Maass Observes Behavior Revealed In WikiLeaks Files

The whistleblowing website WikiLeaks last week released documents that describe numerous instances of Iraqi security forces torturing and terrorizing prisoners while U.S. officers did nothing to stop them. Peter Maass, of The New York Times Magagzine talks to Steve Inskeep about some incidents he witnesses in an Iraqi detention center while embedded with U.S. troops in 2005.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

We're going to follow up this morning on one part of the enormous release of secret documents from the war in Iraq. The website WikiLeaks disclosed them over the weekend.

INSKEEP: Among many other things, the document detail prisoners tortured or killed, and that's what we're going to discuss this morning with Peter Maass. He wrote years ago for The New York Times about Iraqis abusing prisoners while Americans looked on. Now he's been looking at the WikiLeaks documents. He's on the line from New York City.

Mr. Maass, welcome to the program.

Mr. PETER MAASS (Journalist, Author): Great to be with you.

INSKEEP: What are you seeing in these documents?

Mr. MAASS: Well, I'm seeing events described that correlate pretty much exactly to the sorts of events that I saw myself when I was, in particular, in Samarra, Iraq in 2005, when I saw Iraqi special police commandos threatening to execute prisoners unless they gave them information, when I saw these Iraqi security forces beating up prisoners. And all the while, American soldiers were pretty much standing right there, looking at their shoes, not intervening.

INSKEEP: Let's remember what the situation was in 2005 and in some surrounding years. The war was going very badly, it was extremely brutal, and Americans were trying to turn over more and more authority for the war to Iraqis. What dilemma did that put Americans in?

Mr. MAASS: What they were confronted with is a group that was very violent. I talked to one of the captains in the 3rd Infantry Division who was going out all the time on these patrols and I got to know pretty well. And after we came back after one patrol where a prisoner had been beaten up, I said to him: You know, why aren't you doing anything? And he said look, you know, I can't. Because if I did, I'd be doing it all the time, and they'd no longer go out with us. So I just kind of save my interventions for when I think somebody's going to get killed or harmed in a really life-threatening way.

INSKEEP: You know, we can listen to one of the American soldiers who was in that dilemma. This is a man that I met in Baghdad in 2006, Sergeant Kyle Gybe, who was attempting to work with and helped to train the Iraqi National Police. And he described their treatment of prisoners.

Sgt. KYLE GYBE (U.S. Marine Corps): They have this nasty habit of freaking putting sandbags over their heads and popping them one with the butt strokes of their weapons. But we're always there trying to stop it, because they automatically assume: Hey, we picked this guy up. He's automatically a bad guy. But a week down the road, they're, like, go. And we're trying to make them understand that they're not all bad guys, but if you butt stroke one of them with a freaking thing over their head, they're going to turn into bad guys and not like you anymore.

INSKEEP: That's a U.S. Marine in Iraq in 2006. Peter Maass, did you actually witness misbehavior like that yourself as a reporter in Iraq in 2005?

Mr. MAASS: I witnessed a lot of behavior of that sort. One time, I was taken to the detention center in Samarra to interview a Saudi jihadi who had just been captured. And as I was walking to the entrance of it, I saw a prisoner who was being beaten up by one of the Iraqi guards, and then I was taken to a room to interview the Saudi.

While I was doing that, there was this terrible scream, just a horrible scream that was filled with pain and terror. It was quite obviously a scream, as far as I could tell, of somebody who was been hurt, who was being tortured. And it was so loud and so disturbing that the Americans - one of the Americans in the room left the room to go find out what was going on because it was disturbing the interview. I couldn't do it. These kinds of things were endemic, and Americans were exposed to them - even an American journalist, like myself, who was supposed to be actually kept away from them. You could not avoid them at that time.

INSKEEP: What did American officials say when you reported that?

Mr. MAASS: The response actually amongst the military hierarchy - and this is actually directly from General Petraeus, who I got a response from at the time. He was in charge of training and advising - was positive. They liked the story, actually, because this story showed that there was a group - the Iraqi special police commandos - who were willing to take the fight to the enemy. The American military was kind of so desperate for a success, so desperate show that, you know, there was something coming out of its effort to find Iraqis and train them to fight that they were willing - quite gladly - to, even after this story came out say, yes. These are our guys.

INSKEEP: Mm. So what does it mean that this story of Americans standing around, to some degree, tolerating abuse and torture and brutality is resurrected now by WikiLeaks? What does that mean?

Mr. MAASS: It gives us a chance now that the very worst of the war is over, now that the desperation of those times is behind us in terms of needing to find something, anything that would fight on behalf of the Iraqi government, it gives us a chance to acknowledge, accept and perhaps atone for these things that we did - these things that we allowed to happen which we probably should not have allowed to happen.

INSKEEP: Is there any side of you that, at the same time, feels - as some people listening I'm sure will feel - that, wow. These were secret documents. This is really awkward. It's really embarrassing. The military didn't want this. Is it really worth it to dredge all this up again?

Mr. MAASS: Well, yeah, to use one the oldest quotes in history, you know, "those who forget history are condemned to repeat it." Even those these happened and there was some reporting on it at the time, it just did not sink in. And we need to it to sink in because, you know, we need to understand that this was a mistake and people were killed, people were hurt who should not have been killed, who should not have been hurt. So this is, I think, a very important opportunity for us to learn from this, to acknowledge it.

INSKEEP: Peter Maass writes for The New York Times magazine.

Peter, thanks very much.

Mr. MAASS: Thank you.

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