U.S. Soldiers Deeply Split Over Detainee Treatment, Senate Report Reveals

A report on military interrogations reveals sharp debates about the morality of harsh techniques.

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Buried in the newly released Senate Armed Services Committee report on the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody is a striking exchange that illustrates the deep reservations that many in the American military had about some of the harsh techniques that would later be used in prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. The report also reveals that some had no reservations at all, and it comes amid new controversy over even harsher interrogation measures used by the CIA on high-level terrorism suspects.

The U.S. military was never authorized to use the most radical of these methods, such as waterboarding, but soldiers were under pressure at certain periods in Iraq and Afghanistan to get more information from their interrogations of suspects.

The Senate report quotes the response of Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer, then with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, to an E-mail that was sent by Capt. William Ponce, the battle captain in the Combined Joint Task Force 7's Human Intelligence and Counterintelligence Office in Iraq. In August 2003, Ponce had sent a message to others in the intelligence field asking them to submit their "interrogation techniques wish lists." The commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade in Iraq, Col. Thomas Pappas, told SASC committee staffers in October 2007 that he believed Ponce's E-mail was the result of a meeting Ponce had attended with Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the commander of coalition forces in Iraq. Ponce wrote:

"The gloves are coming off gentlemen regarding these detainees." He added that one colonel "has made it clear that we want these individuals broken. Casualties are mounting and we need to start gathering info to help protect our fellow soldiers from any further attacks."

As the SASC report describes it, Welshofer "responded with his own assessment of the interrogation situation":

"Today's enemy, particularly those in [Southwest Asia], understand force, not psychological mind games or incentives. I would propose a baseline interrogation technique that at a minimum allows for physical contact resembling that used by SERE schools (This allows open handed facial slaps from a distance of no more than about two feet and back handed blows to the midsection from a distance of about 18 inches. Again, this is open handed.) . . . Other techniques would include close confinement quarters, sleep deprivation, white noise, and a litany of harsher fear-up approaches . . . fear of dogs and snakes appear to work nicely. I firmly agree that the gloves need to come off."

SERE is the Survival Evasion Resistance Escape training that many pilots and special-operations troops receive.

Welshofer was later tried and convicted of negligent homicide and dereliction of duty in connection with the November 2003 killing of an Iraqi detainee.

Maj. Nathan Hoepner had a difference response. Then the operations officer for the 501st Military Intelligence Battalion in Iraq, Hoepner strongly "took issue with the language" in Ponce's E-mail, according to the Senate committee's report. He wrote:

"As for 'the gloves need to come off . . . ' we need to take a deep breath and remember who we are. Those gloves are most definitely NOT based on Cold War or WWII enemies--they are based on clearly established standards of international law to which we are signatories and in part the originators. Those in turn derive from practices commonly accepted as morally correct, the so-called 'usages of war.' It comes down to standards of right and wrong--something we cannot just put aside when we find it inconvenient, any more than we can declare that we will 'take no prisoners' and therefore shoot those who surrender to us simply because we find prisoners inconvenient."

In response to Ponce's remark that "casualties are mounting," Hoepner wrote: "We have taken casualties in every war we have ever fought--that is part of the very nature of war. We also inflict casualties, generally more than we take. That in no way justifies letting go of our standards. We have NEVER considered our enemies justified in doing such things to us. Casualties are part of war--if you cannot take casualties then you cannot engage in war. Period.