The Golden Dome
There's a joke interrogators like to tell: "What's the difference between a 'gator and a used car salesman?" Answer: "A 'gator has to abide by the Geneva Conventions."
We 'gators don't hawk Chevys; we sell hope to prisoners and find targets for shooters. Today, my group of 'gators arrives in Iraq at a time when our country is searching for a better way to conduct sales.
After 9/11, military interrogators focused on two techniques: fear and control. The Army trained their 'gators to confront and dominate prisoners. This led down the disastrous path to the Abu Ghraib scandal. At Guantánamo Bay, the early interrogators not only abused the detainees, they tried to belittle their religious beliefs. I'd heard stories from a friend who had been there that some of the 'gators even tried to convert prisoners to Christianity.
These approaches rarely yielded results. When the media got wind of what those 'gators were doing, our disgrace was detailed on every news broadcast and front page from New York to Islamabad.
Things are about to change. Traveling inside the bowels of an air force C???130 transport, my group is among the first to bring a new approach to interrogating detainees. Respect, rapport, hope, cunning, and deception are our tools. The old ones — fear and control — are as obsolete as the buggy whip. Unfortunately, not everyone embraces change.
The C???130 sweeps low over mile after mile of nothingness. Sand dunes, flats, red-orange to the horizon are all I can see through my porthole window in the rear of our four-engine ride. It is as desolate as it was in biblical times. Two millenia later, little has changed but the methods with which we kill.
"Never thought I'd be back here again," I remark to my seatmate, Ann. She's a noncommissioned officer (NCO) in her early thirties, a tough competitor and an athlete on the air force volleyball team.
She passes me a handful of M&M's. We've been swapping snacks all through the flight. "When were you here?" she asks, peering out at the desertscape below. Her long blonde hair peeks out from under her Kevlar helmet.
"Three years ago. April of o???three," I reply.
That was a wild ride. I'd been stationed in Saudi Arabia as a counterintelligence agent. A one-day assignment had sent me north to Baghdad, shivering in the back of another C???130 Hercules.
Below us today the southern Iraqi desert looks calm. Nothing moves; the small towns we pass over appear empty. In 2003 it was a different story. We flew in at night, and I watched the remnants of the war go by from 200 feet, a set of night-vision goggles strapped to my head. Tracer bullets and triple A (antiaircraft artillery) arced out of the dark ground past our aircraft, our pilot banking the Herc hard to avoid the barrages. Most of the way north, the night was laced with fire. Yet when we landed at Baghdad International, we found the place eerie and quiet. Burned-out tanks and armored vehicles lay broken around the perimeter. I later found out they'd been destroyed by marauding A???10 Warthogs.
On this return flight, we face no opposition. The pilots fly low and smooth. The cargo section of these C???130's is always cold. I pop the M&M's into my mouth and fold my arms across my chest. The engines beat a steady cadence as the C???130 shivers and bucks. Ann puts her iPod's buds in her ears and closes her eyes. Next to her, I start to doze.
An hour later, I wake up. A quick check out of the porthole reveals the sprawl of Baghdad below. We cross the Tigris River, and I see one of Saddam's former palaces that I'd seen in '03.
"We're getting close," I say to Ann.
She removes her earbuds.
"What?" she asks.
Mike, another agent in my group, leans in from across the aisle to join our conversation. He offers me beef jerky, and I take a piece.
"We're getting close," I repeat myself.
We reach our destination, a base north of Baghdad. The C???130 swings into the pattern and within minutes, the pilots paint the big transport onto the runway. We taxi for a little while, then swing into a parking space. The pilots cut the engines. The ramp behind us drops, and I see several enlisted men step inside the bird to grab our bags. Each of us brought five duffels plus our gun cases. When we walk, we look like two-legged baggage carts.
"Welcome to the war," somebody says behind me.
After hours of those big turboprops churning away, all is quiet. We descend from the side door just aft of the cockpit. As we hit the tarmac, a bus drives up. A female civilian contractor jumps out and says, "Okay, load up!"
Just as I find a seat on the bus I hear a dull thump, like somebody's just slammed a door in a nearby building — except there aren't any nearby buildings.
A siren starts to wail.
"Oh my God!" screams our driver. "Mortars!"
She stands up from behind the wheel and dives for the nearly closed door, where she promptly gets stuck. Half-in, half-out of the bus she screams, "Mortars! Mortars!"
We look on with wry smiles.
Another dull thud echoes in the distance. The driver flies into a panic. "Get to the bunkers now! Bunkers! Move!" She finally extricates herself from the door and I see her running at high speed down the tarmac.
"Shall we?" I ask Ann.
"Better than waiting for her to come back."
We get off the bus and lope after our driver. We watch her head into a long concrete shelter and we follow and duck inside behind her. It is pitch black.
Another thump. This one seems closer. The ground shakes a little.
It is very dark in here. The bunker is more like a long, U???shaped tunnel. I can't help but think about bugs and spiders. This would be their Graceland.
"Watch out for camel spiders," I say to Ann. She's still next to me.
"What's a camel spider?" she asks.
"A big, aggressive desert spider," says a nearby voice. I can't see who said that, but I recognize the voice. It is Mike, our Cajun. Back home he's a lawyer and a former police sniper. He's a fit thirty-year-old civilian agent obsessed with tactical gear.
"How big?" Ann asks dubiously. She's not sure if we're pulling her leg. We're not.
"About as big as your hand," I say.
"I hear they can jump three feet high," says Steve. He's a thirty-year-old NCO and another agent in our group of air force investigators-turned-interrogators. This tall, buzz-cut adrenaline junkie from the Midwest likes racing funny cars in his spare time. In the States, his cockiness was suspect. Out here, I wonder if it won't be exactly what we need.
"Seriously?" Ann asks.
Thump! The bunker shivers. Another mortar has landed. This one even closer.
"I'm still more worried about the spiders," Mike says.
I have visions of a camel spider scuttling across my boot. I look down, but it's so dark that I can't even see my feet.
The all-clear signal sounds. We file out of the bunker and make our way back to the bus. The driver tails us, looking haggard and embarrassed. Her panic attack cost her whatever respect we could have for her. We climb aboard her bus and she takes us to our next stop.
We "inprocess," waiting in line for the admin types to stamp our paperwork. We have no idea what's taking them so long. Hurry up. Wait. Hurry up. Wait. It's the rhythm of the military.
Steve finishes first and walks over to us. "Hey, one of the admin guys just told me a mortar round landed right around the corner and killed a soldier."
The news is like cold water. Any thought of complaining about the wait dies on our tongues. We'd been cavalier about the attack. Now it seems real.
A half hour passes before we are processed. Our driver shows up with the first sergeant and shuttles us across the base to the Special Forces compound where we'll stay until we accomplish our mission (whatever that is).
When I went home in June, 2003, I thought the war was over — mission accomplished — but it had just changed form. We've arrived in Iraq near the war's third anniversary. The army, severely stretched between two wars and short of personnel, has reached out to the other services for help. Our small group was handpicked by the air force to go to Iraq as interrogators to assist our brothers in green. We volunteered not knowing what we'd be doing or where. Some of us thought we'd go to Afghanistan, perhaps joining the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Only at the last minute before we left the States did we find out where we were going. We still don't know our mission, but we've been told it has the highest priority.
We're all special agents and experienced criminal investigators for the air force. One of us is a civilian agent and the rest of us are military. I'm the only officer. Ever since the Abu Ghraib fiasco, the army has struggled in searching for new ways to extract information from detainees. We offer an alternative approach. In the weeks to come, we'll try to prove our new techniques work, but if we cross the wrong people, we'll be sent home. They told us that much before we left for the sandbox.
Later that night, after stashing our bags in our trailer homes, we sit in the interrogation unit's briefing room down the hall from the commander's office. Xxx xxxxxxx xxxx xxxxxxx xx xx x xxxxxx Xxxxxx-xxx xxxxxx xxxx'x xxxx xxxxxxxxxxxx xx xxxxxx xxxxx.
My agents are called one by one into the commander's office for an evaluation. All of them pass. Finally, a tall, black-haired Asian-American man with a bushy black beard steps into the briefing room. "Matthew?" he says to me.
I step forward. He regards me and says, "I'm David, the senior interrogator." He leads me to the commander's office and follows me inside.
"Have a seat," David says.
I look around. There's only one free chair, a plush, overstuffed leather number next to one of the desks, so I settle into it.
The office is cramped, made even more claustrophobic by two large desks squatting in opposite corners. Behind one is a gruff-looking sergeant major. David sits next to the door. A third man watches me intently from the far corner, and the interrogation unit commander, Roger, sits behind a desk to my right.
Everyone else sitting in the room is in ergonomic hell. I feel uneasy as I take the best seat in the house. Roger explains to me that this is an informal board designed to make sure we'd be a good fit for the interrogation unit. "We're going to ask you some questions."
I struggle to sit up. The chair has me in a comfy grip. If I'm about to be grilled, this is the last chair I want to be in. I finally have to sit forward, back rigid, to find a position that doesn't make me look like an overrelaxed flake.
"Look," Roger says, "We're happy to have you here."
"Glad to be here."
"Okay, let's get started. David, do you want to go first?"
"Sure," he says. He has dark rings under both eyes.
"Tell me, what countries border Iraq?" David asks.
"Turkey to the north. Iran to the east, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to the south, Jordan and Syria to the west." I answer. My mind races. Did I miss anything between Syria and Turkey?
"Okay. What's the difference between Shia and Sunni?"
That's an easy one. "It goes back to the schism in Islam caused by the death of Muhammad. Sunnis believe that the legitimate successor was Muhammad's closest disciple, Abu Bakr. Shia believe the succession should have been passed through his cousin Ali, who was also his daughter Fatima's husband. The Shia lost, and Abu Bakr retained leadership until he died."
David, thinking I'm finished, starts to ask something else. Before he can, I continue, "When Abu Bakr died, the Shia tried to recapture the leadership of Islam, but Ali's son Hussein was murdered outside Karbala, and the Sunnis have held the balance of power ever since."
"What the fuck makes you think you can do this job?" It is the sergeant major.
"I'm a criminal investigator and I interrogated on the criminal side. Plus I've worked with Saudis so I understand the culture."
He doesn't look mollified. "You're a major, right?" he almost sneers when he says my rank.
"Around here, there is no rank. We are on a first-name basis. If some young sergeant ends up giving you orders, are you going to have a hard fucking time with that?"
"I never confuse competence with rank," I reply.
"Fuckin' A," the sergeant major says.
The man in the far corner steps up to the plate. "I'm Doctor Brady. I want to know if you consider yourself bright enough for this job. You're going to be interrogating Al Qaida leaders and men much older than you. What makes you think you can outsmart them?"
"I don't have to outsmart them," I say. "We'll have to outsmart them. I know there'll be a team of analysts supporting me."
We've come full circle. Roger takes the stage and asks, "If you saw somebody, say an interpreter, threatening a detainee, what would you do?"
"I'd make him stop."
"What if you only suspect he's threatening the detainee in Arabic and it's helping your interrogation?"
"I'd pull him aside and ask him what's going on. If he didn't stop, I'd bring it up with you."
"How do you feel about waterboarding, or other enhanced interrogation techniques?"
Ah, the heart of the matter. Ever since Abu Ghraib everyone in the interrogation business has been on edge. Careers are at stake. Jail time is at stake.
"I'm opposed to enhanced techniques. They're against Geneva Conventions and, ultimately, they do more harm than good. Besides we don't need them."
"What do you mean?"
"A good interrogator can get the information he needs in more subtle ways," I reply.
"Okay," Roger says dismissively, "Wait outside. We need to talk."
Ten minutes later, I'm called back in. Roger smiles and shakes my hand. "Welcome aboard. Get ready because everything will come at you fast. Rule number one: we have a no???tolerance policy for violations of Geneva Conventions. You'll sit in on three interrogations to see how we do things, then you'll be on your own."
David adds, "By the way, do you have any leadership experience?"
"That's pretty much what I do," I reply.
"Good," Roger says. "In three weeks, we're going to need a new senior interrogator. You're it."
Laughter erupts around the room. Apparently, this is a job nobody wants. Looking at David, I think I can understand why.
"It means longer hours," David tells me.
"Whatever it takes."
"Good. We're about to have our twenty-three hundred meeting. Come with us and learn. Then grab some sleep. You'll start first thing in the morning."
I follow David, Roger, the sergeant major, and the doc down the hall to a briefing room. Here the entire interrogation unit is gathered. As we walk in, David says to me, "We've got interrogators and analysts here. The analysts brief us before every interrogation. They tell us what they want to get from each detainee. Got it?"
"It'll be your job to get the stuff they need. How you do it will be up to you."
David goes to sit at the head table, and I find a seat next to Mike and my group of agents at the back of the room. In the front of the room is a rectangular table with the interrogation unit's leadership — the commander, the senior interrogator, the senior analyst, the doc, the admin guy, and the operations officer. The ops officer is a short stocky guy with a neatly trimmed beard named Randy who looks like Rob Thomas, the floppy-haired lead singer of Matchbox Twenty. He runs the meeting. Each of the interrogators and analysts take turns discussing the detainees as their faces appear on a large flat-screen television in front of us. Randy lays out the priorities for the next shift, then talks about what's 0been discovered from the previous one. Toward the end of the meeting, a colonel walks into the room.
Someone next to us says, "That's the task force commander. Veteran of the Battle of Mogadishu, which Black Hawk Down was based on."
He's charismatic enough to have played himself in the movie. He has short black hair and an athletic build and he walks with a casual confidence. His voice is low and deliberate. It's obvious that he is a man of few words.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he begins. "I'm proud of what you've accomplished so far. I see how hard you work and I know you will achieve success. Right now, though, we need to pick up the pace."
He pauses. The colonel is a natural orator. "You have the toughest job in the country."
It strikes me that we don't know what our new job is, besides interrogating detainees and getting information.
The colonel reveals it. "For you new guys, here's a rundown. Last month, Al Qaida blew up the Golden Dome Mosque in Samarra. This was a Shia shrine — one of their holiest. To a Catholic it'd be like blowing up the Sistine Chapel."
He lets that sink in. "The destruction of the Golden Dome Mosque has prompted a surge in sectarian violence. Al Qaida's leader here in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, has made it his mission to spark a civil war between Sunni and Shia. From now on, you have only one objective: find Zarqawi and kill him before he can do that. Everyone is counting on you."
He turns and strides out of the room.
We've just joined the hunt for the most wanted man in Iraq.Copyright © 2008 by Matthew Alexander