Excerpts: "Still Broken"

03/28/2008 02:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • The Huffington Post

Excerpts from A.J. Rossmiller's new book, "Still Broken: A Recruit's Inside Account Of Intelligence Failures, From Baghdad To The Pentagon." Rossmiller worked in Iraq and at the Pentagon as a defense intelligence analyst.

Botched assignments waste time, resources in Iraq

The first sign of trouble came during the transition from the outgoing personnel to our group, their replacements. For the life of us, we couldn't figure out what the hell they had been doing.

"It's a database, see, with all the names and locations of potential shithead activity in this area, and it's taken a lot of time to develop, and--"

"Okay, okay, but how much actionable material have you produced?"

"...Actionable?"

The whole point of a counterinsurgency mission is to utilize actionable intelligence, which is basically what it sounds like: intelligence you can act on, either strategically or, more likely, at the tactical level. In-country Defense Department intelligence is heavily weighted toward supporting the shooters, but the group we replaced seemed to be providing a circular function, in that they produced materials for . . . one another. Nothing was broadly important enough to pass up to leadership, and nothing was specific enough to pass down to units.

It became apparent that our assignment was not the counterinsurgency mission we'd anticipated. To some extent we were set up as a new and unique group from DIA. Our leadership told us that we were the largest cohesive DIA group to deploy to Iraq, as previous volunteers had been sent to fill individual slots in a wide variety of operations. We were supposed to be theconnection between the field and the DIA element in DC, and we had just spent months learning about the history of the insurgency, beneficial and ineffective COIN techniques, and the intricacies of Iraqi tribes, religious groups, militias, and political organizations. This knowledge was supposed to make us a crack team of area experts, able to assist action units in the front and support the Iraq team in the rear (back in Washington). We were geared up to apply social network theory, create a better understanding of the insurgency and its accelerants, use a variety of analytical tools that would help identify insurgents and pinpoint the most crucial members of various groups, and employ our strategic acumen to assist policy makers. We were the heavy hitters, DIA's contribution to the Combined Intelligence Operations Center or CIOC (pronounced sy-ock)--the hub for U.S. intelligence in Iraq. But when we settled in, we realized that there was basically no mission for us.

The people who had organized our deployment at DIA had apparently failed to communicate with CIOC leadership, and upon our arrival nobody knew what to do with us. There was already an established CIOC counterinsurgency operation, with groups organized by region of the country. There were also teams dedicated to a few specific issues, such as terrorist groups (whose names were constantly being changed from on high--terrorists, jihadists, al-Qaeda in Iraq, something new every few months) and former Ba'athist organizations. We were not surprised that these efforts already existed, but it meant our ostensible mission was already covered. We could not believe there hadn't been communication between our leadership and the CIOC regarding our role. The top-level supervisors on our team had been given an assignment by their DIA bosses, but those directions were inoperative on the ground.

US overlooks vast majority of insurgency to track small number of "terrorists"

To be successful, an insurgency doesn't have to "win," it just has to continue to exist. Every day we went to the same morning briefing, which theater commander General George Casey presided over via audio, and we saw the same discouraging trends continue week after week.

The problems were widely reported in international media: Oil production was stagnant. Electrical production was stagnant. Water purification was stagnant. There were goals and projections to improve these situations, but every time the deadline for improvement approached unmet, the target dates were simply moved back. Bizarrely, the primary military goal seemed to be fighting "terrorists," generally referred to as jihadists, most of whom were foreign fighters. Press and public Department of Defense reports consistently put the jihadists at between 5 and 10 percent of the overall insurgency, and even that estimate is probably overestimated. Those who did not buy into the jihadist theory of the insurgency largely argued that Ba'athists, or former regime elements (FREs), were driving and even remotely commanding the insurgency.

All the high-level people had theories on the origins and driving force of the insurgency, but they seemed to miss the simple but imperative fact that for an insurgency to survive, it needs support--or at least acquiescence--from the masses. Leadership mostly focused on funding and training programs as the most important elements to defeat our enemies, but the Iraq insurgency is relatively inexpensive and low-tech. The importance of popular support was (and continues to be) underestimated, perhaps because it was the most difficult element for our forces to deal with, due to insufficient manpower and training in nation-building operations.

A population without electricity, water, and jobs is much more likely to support violent groups than one with basic services and economic opportunities. Without support from the people, violent groups' tactical abilities decrease, and hostilities cycle down instead of spiraling up. While the debate over jihadists versus Ba'athists raged, the burgeoning nationalistic and rejectionist Sunni movement and anti-U.S. Shia factions consolidated support, power, and violent capabilities, leading to an incipient civil war right under our collective noses.

Interrogations meant to intimidate, not collect information

A detainee was brought over and told to stand in front of the table. The debriefer went through a list of questions, mostly identification of name, location, tribe, religion, and so forth. The team was a well-oiled machine, with the terp perfectly channeling the speed, volume, and tone of the questioner. It is vital for an interpreter to fully represent not only the words but also the context, physical and lyrical, of the debriefer. This team had the process down.

The questions, however, seemed to lack strategy.

"So what did you do as an insurgent?"

"I haven't done anything, I am innocent."

"I know that you're lying, your whole neighborhood is full of insurgents. You're either one of them or you know something about them. So either tell us who's involved or you go to Abu G."

"I am innocent, I haven't done--"

"Shut the fuck up with that shit!" The questioner lurched forward in his chair. "Are you calling me a liar?"

"I am innocent, I have done nothing wrong," the terp translated.

"You're fucking going to jail, and God only knows when you're getting out. You can save yourself by admitting what you did."

The interview went on and on like this, with aggressive questioning occasionally punctuated by appeals for cooperation. Everything I knew indicated that establishing rapport and trust was the most important element of successful information retrieval. This was clearly not a widely accepted strategy.

"Well, if you're not going to help us, you're going away."

"He wants to know if he can ask a question," the interpreter said.

The debriefer rolled his eyes. "Tell him to ask away."

"He says most of his brothers are here, but he wants to know what happened to his brother who is ... sick. I think he means he's crazy or retarded, it's difficult to exactly translate what he said."

"Tell him I have no idea. Tell him if he tells me about his insurgent activities I'll find out."

"He still says he is innocent."

"Well then, I can't help him. Tell him he's going away now, for a long time."

The detainee spoke quickly and loudly, his voice breaking.

"What's he saying?"

"He wants to know what he's done. 'Please tell me what my crime is, what I've been accused of,' he asked," explained the terp.

"Somebody said you did something bad," the debriefer sneered.

The interpreter translated, and the detainee trembled with his reply under the heat of the sun and the weight of imminent incarceration.

"Please tell me my crime, tell me what I am accused of? It is false, I promise you, can I not know what I am accused of? What am I accused of?"

I turned away as the interrogator called for an escort to take the prisoner to the holding area for later transport to the prison. No evidence, no charge, no reason. What the hell were we doing?

Indiscriminate detention policies cripple strategic efforts in Iraq

It was nearing noon, and my boss was getting ready to head out; most of the work was completed. I went back to the first interrogation table to sit in on one more debrief. The team was clearly getting tired, but still 100 percent in sync with each other.

"What's your name?"

"Where are you from?"

"What's your religion?"

They went through the list, eventually winding up in the familiar position of trying to get the detainee to confess or identify other insurgents. It wasn't going well, and the detainee, as usual, professed his innocence.

"Don't start with that shit! Don't you start with me!" The debriefer was back to bad cop. The detainee paused, then spoke in a tone that sounded like a question.

"We have a curious group today," the terp observed. "He wants to ask you a question."

"Sure, what does he want?"

The detainee spoke.

"Oh," the interpreter said, "he wants to know if he can say something."

"Be my guest," the debriefer said wryly.

The detainee spoke, and the interpreter paused. He looked into the distance, and translated.

"When you came to our country, we hoped law would return. We still have that hope."

The words were a knife, slicing through the farce. They depicted our failures far more clearly than I could have, and it was a fitting end to the night. In America's Iraq, the burden of proof is on the suspect. Guilty until proven innocent. The action units place the responsibility on the intel crew to sort out the guys they grab, and intel guys figure that the action units bring in only legitimate targets. In that space an innocent individual becomes a prisoner.

Some, perhaps many, detainees are guilty of various crimes. Low-level criminal acts, facilitation of violence, and even actual attacks. But a total lack of evidence, or relying on the word of one questionable individual for incarceration, is the rule rather than the exception. Detention without trial, one after another after another. Press reports put the total number of U.S.-held detainees in Iraq at more than twenty-four thousand, with tens of thousands more being held in Iraqi facilities.* Staying that particular course is a recipe for total disaster.

That day I saw an entire family of brothers sent away--seven in all, I think. One of them was almost certainly retarded, identified by all his other brothers as handicapped, but his interrogator felt otherwise. Off to Abu G he went.

A civilized country and a civilized people cannot presume guilt. Guilt without evidence is anathema to a functioning civil society, and rule of law is vital to win a war that is more about minds than weapons or troops. Pragmatically, a system that incarcerates scores of innocents is a broken one, destined to be fought by those it victimizes. "When you came to our country, we hoped law would return. We still have that hope." I won't soon forget those words.

My boss and I drove back to work. I slowly walked up the steps, dragged myself to my desk, chugged a Red Bull and popped a Provigil, and logged on to my computer. Most of the morning was gone, so I had a lot to catch up on.

Manipulation and politicization of intel drives out 9/11 generation

From the beginning of my employment, and for most of my life, I had believed in the system, the government, and the goodness of civil servants, especially those paid to keep us safe. Most of all, I believed that it was better to be a part of the system, even if it was an uphill climb against all the ills of the bureaucracy, than to criticize it from the outside. I generally believe in solving problems quietly and efficiently, and the idea of taking a public stand on principle did not appeal to me. But I also knew that I might have an opportunity, however small, to affect some of the worst elements of the office simply by leaving it. It was no longer a question of whether I wanted to stay, but rather whether I would have the courage to depart.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting the results to be different, and that's basically what I was doing: trying to do a good job, hoping that my work would not be manipulated or ignored, in the face of overwhelming evidence that the intelligence effort--and the war in general--was grossly mismanaged and politicized. With that realization, I wondered if I could, perversely, do more good by leaving than by staying. If I left the office and, more important, told leadership whyI was leaving, maybe it would be a wake-up call. Most of the people who left didn't want to make waves, so they cited all kinds of reasons for their departure other than the real one: that they hated the office and did not want to stay. If I was willing to be honest about why I and many others wanted to get out, maybe the office leadership would actually take useful steps to rectify the problems.

As I was trying to decide whether to leave, and what to do next if I did, I was still writing about the issues that I thought were most important in Iraq. I felt somewhat freed from the constraints of trying to benefit my long-term career prospects, so I was increasingly taking on more controversial issues. I tried to write about civil war indicators, but the paper was killed. Apparently that was not a priority. Then I wrote a comprehensive assessment of increased Shia dissatisfaction with the United States; after weeks of work that, too, was shelved, and I was told that the ruling Shia would "come around." Again there was no analytical disagreement or discussion, just orders from above to stop writing on those topics. Good thing civil war and conflict with Shia leadership never became problems.