January 30, 2006
An army court martial convicted Chief Warrant Officer
Lewis E. Welshofer of negligent homicide on January 22
for killing Abed Hamed Mowhoush, a former major general in the
Mowhoush died after Welshofer stuffed him in a sleeping bag,
wrapped a cord around his body, straddled his broken ribs, and
covered his mouth. Welshofer’s sentence included no prison
time. Evidence has emerged in media reports that Mowhoush was
tortured to death over the course of 16 days, and that his interrogation
involved several intelligence agencies, including the CIA.
Mowhoush walked into a US base in the Iraqi city of Qaim on
November 10, 2003, hoping to secure the release of his four sons
who had been taken hostage by army troops. One of Mowhoush’s
sons told the Washington Post in an article published January
25, "They [the US Army] said if my father does not come,
you will never see your family back." Mowhoush was suspected
by US forces of helping to fund the Iraqi insurgency, which was
escalating in the months following the American invasion. The
tactic of taking prisoners to lure their relatives to surrender
is illegal under international law, but has been used on several
occasions by the US military.
During his imprisonment, Mowhoush, an ailing 56-year-old man,
was beaten to the point where he could not walk unaided and had
difficulty breathing. His son told the Post, "He was
tired and I saw wounds on his body...because they hit him so much,
they made a lot of pain on him and he couldn’t even talk
It is obvious that Welshofer’s trial was an attempt to
smooth over the edges of a US torture policy that pervades throughout
all branches of the US military and intelligence agencies. The
court martial assigned all blame for Mowhoush’s death onto
Welshofer, but even so, the soldier received no prison time. Welshofer
was originally on trial for murder, but was subsequently charged
only with negligent homicide and dereliction of duty, penalties
that carry up to three years and three months jail time, respectively.
At his final sentencing on January 23, he was given a fine
and restricted to barracks, work and his place of worship for
90 days. This negligible sentence is a clear sign from the military
that it will not seriously prosecute those who have engaged in
torture. The fact that Welshofer’s superiors—those who
authorized and encouraged the torture methods used on Mowhoush—have
not even been charged is an even more serious transgression of
Welshofer’s court martial was a whitewash of the US military’s
systematic use of torture and, more specifically, the CIA’s
participation in Mowhoush’s interrogation and torture. The
official cover-up of the incident began only hours after Mowhosh’s
death, when military officials issued a blatantly fraudulent statement
claiming that Mowhoush died of "natural causes." The
claim was later rebuked by classified documents obtained by the
The leaked documents also disclosed that Mowhoush had been
systematically tortured—by the CIA, Special Forces, army
and a CIA-funded Iraqi special operations group known as the Scorpions—at
a military detention center referred to as Blacksmith Hotel. These
are revelations of great magnitude, as they point to the direct
participation by multiple agencies in the torture and subsequent
murder of a well-known prisoner.
In an article dated August 3, 2005, the Washington Post
published excerpts from highly redacted classified documents pertaining
to Welshofer’s trial. Based on these documents, the Post
reported, "On Nov. 24, the CIA and one of its four-man Scorpion
units interrogated Mowhoush." The documents investigated
by the Post quoted testimony by Army Special Agent Curtis
Ryan stating that "When he didn’t answer or provided
an answer that they didn’t like, at first [redacted] would
slap Mowhoush, and then after a few slaps, it turned into punches,"
Ryan testified. "And then from punches, it turned into [redacted]
using a piece of hose."
The Post further reported that a provost marshal’s
report stated that after being tortured by the CIA, "four
Army guards had to carry Mowhoush back to his cell."
The torture of captured prisoners is a war crime under the
Geneva Conventions, which require the warring powers to treat
all detained combatants humanely. If war crimes tribunals are
to be held at a later date, Mowhoush’s murder will doubtless
be a very powerful weapon in the hands of prosecutors. Not only
does Mowhoush’s highly documented death leave intelligence
agents and bureaucrats involved in his case liable to prosecution,
but by providing evidence of broad inter-agency cooperation in
the torture of detainees, this incident further implicates the
top echelons in the Pentagon and CIA in war crimes.
For this reason, the military has handled the incident with
exceptional care, managing Welshofer’s court martial like
a theatrical production. Everything was done to make sure the
case did not lead to a broader exposure, including a prohibition
on discussing the role of the CIA. According to an article published
by Forbes on January 22, the CIA was mentioned only
once during the proceedings via a defense lawyer’s slip of
This occurred during the questioning of a witness who was hidden
behind a tarp to keep his identity secret. The witness informed
defense attorney Frank Spinner that Welshofer had told him that
he believed that army interrogation guidelines were being broken
on a daily basis at the detention facility where Mowhoush was
Inadvertently pointing the witness out as a CIA agent or subcontractor,
Spinner asked, "And you didn’t report it to the CIA?"
Recognizing his error, he quickly proceeded to recall the question
and apologize to the judge. In addition to the strict censorship
at the trial, Forbes reported that all documents pertaining
to the trial were stamped "secret" and were kept in
a three-foot-long locked box that had to be wheeled into the courtroom
every day and manned by a security officer. All questions from
the jury had to be pre-approved in writing to keep jurors from
revealing secret information.
According to reports, Welshofer was acting in accordance with
military practice when he killed Mowhoush—his "improvised"
sleeping bag technique was approved by his commanding officer.
In the August 3 article cited above, the Washington Post
reported, "Col. David A. Teeples, who then commanded the
3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, told the court he believed the 'claustrophobic
technique’ was both approved and effective. It was used before,
and for some time after, Mowhoush’s death, according to sources
familiar with the interrogation operation."
Keeping in line with the US government’s tacit endorsement
of torture as an instrument of foreign policy, the instructions
given to military personnel throughout the course of the Iraq
war regarding the treatment of prisoners were either extremely
ambiguous or tacitly encouraged abuse. An e-mail received by Welshofer
in August 2003 from superior officers in Baghdad
stated that, as yet, there were no rules for the interrogation
of prisoners, but that "the gloves are coming off."
Mowhoush’s death came three months after General
Geoffrey Miller, the former commander of the Camp Delta prison
at Guantánamo Bay, visited Iraq, tasked by the Defense
Department with bringing to Iraq the more "aggressive"
techniques used at Guantánamo Bay. This was around the
same time as the torture at Abu Ghraib.
At the direction of the Bush administration, the US military
created an atmosphere where soldiers felt free to torture, beat,
and in many cases kill detainees without fear of significant repercussions.
At the same time, individual military and intelligence officials
have sought to deny their complicity in the systematic use of
torture by claiming they did not specifically authorize its use.
The way the government has handled the killing of Mowhoush
is of the same mold as its handling of the Abu Ghraib torture
scandal. However, in the case of Abu Ghraib, several low-ranking
soldiers were charged and received prison time, two of them for
10 years. Because of the enormous international public outrage
generated by the torture photographs from Abu Ghraib, the US government
felt obliged to punish a few scapegoats, while still allowing
higher-level officers and political officials to go unpunished.
On the other hand, the Iraqi general’s murder had a much
smaller media impact, in large part due to the fact that there
was no photographic documentation of the conditions surrounding
his death. It could thus be portrayed as a fluke—one ailing
man who died when an interrogator "crossed the line."
In all probability, the incident would not have even been reported,
investigated or prosecuted had the victim not been so highly placed
in the Iraqi military and widely known throughout the area. Unlike
the cases of the anonymous detainees that fill prisons in Iraq,
the US military could not simply sweep a general’s murder
under the rug. So it did the next best thing, setting up a stage-managed
military trial to further obscure the truth regarding the circumstances
of Mowhoush’s death.