Hiding a bad guy named Triple X
How the military treated some inmates at Abu Ghraib like 'ghosts'
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, issued a classified order last November directing military guards to hide a prisoner, later dubbed "Triple X" by soldiers, from Red Cross inspectors and keep his name off official rosters. The disclosure, by military sources, is the first indication that Sanchez was directly involved in efforts to hide prisoners from the Red Cross, a practice that was sharply criticized by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba in a report describing abuses of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
Taguba blamed the 800th Military Police Brigade, which guarded the prison, for allowing "other government agencies"--a euphemism that includes the CIA--to hide "ghost" detainees at Abu Ghraib. The practice, he wrote, "was deceptive, contrary to Army doctrine, and in violation of international law." Taguba's report did not cite the November 18 directive issued by Sanchez to hide Triple X, identified as a high-ranking terrorist. It is not known if Taguba saw the directive. He declined to comment. The Army said it could not discuss a classified order.
The disclosure of Sanchez's involvement may focus more attention on him. There have been reports that his top Army lawyers sought to curb Red Cross access to Abu Ghraib, only weeks after the humanitarian agency uncovered abuses and sexual humiliation at the prison late last year. Some Army officers, including Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the commander of the 800th MP Brigade, have blamed Sanchez's staff for refusing to release security detainees from Abu Ghraib even when they were believed to pose no threat to coalition forces.
Karpinski says Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast, who is Sanchez's top intelligence officer, was a major obstacle to releasing detainees. Fast, she says, served with her and a third officer on a detainee release board and vetoed recommendations to release inmates from the overcrowded facility, even after determining that they were of no intelligence value. "She did not want to release the next Osama bin Laden," Karpinski says. "She had a certain kind of paranoia." Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the top military spokesman in Iraq, denies that Fast had veto authority and says most board decisions were unanimous.
Overcrowding, lack of force protection in a hot combat zone, and unsanitary conditions may have contributed to the problems at Abu Ghraib. Internal Army records obtained by U.S. News show that the military moved at a snail's pace in releasing security detainees from Abu Ghraib and three other facilities. In early December, there were 1,604 detainees kept for more than 91 days. By late January, that figure had grown to 3,016. An additional 1,500 were kept for more than two months, the January report shows.
Karpinski didn't see eye to eye with either Sanchez or Fast. She says that security detainees were held because they were thought to pose a threat to, or had committed crimes against, coalition forces. But many, she says, should not have been held for so long. Some weren't guilty of anything, she says, pointing out that in the wake of the scandal, the military has been releasing large groups of prisoners from Abu Ghraib. According to various news reports, 1,680 prisoners have been released since May 14.
Some detainees, says Karpinski, "were in the wrong place at the wrong time." She explains: "MI [military intelligence] would do an initial interrogation, find out they were passing by, borrowing a cup of sugar, and they get policed up. They try to explain to somebody that they were only going there to borrow a cup of sugar, but nobody believed them."
No one is arguing that decisions on releasing detainees were easy. Army officers point to an embarrassing incident that took place in May 2003: An Iraqi man was released from Camp Bucca in southern Iraq after convincing an interrogator that he was a "tomato farmer," but he turned out to be Mohammed Jawad An Neifus, Saddam Hussein's most loyal tribal leader. Neifus was believed to be responsible for the deaths of thousands of Shiites, an Army officer says.
Triple X certainly fit the category of a potential threat. Sanchez, in his directive to the 800th MP Brigade--Fragmentary Order (FRAGO) No. 1099--identified the man by name, said he was a terrorist, and told the brigade not to put his name in any electronic roster of detainees. He instructed the brigade not to disclose his whereabouts to the Red Cross pending further notice, military sources say.
When the brigade objected, Sanchez's staff lawyers directed the MP s to implement the order, according to a 25-page report sent to the Senate Armed Services Committee by Capt. Lisa Weidenbush, operations officer for the 800th MP Brigade (box). She included only bare-bones information about the FRAGO in arguing that the brigade was not involved in a scheme to hide detainees. She declined comment when reached last week.
Beginning last November, the military sources say, Triple X was kept alone, under guard in his own room, at the High Value Detention facility near the Baghdad airport. When Red Cross inspectors visited the facility, the military sources recall, they had no reason to know Triple X was there, and they were not shown him. Even today, not much is known about the man--he is said to be Middle Eastern, short, slightly built, and in his 40s.
It is not clear why there was so much secrecy surrounding Triple X. One senior officer says there were "all these wild rumors" last fall that Triple X might know the location of Saddam, who had not yet been captured. In the end, however, only a handful of people knew why he was so valuable, Sanchez included, and they're not talking.
This story appears in the June 21, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.