Sgt. Roger Brokaw (Ret.) came to Iraq as an interrogator in the late spring of 2003. He worked at Abu Ghraib for six months and estimates that only about 2 percent of the people he talked to were dangerous or insurgents. "The police were bringing people in because they had grudges against somebody or didn't like somebody… So they'd tell us, 'You know, this guy's a terrorist,'" he says. According to Brokaw, the attitude among Americans in Iraq was that everyone they saw was a terrorist. "So when they went into interrogate these people, they already had this mindset," he explains. He says he saw detainees arrive at Abu Ghraib looking like they'd been beaten up: "I saw black eyes and fat lips, and some of them had to be treated for different bad abrasions on legs and arms, cuts." This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 24, 2005.
Take me to Abu Ghraib the first time you went in. … Take me from outside as we were driving in. What do you see? What do you feel?
… All I saw when I was approaching it was this wall, this big wall around there. And I had trepidations from what I'd heard from other people, but I wasn't sure. But once I got there, it was real primitive, very primitive there. They didn't have much of anything going for them as far as creature comforts were concerned. Everybody just put their cots down in this open bay area, in what I understand was a former laundry when the prison was going. And no air conditioning or anything like that.
What had you heard?
Well, I had heard that it was very primitive and that there wasn't much there. It was, you know, nothing to do, nothing to enjoy except whatever you get from home. And, you know, everywhere in Iraq, just about, the infrastructure had just fallen apart. There was no electricity, running water, and it was true there. And all of the fixtures in it were stolen from every site, because the Iraqis, you know, as soon as the troops left, the Iraqi people went in and just took everything they could.
And so we had to make do with what we had, and it was rough, you know, putting up the electrical wiring and trying to hook the lights up with those old Army fixtures. And half the time they didn't run, didn't work right, or the generator didn't run, or something was always wrong, it seemed like.
What was the vibe there? …
Oh, it felt very tense, because every evening around 9:30, I'd say between 9 and 10, we'd get mortared. And they had us working. …
What's that like?
You feel helpless, because there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. And then we start getting a little mad, because they put us out there in those tents with no protection at all, and we're getting mortared every night. The week before we got there, some rounds landed in the tent detention area and killed like seven of the detainees there. And I guess they didn't care about that. But when a couple GIs got killed, then they started scrambling to make some changes and then they put us inside one of those hard buildings there. The ICE was set up in there. ICE is the interrogation center, it's like our office.
So we got inside of a hard site, but, you know, if a mortar round lit on top of that, I don't think it would've saved us any.
How did you understand it, what the Iraqis were doing with the mortar attacks? What was that all about?
I think, just from my exposure to the Iraqi people over there, that, you know, there's these people, insurgents, and they just want to kill Americans. Because we're walking on their holy land. … They just wanted to kill some Americans, because of other things that have happened in the world over the decades that they blame us for. And that's what they wanted to do.
You know, the way that they told us when we were there, Saddam had killed maybe as many as 20,000 people in [Abu Ghraib] over the years. … Did it feel [weird to be there]?
Yeah. Sometimes I felt like ghosts of these tortured people were walking around there, just kind of an eerie feeling that I'd get every now and then. But we couldn't do much about it. I don't know how other people handled it, but I just became kind of fatalistic, I guess. You know, if round comes in, then I'm gone. I guess I got to accept that. I can't do anything about it. …
Let's talk a little bit about interrogation. How prepared were you for what it meant to interrogate at Abu Ghraib?
At Abu Ghraib, I was pretty prepared. When I first got to Iraq, I wasn't, because I hadn't done any interrogation for probably 15 years or something. And I got to Iraq, and I was just, you know, put into it. …
So I had to really bring up what memory I had of my training and what I could gain from [other people]. But then the first two months I was there, all I did was screening, because I was with a CI [Criminal Investigation] team, and we were moving around a lot and we just screened people. We didn't actually interrogate. But when I got to Baghdad Airport to Camp Cropper, then I had to do interrogations. So I got into it for two months at Camp Cropper, so I was pretty prepared by the time I got to Abu Ghraib.
Maybe 2 percent. Ninety-eight percent of people I talked to had no reason being in there. A lot of the Iraqis would squeal on their neighbor if, you know, if they had a grudge against them. And the police were bringing people in because they had grudges against somebody or didn't like somebody or something. So they'd tell us, "You know, this guy's a terrorist. We caught him doing this or that or something else." And we had a lot of people that were locked up just because their neighbor said something about them.
So whoever came in first to talk about their neighbor was the person that was believed. And I could tell you so many stories of these types of things… Our superiors didn't check these stories out. They would just take them at face value, and go in and raid this house and pull these people out and put them in the detention camps without any, you know, check or -- you're supposed to look at several sources before you do something like that, but [they only used] one source.
One fellow, he was making the rounds. He came to us and said, yeah, he knew this cell, that he fingered about 20 people that we had at Abu Ghraib there. And as time went on, and we were talking to people that were in there, not because of him but for some other reason, but they knew him, and it turned out that this guy was a con, a fraud. He was a criminal. He had been in jail under Saddam's regime for various things. And he had grudges against these people that he was fingering.
Sending them in there.
Yeah. And they believed, you know. Like I say, one person comes in, says something, our superiors treated it like gospel. And then they'd go in and pick these people up. …
So it was hard to know who were the insurgent guys that you were going to ask the really tough actionable intelligent questions.
But, well, the way it worked out was everybody that they brought in there was treated as if they were a terrorist. And that was the general attitude of just about everybody over there, was every Iraqi is a terrorist. So when they went to interrogate these people, they already had this mindset. This person is a terrorist, and I'm going to get information out of you. And most of them are just, you know, hard-working people that wanted to feed their family. And we created more terrorists, I think, than we caught, actually, because a lot of people were pretty bitter. …
They were picking up people for anything, just the drop of a hat. There was quotas, quotas on doing so many rates per week, picking up so many people per week. You know, and interrogating so many people per week, and sending reports up. …
We had our PIRs, you know -- the primary intelligence reports we had to fill out. And the questions were: Where's Saddam? Do you know where there's any weapons of mass destruction? Do you know where there's any weapons caches? Do you know any people who want to harm coalition forces? And those types of questions.
You mean, questions just like that? Or would you work up to them?
When a person came in for the screening, those were the questions that they got in the screening.
What do you mean? They come in and their hands are cuffed? Are they plastic cuffs, or are they wearing real--
Some of them had plastics and some of them had the real metal cuffs.
And they'd shuffle into the room, and what? …
It wasn't a room. It was like a big garage. They'd just file everybody in there. Sometimes, sometimes we'd have 30, 40 people lined up on the wall, alongside the walls. And some of them were hooded. All of them were tiebound or handcuffed. And this is their initial capture. They're coming in now to be processed into the detainee camp. And we ask these pertinent questions to see if they have any information. And the reason for screening is to find out what level of intelligence these people have, and then you can let those with no intelligence go. But everybody got processed in.
But wait a minute. So I'm standing there, I'm a guy, what am I like? I'm probably exhausted. I'm probably beat up.
Some of them were, some of them were.
Physically beat up?
Yeah. Oh, yeah. I saw black eyes and fat lips, and some of them had to be treated for different bad abrasions on legs and arms, cuts.
But that could have happened in battle.
Well, that's what the MPs said when they brought them in. …
Let me ask you, what did the rules seem to be? …
… Well, I fell back on what I learned in training… But the idea that I had from that whole thing was this was just meant to placate the Red Cross. Because they were coming around, you know, inspecting all the time. And so, the actual technique that you could use, the approach you could use, was up to you. And supposedly, there was forbidden ones, ones you needed permission to use, and then the ones you could use. But the ones that you had to get permission for, almost invariably, you'd get it. And then the ones that you weren't supposed to use, well, there's nobody overseeing you in the interrogation booth. …
When these Tiger Teams from Guantanamo came up to teach us the Tiger Team concept, and what they did was they gave us a kind of a refresher course in interrogation, the different aspects of it. And there were things in there that I had no recollection of from my training days, which, like I say, 15 years or so ago. …
Things like what?
I can't remember specifics right now. I just remember thinking that, "I don't remember this when I was in interrogation training." Because they really imposed upon us the Geneva Conventions and all; what we could and couldn't do.
That's your training.
Yeah. That was a big part of our training as interrogators, is the Geneva Conventions. And you know, and I made a decision that I was going to adhere to it, you know.
And the Gitmo guys, what were they teaching?
They were making it look like some of these things that you could do, physical things, actual physical things, were not covered by the Geneva Conventions. Or these people weren't covered by the Geneva Conventions, because they're not a sovereign state's army or something to that effect. You know, there were just little innuendoes that were mixed up in this training that just made it look to me like it was rationalization, you know. And I think that a lot of this came from higher up. It had to, because it was being condoned from higher up, and these people wouldn't have been there teaching us if they hadn't gotten orders from higher up to do so.
What's higher up mean? How high?
That, I don't know. Like I say, I know as far as my brigade, and that was as far as I knew. But I was under the impression that [Col. Thomas] Pappas, too, was getting pressure from above him. And my own estimation when I was over there was that it went all the way up to Rumsfeld. That was my feeling, just from some of those things that he was saying and writing about the Iraqi people or Afghanistan too, you know. What was going on in Afghanistan.
In fact, that was something that really bothered me later. I didn't know it at the time, but this other unit that we were subsidiary to, intelligence unit that was doing interrogation there, and they were kind of in charge of us, they had been to Afghanistan already, and they were under investigation for abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan, and they sent them to Iraq to continue doing their work. And they're under investigation. I could not understand that.
What were they like?
They were very arrogant, I thought. Very arrogant, and their attitude definitely was, Iraqis are all guilty. Every one of these people in this camp is guilty, and we're going to find out what they're guilty of. …
In spite of what they say, I think, my estimation is that among the Guard and reservists especially, that the morale is very, very low over there. And fuses are short. They want to take it out on whoever they can. And if, you know, here are some helpless people, I can do what I want to them. And if you have no oversight, that was a big thing over there. Very little oversight. …
Tell me about Col. Pappas. Did you see him often?
Oh, yeah. All the time. His headquarters were at Camp Victory, at the airport, but he was out at Abu Ghraib, when I was there, he was out there two, three times a week, and he'd stay over sometimes a night or two and sleep like probably 20 feet from me …
You said you felt like he was under a lot of pressure. How could you tell?
When he'd come out there, and when he was out there, then among the people who were running it, you know, it was like a hornet's nest, kind of. You know, while he was there, and for a little while after he'd leave. You know, then all these officers are do this, do that, and those quotas had to be coming down from somewhere. And whether they were passed to him from higher up, I don't know, but I think they were.
And he and Lt. Col. [Steven L.] Jordan were -- I had the idea that they were in charge of the camp, even though I knew from my training that MPs [military police] are supposed to be charge of the camp. I thought, well, maybe there's been some changes in the, you know, 18 years that I wasn't in that, doing that stuff, you know. But then I come to find out later on, after I came back and was reading these different reports, that a lot of people thought the same thing, that those two were in charge of the whole camp. And they were setting the policy for the MPs and everybody else. …
Editor's Note: Col. Thomas Pappas commanded the 205th Military Intelligence (MI) Brigade at Abu Ghraib and Lt. Col. Steven L. Jordan was the director of the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center there.
What would it mean that they were in charge of the camp?
Well, it's like a, you know, your echelon. You have your military echelon, and the way it should be is the MP, that should go just totally, strictly within the MP echelon, the running of the camp. I mean, we can give them advice on this or that, but for the most part, all we had to say is set the schedules of interrogation. You know, we shouldn't set any kind of standards for how these prisoners are housed or fed. But we had schedules that we gave the MPs for like their -- they don't call it sleep deprivation anymore. It's sleep regulation, and food regulation and so on. We'd give the MPs instructions in what to do with the prisoners. And that's only supposed to be an advisory type of action, not command.
But the MPs did whatever we told them. It seemed to me that they were waiting for us to tell them what to do.
Is that a bad thing?
I think it is.
Well, because the MPs are in charge of these people, and if we're telling them, "Soften them up, soften them up," then they're going to start doing things to them, because we told them to. And again, they're not supposed to take orders from us, the MPs. They're supposed to go through their chain of command. And when you get the mixtures in there, you're going to get confusion, and people are going to do things that are not proper, not legal.
Maybe it wasn't accidental.
Well, I don't think it was, no. I don't think it was.
What do you mean?
Well, the bottom line was, "We got to save soldiers' lives," so you know, we'll do what we can. At one point, I heard the phrase, "We're going to take the gloves off." Col. Jordan said that one night in one of our meetings. "We're taking the gloves off. We're going to show these people, you know, that we're in charge." He was talking about the detainees.
What did that mean to you, "take the gloves off"?
Well, it meant we're going to get rougher. In spite of the fact that they took away a lot of those types of approaches like fear up, ego down, all that kind of stuff, they took those away from us, it sounded to me like they were actually saying, "Do what you got to do."
You have no doubt about that.
I have no doubt about that, yeah. There was a lot of condoning, and sometimes it was embarrassing to listen to some of these talks, because we had a lot of them in the same area where we were sleeping. The interpreters were there, too. And some of those interpreters were Iraqi, ethnic Iraqis who immigrated to the States. And to hear your senior officers disparaging and belittling Iraqi people in front of these people who are helping us, you know, it wasn't right. …
The MPs were very undermanned when I was there. I mean, there were a lot of prisoners, and very few MPs. I suppose that was a lot of pressure for the MPs, to be dealing with that type of thing. …
We did get some intelligence from some of those people in the hard site. There [were] some real insurgents there, and we did get some. And it seems like they're ready to admit … you catch them, they'll say, "Yeah. I want to kill you. You let me go, I'll find a way to kill you," you know. And they're very up front about it. And there was some, you know, good intelligence that did come out of there. …
You know. It was just do something. You don't know what to do? Do something. And it just didn't work out all the time.
Could that something have been torture?
Well, I think it was. More so among the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and civilian contractors because they didn't have to abide by the same rules that we did, as in the military. And I had a few prisoners tell me that they had been abused, physically abused, by these people in civilian clothes, who at that time I thought was the NGOs, because I didn't know there were civilian contractors at that time. And one person showed me his chest. He opened his shirt and he was just all massive bruises, right, you know, on his chest. And he said that he had been interrogated by a guy with a beard in civilian clothes, and he was punching him. So that, those kind of things were going on.
Now, as an experienced interrogator, does it work to punch people around? Does it work to be coercive?
I don't think so. I think you're going to get more disinformation and, you know, lies. Because when you're hurting somebody, they want to stop the pain, so they're going to tell you something. And if you got, you know, 100 detainees and you torture them all, and maybe only one of them is a real insurgent, you know, maybe you'll get some information from that guy. But the other ones are probably going to lie about something, turn in their neighbor or something, you know, just to stop the pain.
Yeah, I think in the long run, you're going to get less information or reliable information from torture than you would by other means.