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Week of 7.28.06

Chris Hogan on U.S. Detention Facilities

Chris Hogan Chris Hogan is a former U.S. Army interrogator who served in Afghanistan at the U.S. detention facilities in Kandahar and Bagram—where he knew Moazzam Begg—from 2001 to 2002. This is an edited interview of the account Hogan gave NOW's Mona Iskander on what it was like to interrogate detainees in the early days of the 'war on terror.'

ISKANDER: What were some of the challenges that you and the other soldiers faced at the prisons in Bagram and Kandahar?

HOGAN: There was the limitation that we were faced with a new kind of enemy in Afghanistan, and that enemy played by a different set of rules than we had anticipated from the training that we underwent to perform our jobs ... I think when you're dealing with ideologically steeled opponents who are not necessarily susceptible to the same types of incentives that ordinary prisoners of war or detainees might otherwise be susceptible to, it's a real challenge for an interrogator to try to elicit information from that individual.

ISKANDER: In the wake of 9/11, was there pressure from the Pentagon to get intelligence out of prisoners?

HOGAN: We didn't have the same kind of pressure that I think soldiers faced afterwards [after Hogan left Afghanistan]. Our mission was to support the battlefield commander in those early days.

ISKANDER: What were the dynamics like between intelligence officers and the prisoners?

HOGAN: Well, only about half of the army interrogators that were there spoke Arabic. And I think that in most cases, our Arabic wasn't up to the job. We were routinely duped by prisoners because of the language barrier. In terms of cultural differences ... we really didn't understand some of the elemental, very basic, cultural differences of the opponents that we faced.

ISKANDER: You've said before that you were clear that soldiers in your unit did not torture prisoners. But do you think there are uncertainties as to what rights the detainees had?

"...I think, at the time, we would have done anything to get out of that place ourselves."
HOGAN: I think you have to put it in perspective that we were a very early-arriving force in Afghanistan and we did not have the kind of pressure that I think makes people re-evaluate the interrogation methods in the face of an enemy that wasn't like the one we had trained against. I don't think that our command ever gave us any reason to believe that we were to treat these prisoners any way other than in accordance with the Geneva Conventions ... no one in our command has been accused of any violations of the Geneva Convention.

ISKANDER: What were the living conditions like for a prisoner at Bagram?

HOGAN: I can't speak to what the conditions may be like now. But in my tenure, the prison population lived in an abandoned Soviet warehouse. The warehouse had a cement floor and it was a huge square-footage area.

On the floor of that, what must have been some sort of an airplane hangar, six prison cages were erected, which were divided by concertina wire ... Those prison cages had a wooden floor, a platform built above the cement floor of the hangar. Each prisoner had a bunch of blankets, a small mat, and in the back of each one of those cages, was a makeshift toilet, the same type of toilet that the soldiers used, which was a 50-gallon drum, halved with diesel fuel put in the bottom of it and a wooden kind of seat to that platform ... It's very similar, incidentally, to the conditions that the soldiers lived in; almost identical.

ISKANDER: Begg, and others who were there, complained that there was a lack of fresh food and that they didn't see natural daylight for months. They said they were threatened with sexual abuse and rendition. Are any of these allegations true to your knowledge?

HOGAN: We certainly used the threat of rendition as a common threat, and a common tool, to persuade people to talk. I have to tell you, at the time, we didn't know what's now come to light through the "New York Times" and other sources that people actually were being rendered to third countries.

But [using threats of rendition] is certainly part of our training, and when I went through the interrogation school, if you're fighting in an asymmetric environment or a prisoner who was captured without benefit of the Geneva Conventions. For instance, a prisoner who doesn't bear his arms openly, or who's not wearing a uniform of his country, or the fight forces that he's fighting for when he was captured, that those people can be intimidated verbally with the threat of rendition.

In terms of the other accusations or contentions that Mr. Begg levels against the army and its detention policy, I would say that it's not governed by the same rules that govern the prison at Riker's Island ... But I would also mention to you that we lived in those same, exact conditions. And although we were allowed to go outside, it probably lasted for an hour or two a day. Maybe that's enough escape. But I think, at the time, we would have done anything to get out of that place ourselves.

Pull quote: "...I think, at the time, we would have done anything to get out of that place ourselves."

ISKANDER: Begg also said he feared for his life when he was detained in Bagram. Do you think he had any reason to fear for his life?

Chris Hogan at the Bagram, Afghanistan detention facility in August 2002
Chris Hogan at the Bagram, Afghanistan detention facility in August 2002
HOGAN: In my period of service in Bagram, he had no reason to fear for his life. I think, if we were doing our job, we would have kept him in a state of constant anxiety in order to make sure that the conditions were right to get information from him, as what's required. But, in terms of being fearful for his life, or the constant threat of death, that should not have been part of his captivity.

ISKANDER: What interrogation methods were used to get intelligence from the detainees?

HOGAN: The American army intelligence collection and techniques for human sources were ineffective in our first time period in Afghanistan. They were really designed for a scenario on the central German plain to capture prisoners who were going to behave in a manner consistent with the Geneva Convention. The kind of incentives, and indeed, disincentives that we had at our disposal were wholly inadequate to persuade steeled, ideological fighters to give up information that would be detrimental to their cause.

Those techniques and tactics evolved. And evolved to a certain extent, in— during my tenure— to try to become more effective. Some of the techniques that— bore the most— fruit during the time that we were there, involved variations on themes that were part of our training.

ISKANDER: Do you think that methods like sleep deprivation and harsh psychological techniques are justifiable?

HOGAN: I think that in a conflict like the one that we're engaged in now, the use of harsh interrogation techniques serve to make our efforts harder ... That said, a modified sleep deprivation technique, like the one that we sort of pioneered while we were in Afghanistan, nothing kind of harsh as what's come out from the press afterwards, we thought that we were truly at the precipice as far as one could go.

But later, we found out that clearly, more harsh techniques would be approved by higher authority. I think that that sort of modified sleep deprivation technique actually was extremely useful ... when it was necessary, that technique proved the most valuable technique we had in our arsenal.

ISKANDER: You knew Moazzam Begg. What kind of prisoner was he?

HOGAN: I supervised interrogations at Bagram ... he became a very useful source of information to us, both from his time in the prison cages, giving us information about other prisoners that were around him. He acted as a translator for the doctors that would come in twice a week. [He was] a very good source of information, in terms of looking at mug shots, of all the new prisoners that we got in, to tell us if he knew any of them. We found him to be an engaging, compliant, interesting guy. And I still do ...

He's a very personable person and has an excellent recollection; he has an amazing capacity to remember names and faces, which really helped us. And the other aspect was he wasn't so virulently against the United States that he wasn't willing to share that information with us.

"We found [Begg] to be an engaging, compliant, interesting guy. And I still do."
ISKANDER: Begg claims he had no connections to al Qaeda, no intentions to harm the U.S. Should we believe him?

HOGAN: I think that he would be mischaracterized if you said that he was a high-level enemy fighter or planner with the capacity to wreak havoc on the U.S. or its interests. I always had the impression that he was a bit of a romanticist that went overseas on his numerous journeys to central Asia, and to Pakistan, and elsewhere out of a true, kind of romantic sense of his religion, and his people, and other commitments that he had. And I respected that. We used to compare him to somebody who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War. But at the same time, the image that he paints of himself now of being someone who was an innocent being persecuted by the enormous machine, is not accurate.

ISKANDER: What parts of what he has said do you find either exaggerated or inaccurate?

HOGAN: I can only tell you what I've read, and the excerpts that have appeared in the British newspapers. But a lot of what he says has a kernel of truth in it. I mean, almost without exception, the bits that I have read anyway, are at least, fundamentally steeped in the truth.

But I think that there's been a lacquer and sometimes, a thick lacquer of exaggeration over it, to kind of appeal to some of the clichés that have occurred. Unfortunately, I have to take the part of an organization that has a really disreputable history in terms of defending itself because so many of the accusations that I never would have thought possible, have been proven.

ISKANDER: What do you think would drive MPs to beat a prisoners to death?

HOGAN: I think that, as with what happened in Abu Ghraib, those kind of gross, humiliating excesses are driven by extremely poor leadership on the Army side. I mean you very rarely hear of front line combat troops engaging in this kind of excess. I mean, for the number of soldiers that we have out there who are on patrol, the number of incidents of excess that we hear about is relatively minor. Although the ones that we have heard about are grotesque, they're nevertheless very few in number.

ISKANDER: You say these incidents are rare. But what's going on behind these doors? Should the American public be concerned?

HOGAN: Should the American public be concerned about that behavior? They should. They should be concerned whenever our forces are deployed. They should be concerned about excesses and instances worthy of praise. Unfortunately, only the excesses get the attention.

ISKANDER: Do you keep in touch with interrogators who are active right now?

HOGAN: I do know some interrogators who are still in the field.

ISKANDER: What do you think conditions are like for them?

HOGAN: I think the game has changed so much since I was there. It's a wholly different environment. It's sort of— sort of classic army— a reaction to the kind of thing that's happened. They've just managed it now to such an atomic level that it's really making interrogation a questionable activity of questionable value I think. But I suppose that's preferable to the alternative which is less oversight and disastrous spreads in "Time" magazine.