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Prison abusers were 'stupid,' retired intelligence officer says

by Ted Roelofs Tuesday, May. 25, 2004 at 4:59 PM

Army Maj. Steve Hillebrand, a military intelligence specialist, suspects elements of military intelligence condoned or encouraged the practices at Abu Ghraib prison -- "I hope those leaders are held accountable for what happened."

The Grand Rapids Press, May 24, 2004

The detainees in Afghanistan were like those in Iraq. The goal was the same -- break them as quickly as possible. But according to the West Michigan native who supervised interrogation at Bagram Air Base, the methods were vastly different from the alleged abuse at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.

"Everything done under duress is suspect," said retired Army Maj. Steve Hillebrand, 42, a former Benzie County deputy sheriff who oversaw interrogation for much of 2003 at Bagram.

"I am very confident in the fact that those things were not going on there," said Hillebrand, a 1979 graduate of Comstock Park High School.

Hillebrand is dumfounded by the images of naked and shackled Iraqi detainees emerging from Abu Ghraib. In his view, the accused soldiers violated more than moral and military codes. They applied methods he believes simply do not work.

"I was revolted. I could not believe that individuals were that stupid. It cuts to the core of all that I believe as a soldier and an officer."

The military intelligence specialist returned from Afghanistan in January and has resumed his civilian job as a manager with FedEx in suburban Detroit, where he lives with his wife, Michelle, and their four children. He resigned from the Army Reserves on April 30, ending an 18-year military career.

From April to January 2003, he commanded a company-sized military intelligence unit of regular or National Guard soldiers who interrogated detainees at Bagram. Hillebrand said several hundred individuals were housed there.

He described the detainees as members of al Qaida, the Taliban, foreign fighters or individuals thought to have high intelligence value.

Although most media attention is focused on Abu Ghraib, Hillebrand acknowledged Bagram also came under scrutiny for alleged abuse.

Four months before Hillebrand arrived at Bagram, two detainees died in what military coroners ruled were homicides.

The men died shortly after arriving at the facility north of the Afghan capital, Kabul. The first man died Dec. 3, 2002, of a pulmonary embolism, and the second died a week later of a heart attack.

Autopsies found "blunt force trauma" was a contributing factor, military sources said.

The deaths and other reports of abuse prompted U.S.-based Human Rights Watch to accuse military authorities of systematic violations of the Geneva Conventions. It said Bagram detainees were kept awake for extended periods of time, kicked, beaten and doused with freezing water, with most of the abuses occurring in 2002.

Investigations continue into alleged abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq as the top military commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, told Congress on Wednesday the abuse "will be thoroughly investigated up the chain of command."

Hillebrand said he sanctioned no harsh procedures, and Red Cross officials had regular and open access at Bagram.

But he conceded the two deaths shook up the system. "A lot of things changed as a result of that," said Hillebrand, who assisted in the investigation of those deaths. "You will read more about that in the future," he added, declining to elaborate.

In his tenure, Hillebrand said the Bagram facility was geared to extract information in the most efficient, least intrusive way possible. "It was not set up to be pleasant."

But he said it did not resort to brute force or sexual humiliation of the type exposed at Abu Ghraib. He said cameras were banned from interrogation.

Instead, interrogators appealed to detainees' love of family, their ego, or their craving for cigarettes or tea. They were asked the same question over and over. On occasion, they were deprived of sleep.

Hillebrand said he was given the option of using guard dogs to intimidate detainees. "I declined it. It was something I didn't want to do in Afghanistan."

He said he became convinced rough tactics did not make for good intelligence. "We received detainees that had been roughed up. We found the information they obtained could not be proven.

"I constantly stressed to the troops how important it (interrogation) was. But you've got to do it within the guidelines."

Philis Ripley, of Grand Rapids, has another perspective.

From October 2002 to September 2003, Ripley served with the Jackson-based 303rd Military Police company at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Now back at her civilian job as a Grand Rapids postal worker, Ripley, 33, believes the media paints a one-sided picture of events in Iraq and elsewhere.

"Nobody ever sees our side of it," she said. "The media always expands on the things that happened to the other people."

Ripley said she saw no abuse at Guantanamo, where she and others in the unit had the task of escorting detainees to and from interrogation.

On occasion, she said, detainees threw urine or feces at members of her unit. Still, she said, "I never once saw anyone strike anyone."

But based on his experience in Afghanistan, Hillebrand sees a system that failed at multiple levels in Abu Ghraib. He faults Military Police linked with abuse for violating their training, not to mention decency and common sense.

But he suspects elements of military intelligence condoned or encouraged the practices as well. "You are probably going to find that military intelligence was probably involved at a lower level," Hillebrand said.

"But where were the officer corps? People did not do their jobs. People covered up. I hope those leaders are held accountable for what happened."

Hillebrand fears the United States could pay for this for years.

"This goes against most of the things that are important to an Arab or Islamic male," he said. "If you talk about what would make a great recruiting poster for Osama bin Laden, they've got that."
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