June 17, 2009 -- Obama's new pick to oversee U.S. forces in Afghanistan misled Congress about his role in the use of so-called "enhanced interrogation" by U.S. Special Operations forces in 2003 and 2004, a senior Democratic senator has charged.
Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI) said late last week that then-Special Operations commander Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal was not direct with lawmakers at his confirmation hearing regarding his approval of harsh interrogations by personnel under his control.
"[T]his testimony appears to be incomplete, at best," Feingold said in a statement published in the Congressional Record June 11. For that reason and others, he said he opposed Obama's nomination of McChrystal to lead the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan.
Despite Feingold's comments, he did not object when the Senate approved McChrystal under unanimous consent to his new post June 10. The senator's comments were first reported by the Secrecy News newsletter.
Under McChrystal, Special Forces personnel helped operate prisoner camps in Iraq that generated some of the most serious allegations of detainee abuse of the post-9/11 era, including severe beatings with rifle butts, burning and more. But during his Senate confirmation hearing last week, McChrystal characterized himself as "uncomfortable" with harsh interrogation methods, and said he worked to end their use.
Harsh and sometimes-abusive treatment of prisoners was reportedly widespread among Special Forces personnel in Iraq at the time McChrystal became their chief, and reports indicate things changed little after he took the helm.
In August 2003, one month before McChrystal assumed command of Joint Special Operations Command, the CIA reportedly barred its officers from working at Camp Nama, a JSOC-operated facility in Iraq for holding and interrogating so-called "high value" terrorism targets, because military personnel there had become so aggressive with prisoners.
The camp, located at Baghdad International Airport, was reportedly posted with signs reading "No Blood, No Foul." Its name, according to defense personnel, reportedly stood for "Nasty *ss Military Area."
New U.S. Afghan Commander Under Fire for Testimony
McChrystal was said to have visited the camps on several occasions during the period prisoners were allegedly abused, and was reportedly briefed on allegations of abuse and other misconduct. Roughly three dozen camp personnel have faced discipline for mistreating prisoners, and at least 11 were removed from the unit, according to the New York Times, although not all mistreatment occurred under McCrystal's watch.
Army investigators dropped a separate inquiry because the camp personnel's use of fake names for each other "made it impossible to identify and locate the soldiers involved," the Times reported in 2006.
During McChrystal's Senate testimony June 2, the general said he was "uncomfortable" with some of the so-called "enhanced" interrogation procedures some have called torture, and when he became JSOC chief, "immediately began" to work to reduce the practice.
But Feingold noted McChrystal for several months allowed such techniques to be used under his command for several months, until CENTCOM Commander Gen. John Abizaid barred the practices in May 2004.
Even then, according to Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), who pressed the general on the matter, McChrystal petitioned Abizaid to allow his personnel to continue using some, including sleep deprivation, stress positions and other techniques. His request was not granted.
In an effort to support his claims at the hearing, McChrystal explained to Levin afterwards that in March 2004 – six months after taking over as JSOC commander – he restricted the use of several harsh techniques by requiring high-level approval, and sought other ways of making his troops' interrogation practices more "humane" and "effective."
But some have said that the approval process was little barrier to using harsh tactics. "There was an authorization template on a computer," one soldier told human rights investigators. "And it was a checklist. And it was all already typed out for you, environmental controls, hot and cold, you know, strobe lights, music, so forth…But you would just check what you want to use off, and if you planned on using a harsh interrogation you'd just get it signed off." That soldier told the investigators he never saw a sheet that wasn't signed.
Senator "Troubled, Dismayed" Over General's Claims
"I have numerous concerns, both about this history and about General McChrystal's public testimony," Feingold said in his statement published last Thursday, calling himself both "troubled" and "dismayed."
Feingold said in his June 11 statement inserted into the Congressional Record that he was also troubled by a "classified matter" that raises "serious concerns," although he gave no other details on that issue. Feingold said he explained himself in a letter to President Obama.
Neither the White House nor a spokesman for Gen. McChrystal responded to requests for comment.