were being inspected by military police to make sure that they didn't have weapons."
    Pappas said he couldn't identify the specific interrogators.
    Israel said he put in a long night that night, but he was too far back to see how the dogs were being used.
    Under the Interrogation Rules of Engagement set forth by the U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, military dogs weren't to be used as an intimidation tactic during interrogations without his written approval.
    Pappas told Taguba he believed he had Sanchez's blanket approval to use dogs to intimidate prisoners as long as the dogs were muzzled.
    At that point in his interview, Taguba told Pappas that the Geneva Convention says, "Prisoners of war (and) civilian detainees ... are constantly to be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity."
    Pappas said he never thought of it that way.
    "Sir, I'll be honest," Pappas told Taguba. "I did not personally look at that with regard to the Geneva Convention. It was a technique that I had discussed with (Maj. Gen. Geoffrey) Miller when he was here (visiting from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay). In the execution of interrogations and the interrogation business, in general, we are trying to get information from people. We have to create an environment not to permanently damage them or psychologically abuse them, but we have to assert control and get detainees into a position where they're willing to talk to us."
    Pappas told Taguba he sent memos to Sanchez requesting permission to use some of the harsher interrogation techniques that required Sanchez's written authorization.
    Attached to Taguba's final report is a copy of one such memo, dated Nov. 30, 2003, asking Sanchez's permission to use a variety of tactics to glean information from a particular prisoner, including the use of military dogs, hooding, strip-searching, isolation, sleep deprivation and stress positions.
    Two weeks ago, Sanchez told The Signal that he never saw, much less approved, such a memo.