Friday, March 10, 2006

The Court-Martial of Willie Brand

The following is a transcript of a segment that appeared on CBS' "60 Minutes" broadcast on Sunday, March 5.

You wouldn't figure Willie Brand for a killer. He's a quiet young soldier from Cincinnati who volunteered to be a guard at a U.S. military prison in Bagram, Afghanistan. But when 60 Minutes met him, Brand was facing a court-martial in the deaths of two prisoners. The prisoners were found hanging from chains in their isolation cells. They had been beaten; one of them was "pulpified," according to the medical examiner.

Brand told correspondent Scott Pelley what he did wasn't torture, it was his training, authorized and supervised by his superiors. So how is it he was charged with assault, maiming and manslaughter?

"I didn't understand how they could do this after they had trained you to do this stuff and they turn around and say you've been bad you shouldn't have done this stuff now they're going to charge you with assault, maiming and 'unvoluntary' manslaughter, how can this be when they trained you to do it and they condoned it while you were doing it," says Brand.

"[The] Army says you are a violent man," Pelley said.

"They do say that, but I'm not a violent person," Brand replied.

But there was violence in the prison. A man named Habibullah and a cab driver called Dilawar died only days after they had been brought in on suspicion of being Taliban fighters.

"They brought death upon themselves as far as I'm concerned," says Capt. Christopher Beiring, who was Brand's commanding officer as head of the prison guards. Beiring was charged with dereliction of duty, but the charge was later dropped.

Asked whether compared to other detainees Habibullah was more or less aggressive, Beiring says, "Yes, absolutely more. He was probably the worst we had."

What kind of prisoner was Dilawar?

"I wouldn't categorize him as the worst but he, but he definitely, several of my soldiers would say that he would test them, fight with them kick, trip, try to bite, spit. That's typically what a fighter does," Beiring recalls.

Dilawar was picked up outside a U.S. base that had been hit by a rocket. Habibullah was brought in by the CIA, rumored to be a high-ranking Taliban. Both of them were locked in isolation cells with hoods over their heads and their arms shackled to the ceiling.

Their shackled hands, according to Brand, were at about eye level. The point of chaining them to the ceiling, Brand says, was to keep the detainees awake by not letting them lie down and sleep.

Interrogators wanted the prisoners softened up.

Asked what the longest period of time Brand saw a detainee chained like that, Brand says, "Probably about two days."

"Two days? Without a break?" Pelley asked.

"Without a break," Brand replied.

Capt. Beiring says he doesn't know of prisoners chained that long. But in general, he had no problem with the procedure.

"They weren't in pain. They weren't, as far as I'm concerned they weren't being abused. It seemed OK to me. If I was a prisoner, I would think that would probably be acceptable," says Beiring.

Brand says something else was thought to be acceptable in the prison: a brutal way of controlling prisoners - a knee to the common peroneal nerve in the leg, a strike with so much force behind it that the prisoner would lose muscle control and collapse in pain.

Brand says he vaguely remembers giving knee strikes to Habibullah.

How did the detainee react to that?

"The same way everybody else did. I mean he would scream out 'Allah, Allah, Allah'; sometimes his legs would buckle and sometimes it wouldn't," Brand explained.

It wasn't only Willie Brand. A confidential report by the Army's criminal investigation division accuses dozens of soldiers of abuse, including "slamming [a prisoner] into walls [and a] table," "forcing water into his mouth until he could not breathe," giving "kicks to the groin" and once, according to the report, a soldier "threatened to rape a male detainee." Soldiers even earned nicknames including "King of Torture" and "Knee of Death."

Habibullah and Dilawar were found dead in their cells, hanging from their chains. The military medical examiner says Dilawar's legs were pulpified. Both autopsy reports were marked "homicide." But the Army spokesman in Afghanistan told the media that both men had died of natural causes. With two deaths in a week, the Army decided to investigate. But the facts only began to become public months later in an article in The New York Times.

"I could smell that I was looking at what I thought was a cover-up," says retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson.

Back in Washington, Wilkerson smelled trouble, and so did his boss. Wilkerson was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. In 2004, during the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal in Iraq, Powell asked Wilkerson to investigate how Americans had come to torture.

"I was developing the picture as to how this all got started in the first place, and that alarmed me as much as the abuse itself because it looked like authorization for this abuse went to the very top of the United States government," says Wilkerson.

In 2002, the "top of the government" was divided over whether the Geneva Convention applied to prisoners in Afghanistan. The resulting presidential directive tried to have it both ways ordering that the "…armed forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely" but Geneva would apply only "to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity...."

It's Wilkerson's opinion that the Army chose to ignore Geneva when it issued new rules for interrogations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"That essentially says to the troops at the bottom of the rung that you have a new game," Wilkerson says. "You can use the methods that aren't in accordance with Geneva. You can use methods that are other than when you've been taught, trained and told you could use. That, that is an invitation, a license to go beyond that, especially when you're also putting on them tremendous pressure to produce intelligence."

Capt. Beiring acknowledges that there was some confusion. "Because a lot of people didn't really know, what are their status? Who are these people? Did they sign the Geneva Convention? Who are they and what do we do with them? So there was some confusion," he says.

"Can you tell me whether anyone up the chain of command above you was aware that the prisoners were being shackled with their hands up about shoulder high?" Pelley asked.

"Absolutely," Beiring said.

"Who knew?" Pelley asked.

"Several of my leaders knew because we had them like that, you know, there was probably one or two like that any given day. And we didn't change the procedure if someone came through whether they were a colonel or a general, we left them the same. They seen (sic) what was going on there," Beiring answered.

Pelley asked Brand if other leaders knew what was going on.

Gen. Daniel McNeill, the top officer in Afghanistan, said "we are not chaining people to the ceilings."

Brand disagreed. "Well, he's lying obviously. I mean because we were doing it on a daily basis," he says.

"Gen. Theodore Nicholas, he was the top military intelligence officer in Afghanistan said that he did not recall prisoners being shackled with their arms overhead. Is that reasonable?" Pelley asked.

"No," Brand replied.

"Lt. Col. Ronald Stallings told investigators, quote, 'he had no idea,' end quote, that prisoners were being chained overhead for 24 hours and more. What you seem to be saying is that it was common knowledge," Pelley said.

"Yes," Brand said.

"It wasn't being kept a secret from the chain of command?" Pelley asked.

"No," Brand replied.

We don't know whether Gen. McNeill toured the prison, Brand doesn't specifically remember him there. But Gen. Nicholas and Lt. Col. Stallings were there. 60 Minutes wanted to speak with all three, but they declined.

There were inspection tours at the prison, run by the Red Cross. But the Red Cross didn't see everything. For example, it didn't see the instructions written on a dry erase board that told the guards how long prisoners were to be chained.

"We didn't want them to know - we didn't think they had an operational reason to know," says Capt. Beiring. "It also had other things on there like if a detainee was fighting or being punished for doing stuff wrong or if he didn't eat his food or he wasn't drinking, but yes, we erased that board so the ICRC we didn't think they had the need to know."

There was a lot the Red Cross didn't know. Medical experts say that Dilawar's injuries were so severe that, if he had lived, both his legs would have required amputation. Even worse, one soldier testified that most of the interrogators thought Dilawar had been arrested only because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. They had come to believe he was just a cab driver.

"And so we killed an innocent man, and that's something else that got me as I went though this, got me very concerned as to not just what we are doing to perhaps al Qaeda or al Qaeda-like terrorists or even insurgents when we come to Iraq, but what were doing to innocents," says Wilkerson.

Wilkerson says the Secretary of State, who devoted much of his life to the Army, was enraged. As the Abu Ghraib torture scandal was breaking, Wilkerson says his boss snapped up the phone and called Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

"And he essentially said, 'Don, don't you know what you're doing to our credibility around the world don't you know what you're doing to our image?' And for Secretary Powell to raise his voice that way was quite extraordinary. I've only heard him do it maybe five times in 16 years," says Wilkerson.

"What do you mean he raised his voice?" Pelley asked.

"I'm sure Secretary Rumsfeld was probably holding the phone away from his ear," Wilkerson replied.

In August, Willie Brand faced court-martial. Prosecutors said he and other guards had struck the prisoners dozens and dozens of times.

"People watching this interview are thinking, 'Look, this guy came into this facility, he was there five days and he was dead. He died in five days' time,' How did that happen?" Pelley asked.

"I don't really know how that happened," Brand replied.

"You hit him, you hit him numerous times. Did you think it was you?" Pelley asked.

"No," Brand replied.

"The Army would have us believe that you were operating outside the rules," Pelley said.

"This is what we were trained to do, and this is what we did. And not only that I was not the only one, there were many other people hitting them - and this was going on on a daily basis and nothing was said about it," Brand said.

But Capt. Beiring says those were not his orders. He says those knee strikes were to be used only for self-defense.

"You've read the Army investigation, and in it some of the witnesses say one of the soldiers was nicknamed the 'King of Torture' another one had quote the 'Knee of Death.' You were there; were you not seeing this?" Pelley asked Beiring.

"No, I was not," Beiring replied. "Some nicknames, as a commander you are fairly removed from the junior soldiers, so nicknames could have occurred that I did not know about."

"It's not the nicknames, it's how they got the nicknames that matters," Pelley said.

"I can't say for sure, I can only say I never witnessed any of my soldiers do anything that was out of line," Beiring said.

Still, a letter of reprimand has been written that blisters Beiring. It says his "command failures enabled an environment of abuse." But the charges that could have brought court-martial against him were dropped. An investigating officer said that Beiring "may not have done his duty perfectly, but he did it well." Beiring is appealing the reprimand.

Asked if he, in retrospect, has any sympathy for Habibullah and Dilawar, Beiring says, "Sure, I have some sympathy. I wish they were born Americans."

At his court-martial, Willie Brand was convicted of assault and maiming. He faced 16 years. But the jury of soldiers had it both ways. They convicted him and let him go with a reduction in rank, nothing more. So far, 15 soldiers have been charged in the Bagram abuse. The sentences range from letters of reprimand to five months in jail. No one above the rank of captain has been charged.

Retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, after serving 31 years in the Army, has drawn his own conclusions about how interrogation procedures were changed in Afghanistan and later in Iraq.

How did it go wrong?

"It went wrong because we had a secretary of defense who had never served on the ground a day in his life, who was arrogant and thought that he could release those twin pressures on the backs of his armed forces, the twin pressures being a wink and a nod, you can do a lot of things that you know don't correspond to Geneva, don't correspond to your code of conduct, don't correspond to the Army field manual, and at the same time I want intelligence, I want intelligence, I want it now," says Wilkerson.

While Secretary Rumsfeld never served in combat, he was a Navy aviator and retired from the reserves as a captain. 60 Minutes wanted to talk with Secretary Rumsfeld, but the Pentagon declined our requests. Since the deaths at Bagram, chaining from the ceiling has been banned. The number of prisoners there has increased fivefold, to roughly 500. The prisoners don't get lawyers, and they can't appeal their detentions. But, the military tells 60 Minutes, it reviews each prisoner's file for release at least once a year.