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September 6, 2008

Revelations of an Abu Ghraib Interrogator


by Jim Lobe

Few people have thought as much about the morality of the US occupation of Iraq than Joshua Casteel, a former US Army interrogator who served at Abu Ghraib prison in the wake of the detainee abuse scandal there.

Once a cadet at the US Military Academy at West Point and raised in an evangelical Christian home, Casteel became a conscientious objector while he was stationed at the prison.

It wasn't the kind of abuse shown in the famous graphic images that made him feel morally compelled to leave the military – Casteel says that kind of behavior had ceased by the time he showed up in June 2004 – but the experience of gleaning information speaking to the detainees in their own language.

Those experiences, and the spiritual awakening Casteel experienced inside the walls of the prison, are contained in "Letters from Abu Ghraib", a compendium of e-mail messages he sent home from the prison, which was published last month by Iowa's Essay Press.

The e-mails, compiled in a lean 118-page volume, are less concerned with the details of prison operations than their moral implications. By what right, the former interrogator asks, does one derive the authority to question prisoners as part of a military occupation?

It's an important question to ask and timely too given the steady growth in the number of Iraqi prisoners in US custody over the course of its occupation of Iraq. Pentagon statistics show the US military now holds over 24,000 "security detainees" in Iraq – more than double the number incarcerated by Coalition at the time of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal four and a half years ago.

US forces are holding nearly all of these persons indefinitely, without an arrest warrant, without charge, and with no right to any type of open legal proceedings. It's perhaps a mark of the failure of the United States' political and religious establishments that it falls to a US Army Specialist like Joshua Casteel to wrestle with the moral difficulties of these massive imprisonments. "Letters from Abu Ghraib" shows how the ethical failures of their leaders affect soldiers on the ground.

When he first arrives at Abu Ghraib's interrogation center, Casteel tells his family he really loves his work. "I see my job much more as a Father Confessor than an interrogator," he writes, "As a Confessor you cannot coerce a person to reveal that which they wish to hide. A Confessor's aim is to help the one confessing to be sincere, to arrive at the kind of contrition that actually desires self-disclosure – and to that end, empathy and understanding go a long way."

But Casteel, who prays daily and considers "keeping the liturgy with others and taking the Eucharist – Communion" to be "the most important part of the week," begins to feel uncomfortable after just a few weeks on the ground.

"The weight of the job sometimes is more painfully present to me than at other times," he writes a month into the deployment. He is uncomfortable "exploiting" prisoners for their "intelligence" value rather then interacting with them as fully equal human beings.

Making matters worse is that many of the detainees he interrogated turned out to be completely innocent.

"I was constantly being asked, 'Why am I being held here? I want answers!'" Casteel told IPS. "But that was my job. We were supposed to be finding answers to our questions, but we kept being put into situations that were incredibly puzzling because talking to people was like trying to get blood from a turnip. They were the ones that had a greater justification for the need to have answers."

Faced with such a dilemma, Casteel turns to an army chaplain for help. "We talked, I vexed and I summoned whatever strength we could conclude upon to go back to my interrogation...He prayed me back into combat," Casteel writes. "I was no longer afraid to demand authority, to play upon certain weaknesses of my detainee, and to question in a most heated fashion – because ultimately, I thought, it would lead me to a more accurate assessment of the veracity of his statements.'

"I transgressed no lines of 'proper conduct,' but I certainly, and without hesitation, used a man's anxieties, weaknesses and fears, and my particular place of power and dominance to assess him according to his word...And I even left with what I thought was a clearer picture of the man I was assessing – perhaps to his benefit. So, why did I feel like a complete failure?"

The answer to his question comes in October 2004, five months into his tour at Abu Ghraib.

"I had an interrogation with a 22-year-old Saudi Arabian who was very straightforward that he had come to Iraq to conduct jihad," Casteel said. "We started having a conversation about religion and ethics and he told me that I was a very strange man who was a Christian but didn't follow the teachings of Jesus to love my enemy and pray for the persecuted...I told him that I thought he was right and that there was a massive contradiction involved with me doing my job and being a Christian."

"I wanted to have a conversation with him about ethics and the cycle of vengeance and how idiotic it was that his people said it was okay for him to come and kill me and my people told me it was okay to kill him," he said in an interview. "Why is it that we can't find a different path together?"

Since that type of conversation was not possible as a US Army interrogator, Joshua Casteel filed an application for discharge as a conscientious objector. Much to his surprise, his command endorsed it, and offered to speed his transition out of the Army. He now hopes to serve as a bridge between conservative Christians and the antiwar left.

He hopes "Letters from Abu Ghraib" will "give conservative Christians an unfiltered picture of one Christian's wrestling with violence and also help the secular world get a backstage pass to the way a conservative Christian operates."

Since his discharge, Casteel converted to Catholicism, attracted by the Church's tradition of "social teaching," and has worked with other like-minded Catholics to push the Church play a more active role in bringing the war to an end.

He's excited his book has been assigned to students at a number of Catholic high schools in the Midwest and the former interrogator has been invited to speak at religious schools from New Jersey to Colorado.

"Catholics are 30 percent of the military. They're equally 30 percent of Congress," he said. "The Vatican had a strong rebuke of the Iraq war but the Iraq war could not have happened were it not for Catholics. Christ has turned up in the people of Iraq's bodies and it's Iraq that's getting crucified and it's largely Christian America that's allowed to be prosperous in the midst of it."

(Inter Press Service)


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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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