Sunday, March 19, 2006

Task Force 6-26 and the Black Room

The New York Times seems to have momentarily redeemed itself from the monumental screw-up of incorrectly reporting a famous Abu Ghraib detainee's identity last week.

Eric Schmitt and Carolyn Marshall detail the abuses by the infamous Task Force 6-26, a Special Forces group operating in Iraq since the invasion in 2003.

The allegations include the repeated use of detainees as paintball targets, at a secret detention facility near Baghdad airport called Camp Nama. The slogan of the group was apparently "No blood, no foul" implying that troops believed they could not be prosecuted for injuries to detainees which involved no spilling of blood.

Made up of members of the Delta Force, based at Fr. Bragg, the Navy Seal's Team 6, and the Army's Rangers, Task Force 6-26 was originally formed in 2003 as "Task Force 121" (which eventually inspired a bizarre fantasy videogame.)

TF 6-26's members have "special" privileges, they are allowed to grow beards and wear civilian clothing. The role of civilian interrogators and interpreters in the TF is unclear.

The CIA, FBI and even Army officials had warned as early as August 2003 that the situation at Camp Nama was out of control, yet no real action was taken by the Pentagon until the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in 2004. (See the memo above.)

The Times story is worth reading, as it brings more evidence and more specific allegations to light regarding the operation of the mysterious TF 6-26, its invented rituals and methods.

The abuses at Camp Nama continued despite warnings beginning in August 2003 from an Army investigator and American intelligence and law enforcement officials in Iraq. The C.I.A. was concerned enough to bar its personnel from Camp Nama that August.

It is difficult to compare the conditions at the camp with those at Abu Ghraib because so little is known about the secret compound, which was off limits even to the Red Cross. The abuses appeared to have been unsanctioned, but some of them seemed to have been well known throughout the camp. [...]

Task Force 6-26 had a singular focus: capture or kill Mr. Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant operating in Iraq. "Anytime there was even the smell of Zarqawi nearby, they would go out and use any means possible to get information from a detainee," one official said.

Defense Department personnel briefed on the unit's operations said the harsh treatment extended beyond Camp Nama to small field outposts in Baghdad, Falluja, Balad, Ramadi and Kirkuk. These stations were often nestled within the alleys of a city in nondescript buildings with suburban-size yards where helicopters could land to drop off or pick up detainees.

At the outposts, some detainees were stripped naked and had cold water thrown on them to cause the sensation of drowning, said Defense Department personnel who served with the unit.

In January 2004, the task force captured the son of one of Mr. Hussein's bodyguards in Tikrit. The man told Army investigators that he was forced to strip and that he was punched in the spine until he fainted, put in front of an air-conditioner while cold water was poured on him and kicked in the stomach until he vomited. Army investigators were forced to close their inquiry in June 2005 after they said task force members used battlefield pseudonyms that made it impossible to identify and locate the soldiers involved. The unit also asserted that 70 percent of its computer files had been lost.

Despite the task force's access to a wide range of intelligence, its raids were often dry holes, yielding little if any intelligence and alienating ordinary Iraqis, Defense Department personnel said. Prisoners deemed no threat to American troops were often driven deep into the Iraqi desert at night and released, sometimes given $100 or more in American money for their trouble.

Back at Camp Nama, the task force leaders established a ritual for departing personnel who did a good job, Pentagon officials said. The commanders presented them with two unusual mementos: a detainee hood and a souvenir piece of tile from the medical screening room that once held Mr. Hussein.

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