By Michael Bronner
Special to the Huffington Post Investigative Fund
Major General Hussam Mohammed Amin, named the "Six of Clubs" on the Bush Administration's card deck of "Iraq's Most Wanted," had, perhaps, the most impossible job in pre-war Iraq.
Reporting to Saddam Hussein's powerful deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, Amin was the man in the middle through 12 years of fractious international weapons inspections between the two American wars -- Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom -- charged with managing the cat-and-mouse between Saddam and the aggressive teams of United Nations weapons inspectors. He visited the U.N. in New York a dozen times over the years with Iraqi delegations, and his white-mustachioed face was well known to anyone following the weapons fray.
In December 2002, as the prospect of war grew increasingly inevitable, Amin coordinated Iraq's "full and final" disclosure of chemical, biological and nuclear programs to the U.N. Iraq produced a 12,000-page declaration--12 CD-ROMs and 43 spiral-bound volumes -- that would be devoid of revelations, Amin told reporters, "because Iraq is clean of weapons of mass destruction." He made one of his last public appearances at a Baghdad press conference two months later, in March 2003, as American troops massed on the Kuwaiti border.
As war rolled over the Iraqi regime, Amin disappeared from view. The only public information about him since was the announcement by U.S. Central Command that he was captured "on or around" April 27, 2003.
After the Iraqi insurgency began to dominate the news and the U.S. government figured out that Amin had essentially been telling the truth about WMD all along, the mechanical engineer was largely forgotten, except for sporadic interrogations about the Saddam regime. He was held without charges for nearly three years.
Amin's story of his incarceration, related here for the first time, offers another instructive chapter in the scandalous history of detainee treatment -- one that encompasses both physical torture and the more subtle moral quandary of leaving prisoners to languish indefinitely without any meaningful legal process, the status quo for prisoners at U.S. detention facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. It again raises key questions the Obama Administration has yet to fully answer as it assumes control of America's unconventional wars: How can it square urgent, real battlefield needs with the rule of law and the spirit of the nation's ideals?
Hussam Amin's story is not one the Bush Administration meant to be heard, at least not for a while.
"I am sorry," Amin said, rebuffing me when I reached him, through a series of intermediaries, in the country of his exile far from Iraq. "We signed a paper, at the prison when we were released, [agreeing] not to talk to any media, or not to say anything. I am sorry," he said again. "I am a refugee now."
The "paper at the prison" Amin feared was his "Conditional Release Agreement" with Multinational Forces-Iraq, the U.S.-led military command, barring former prisoners from making political statements "inside or outside Iraq" for 18 months after their release, which also required the bond of a family member.
A few days later, however -- a few hours before my overnight flight back to New York -- Amin let me know that he would be sitting at a small coffee shop in his neighborhood. He'd be wearing a gray shirt, he said. He asked that I not bring along any Iraqis, or disclose his whereabouts.
"I do not tell this story, ever to anyone," said the tentative, physically diminished 57-year-old man, crushing out a cigarette as we settled into a booth. But over the next several hours, Amin did tell the story, with an unsettling mix of humor, irony and anger.
Eventually Amin would entrust me with one of the few things he managed to take with him when he was quietly released from custody just before Christmas in 2005: 40 pages of an illicit diary he kept during his captivity at Camp Cropper, the U.S.-run prison for "high value detainees" near Baghdad-- the only first-person account to emerge so far from the war's secret-most cells.
The Black Bag: 'Now I will die'
In Amin's telling, the weeks immediately following the invasion found him moving furtively around Baghdad, dogged by overtures from an Iraqi-American physician rumored to be working with the CIA, offering, through relatives, to help Amin turn himself in. Then, on April 12, 2003, Amin's friend and former colleague, chemical engineer Amer al-Sa'adi (the "Seven of Diamonds" on the card deck, also a high-profile liaison to the U.N. before the war), made a gallant public surrender, declaring before news cameras that he would prove to America that Iraq had been honest all along. Amin made what he calls a patriotic decision to join al-Sa'adi and arranged a meeting.
Amin was given the address of a house in the Karada section of Baghdad, from which he was taken in a small convoy of cars to a former presidential site in Ramadi and turned over to the U.S. military. There, he said, he was interrogated for several hours by a "respectful, logical and professional" American colonel with a "good background" on Iraq's prior WMD programs. Afterwards, he said, he and the colonel shared lunch.
It was shortly after lunch, Amin said, that he was suddenly overwhelmed by soldiers, his hands and feet bound and a black bag pulled over his head. They hustled him away to a Saddam-era base that U.S. forces used as the first stop for their top prisoners.
Lt. Gen. Hussam Amin, of the Iraqi National Monitoring System, left, speaks with Hans Blix, chief U.N. weapons inspector, right, at Saddam International Airport in Baghdad, Iraq, Nov. 20, 2002. Blix and about a dozen U.N. officials were leaving after a two-day visit to Iraq in which they discussed the inspection process with Iraqi officials. (AP Photo)
Camp Nama was run by a secretive U.S. Joint Special Operations task force, and was off-limits even to most military personnel. Those who did have access retained operational anonymity -- few knew even each other by their real names. The CIA would eventually become worried enough about being associated with what went on there that it barred employees from setting foot inside.
His senses swimming in the suffocating blackout bag, Amin couldn't anticipate where the next blow was coming from, he said -- or whether it would be a punch, a kick or a whack with "some kind of special metal stick" as unseen interrogators demanded the location of nonexistent weapons. He lost track of time, unsure whether he'd been there hours or days. At some point amid the fusillade, he was told that he would be executed. He believed it. He felt blood running down his face and neck -- three jagged gashes across his forehead that would require stitches. "Every day, I thought, 'Now, I will die,'" he said -- which was precisely the point: He was in "Purgatory," the task force's nickname for the initial interrogation/disorientation ordeal.
At some point his captors briefly removed the bag. He was ordered to lie on his side and keep his eyes fixed to the wall inches from his face. It hurt to breathe. He tucked his head in and snuck a glance at his chest: It was black with bruises. Each time he nodded off, one of his minders would kick him or hit him with the stick. "Even when you are sleeping, they beat you," he told me, shaking his head slowly. "You wake by punching."
For Amin, Purgatory would last five days, he said, after which he was packed off to Camp Cropper, a large prison near Baghdad Airport holding thousands of detainees, and logged into a solitary cell.
Some details of Amin's account could not be directly confirmed, but they are consistent with later news reports and recent interviews about widespread abuses of prisoners at Camp Nama in the early months of the war. What occurred at the secret prison represents something of an overlooked angle to the ongoing torture debate, which has focused on the more exotic CIA techniques, like waterboarding, used on al-Qaeda prisoners. In Iraq, it is those captured by the U.S. special operations teams who allege the most severe treatment.
"That was standard procedure when they were grabbed by special forces," said Rod Barton, an Australian bioweapons expert who was one of the senior advisors to the CIA from the Iraq Survey Group, the team sent by the invasion force to hunt for WMD after the invasion. "Purgatory was official policy, not the result of a few undisciplined soldiers, and in that regard it was most disturbing...What the special forces were doing was physical. They were hitting people -- at least. This goes beyond psychological torture."
The U.S.-led special operations task forces in Iraq included a melange of military and non-military players including the 75th Ranger Regiment, the 2nd Ranger Battalion, Navy SEALs, Delta Force, Special Forces, British Special Air Service (SAS), Polish Special Air Service, CIA, DIA, FBI, Marine Corps recon troops and Blackwater contractors, according to one former task force member who spoke to me at length about his experience with the unit.
Barton, who had long experience as a weapons inspector in Iraq (which included extensive interactions with Amin in his capacity as U.N. liaison), told me he first realized something was deeply wrong while reviewing files of other former weapons scientists held at Camp Cropper. People he'd interviewed over a decade of U.N. inspections were unrecognizable in the mug shots taken when they were logged into Camp Cropper.
Barton recalled two January 2004 briefings (also recounted in his 2006 book, The Weapons Detective) in which Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton, military commander of the Iraq Survey Group, inquired about bruises and abrasions visible on detainees' faces after viewing slides that included the induction photos. Dayton was told the detainees were injured "resisting arrest." In reality, Barton said, they'd been through Camp Nama.
Charles Duelfer, the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, also dealt with Amin extensively before the war. "He was a quiet, thoughtful, beleaguered guy," Duelfer said, likening Amin's job to that of a Hollywood continuity supervisor -- charged with keeping track of every detail in the script, guarding against inconsistencies and struggling to mitigate those that inevitably emerged. "His headaches were enormous. Any little discrepancy we'd come across, he'd have to sort that out."
The peril associated with a slip was significant: After contending with the inspectors by day, Duelfer said Amin then had to report to Saddam's Special Security Organization, the elite intelligence service tracking every detail of the inspectors' activities, as well as the inspectors themselves.
Senior technocrats like Amin could have been relatively easily induced to cooperate without being abused, or even arrested, Duelfer believes. He said he made an effort to get some detainees including Amin released. He was unsuccessful. "The same quality of intelligence that went into the miscalculations about Iraqi WMD went into creating the stupid blacklist of people to be captured," he said. "It was almost like they made a list of every Iraqi whose name they knew. Some of them were people who opposed Saddam and could have been really helpful to us, but they'd end up in prison and you couldn't get them out."
A spokesman for Special Operations Command, Kenneth McGraw, declined to comment on Hussam Amin's case, other than to say the command has "no record of an allegation" from him. He said that from April 2003 to date, 68 members of Special Operations forces have been disciplined for detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
Yet the accumulated evidence shows that violence was systemic in these kinds of interrogations at Camp Nama and other facilities.
Stories about what was happening at Camp Nama began circulating later, after the military responded to the welling Iraq insurgency by expanding operations at the base. Interrogations were conducted in "the 'Black Room'...a windowless, jet-black garage-size" cell where "some soldiers beat prisoners with rifle butts...and, in a nearby area, used detainees for target practice in a game of jailer paintball," according to a 2006 report by the New York Times. A Human Rights Watch report from the same year includes whistle-blowing soldiers' descriptions of physically abusive interrogations "of hundreds of anonymous, and often innocent detainees" at Camp Nama and other facilities in Iraq, noting that a policy of abuse was "apparently built into the interrogation regime."
That was corroborated to me by another American covert operator who served in Iraq during this time and has first-hand knowledge of the facilities and methods. "There were all kinds of teams operating under all kinds of rules," said the man, who spoke on condition that his name and U.S. government employer not be identified. "If, for example, the CIA wanted something done that fell outside its guidelines, it would get another group to do it that could."
Which groups had what rules, and who approved them? It's hardly just a history lesson. America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to revolve around the capture of people on CIA and Special Operations "blacklists."
Isolation: 'I felt I was lucky'
At Camp Cropper, Amin no longer was beaten, but he found himself in a void. His cell, he said, was fetid, dark and airless, one corner doubling as a urinal. He had no bed for the first five months, only a blanket and a crushed water bottle for a pillow. Detainees weren't allowed to shower or shave; Amin showed me with a hand how long his beard grew.
These descriptions were nearly identical to those of another former Cropper prisoner I've interviewed who was detained during that period, as well as those of intelligence personnel who visited the camp. "Cropper was a really, really horrible place, in the early days in particular," one Iraq Survey Group member acknowledged during a recent background discussion.
In his cell, Amin could hear the roar of planes from the nearby airport, and then, more and more, the war. Six months into his incarceration, he bent over surreptitiously squirreled sheets of Red Cross tablet marked "Family News Only" and began to write his prison diary. As the pages accumulated, he hid them in his cell. The entries, varying in length from a few lines to a few pages, range from banal to arresting.
It would be more than a year before Amin was permitted to mix with or talk to his former colleagues, fellow inmates at Camp Cropper. "When this segregation was lifted...we were congratulating each other as if we were out of the prison itself," he noted in his diary.
Amin then learned he was not the only one to go through Purgatory. "Inside the prison I saw injured colleagues...who were barbarically tortured," he wrote later, citing several by name. "When I heard my friends' stories, I felt I was lucky because I stayed [in Camp Nama] only [five] days and the level of torture was less than what they suffered."
While Amin and others were sitting in their cells, the U.S. District Court in Washington on July 7, 2003, issued one of the clearest definitions to date regarding torture in Iraq. The historical irony: The case involved not Iraqis in U.S. detention, but rather American servicemen who had been held by Saddam Hussein's regime during the first Gulf War.
The case, Acree v. Republic of Iraq, is named after retired Marine Col. Clifford Acree, who was taken prisoner and horrendously beaten after his OV-10 "Bronco" aircraft was shot down over Iraq on July 17, 1991. Acree suffered a fractured skull and broken nose, and lost 30 pounds during the ordeal. He and 16 other American POWs filed suit in 2002, naming as defendants the Republic of Iraq, the Iraqi Intelligence Service and Saddam Hussein.
Awarding the plaintiffs combined damages of $959 million, the court noted among other things that "the torture inflicted included severe beatings, mock executions, threatened castration, and threatened dismemberment. The POWs were systematically starved, denied sleep, and exposed to freezing cold. They were denied medical care and their existing injuries were intentionally aggravated." The Bush Administration sought, successfully, to overturn the Acree decision so as not to place a financial burden on the new Iraqi government.
Freedom: 'Poor Those Who Imprisoned Me'
In early 2004, Amin notes in his diary, his captors finally provided him with proper medical treatment: "After all the suffering, I was taken to day to Ibn Sina Hospital while handcuffed," he wrote on Jan. 5. "They also put a bag over my head so that I don't see anything. I was diagnosed with gastric ulcer accompanied with interior bleeding. I felt that [my wife] and the girls were thousands of miles away, when they were only 2,000 meters away..."
Amin said he lost 50 pounds in his first year of captivity. His diary notes that in February 2004 "they started giving us rice after all we had [previously] was MREs [military-issue Meals Ready-to-eat]. Apparently the Red Cross had interfered when they saw we were losing weight. They began giving us an apple or an orange every day. When I came here, I was 86 kg [190 lbs]. After two months, my weight became 76kg [168 lbs]. Now I am only 64kg [141 lbs]..." A month later, on March 25, he wrote: "According to the medical check, 15 of the prisoners were diagnosed with TB. They were all taken to building #6 so that they won't spread the sickness to others."
I read those entries to a Red Cross official, who said neither marked weight loss or disease were acceptable, and the weight loss in particular is hard to justify given the US military's ample food supplies in Iraq. One explanation may be the use of "dietary manipulation," which has been cited among the "enhanced interrogation techniques" employed by U.S. military interrogators in Iraq.
Dietary manipulation was one of 14 interrogation techniques that were outside the Army Field Manual but used as a matter of policy by the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq when it was under the leadership of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who President Obama has now tapped to run the war in Afghanistan. The 14 techniques were more "than...any other military organization at that time," according to a 2004 report by Vice Admiral Albert T. Church, then the Naval Inspector General. Other techniques including use of muzzled dogs, "safety positions," sleep adjustment/management, "mild" physical contact, isolation, sensory overload and sensory deprivation.
McChrystal's tenure began shortly after Amin's five-day stay at Camp Nama but coincided with the abuses alleged in the New York Times and Human Rights Watch reports.
President Barack Obama meets with Army Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, in the Oval Office at the White House, May 19, 2009. McChrystal, who was head of Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq, is now the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
None of the senators on the Armed Services Committee asked McChyrstal about Camp Nama during his confirmation hearing for the Afghanistan post last month. McChrystal testified that he does not condone mistreatment of detainees and that he was uncomfortable with some of the interrogation techniques he found in place in Iraq when he assumed his command in October 2003, adding that he immediately sought to reduce the use of certain methods.
In a sharp follow-up query to McChrystal after the hearing, however, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) pointed out that seven months into his command McChrystal made a request to Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. military operations in the Middle East, for permission to use five additional "enhanced" interrogation techniques not listed in the Army Field Manual - techniques that had been suspended by Abizaid two months prior - including "sleep management," "control positions," and "environmental manipulation." As an addendum, McChrystal asked that, in "exceptional circumstances," handcuffs be allowed to "enforce the detainee's position."
Abizaid denied McChrystal's request to use control positions, but approved the other four, which, in his written response to Levin's query, McChrystal said he used "sparingly." He also noted that he chose not to request permission to use physical contact or diet manipulation, "techniques which were in use by the SMUs [Special Mission Units] when I assumed command," he wrote.
Clifford Acree, the Marine pilot tortured under Saddam, was freed after 47 days of captivity. Some prisoners at Camp Cropper continue to languish without charges six years after the invasion, and many more at Guantanamo have been held for nearly eight years. Last week The Washington Post reported that inmates at the U.S.-run Bagram in Afghanistan have been protesting their indefinite detention by refusing to leave their cells since at least July 1 for showers or exercise.
In his journal and during our interview, Hussam Amin described the open-endedness as the most excruciating torture of all, each repetitive round of ongoing interrogation cruelly dangling the promise of release as the Bush Administration strained against all odds to justify the war:
"I have been interrogated dozens times by the CIA, the FBI, the U.S. army, the U.S. military intelligence, the State Department, the British intelligence and even a professor from Harvard University. All of them agreed that it's unfair that I stay in prison and that I was just doing my job through collaborating with the weapons of mass destruction inspection team," Amin wrote on April 26, 2005. "The last interrogation was by Charles Duelfer, the head of the [Iraq Survey Group]. He told me that keeping me in prison for this long is wrong and that he and the team are sympathetic. Moreover, he told me that he expected me to be out of prison 'very soon,' and that was in November of 2004. They lie to me every time."
On December 23, 2005, in the darkness before dawn, Hussam Amin's American military guards placed the black bag over his head once again. He was driven to a nondescript stretch of highway outside the Baghdad International Airport compound, where the bag was removed for the last time: After nearly three years, he was quietly reunited with his family, one of 22 Iraqi officials released that night, among them several once considered "Iraq's Most Wanted." Included in the group were "Mrs. Anthrax" (Dr. Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, an American-educated scientist named the "Five of Hearts"), "Dr. Germ" (Dr. Rihab Rashid Taha) and others.
On the eve of his release, U.S. military officials at Camp Cropper, fearing for Amin's safety from insurgents, had tried to persuade him to accept safe passage to exile in a third country. Amin refused, hoping to live quietly with his family in Iraq. As it turned out, however, the U.S. military knew better. After a flurry of death threats, Amin fled just a few weeks later, joining an estimated two-million-more anonymous countrymen for whom Iraq is no longer safe. His experience has been much like theirs. His family is divided -- his wife and daughters living with him, his sons unable to get visas and marooned in Iraq. He has lost two nephews to the insurgency. He searched for over a year for work, finally landing a menial job well outside his field and expertise. When I met him, he was logging 12-hour days on a construction site.
As the months at Camp Cropper stretched into years, Amin had joined the long line of prison diarists who turned to verse: In one poem, in which he seems to question some of his own choices in life, he also addresses his captors, posing the notion that neither he, nor they, will escape the experience of Iraq:
Alas, you don't see that one day you destroyed your
Life in this place
You destroyed the value of your life no matter where
You end up on this planet...
Today, I am a prisoner inside my homeland
A stranger, who came from very far
To steal my freedom, leads this prison
Yet he failed, for Baghdad, Tikrit and any other city
Live in my veins. Never leave me. And will never leave them,
Poor those who imprisoned me; they don't know any of this.
Michael Bronner has written for Vanity Fair and the New York Times op-ed page, and reported from Iraq and Guantanamo for the weekday edition of CBS' 60 Minutes. Hussam Amin's diaries were translated by Alaa Majeed, an Iraqi journalist now based in New York. The Huffington Post Investigative Fund is an independent nonprofit journalism venture based in Washington, D.C.