March 19, 2006
As the Iraqi insurgency intensified in early 2004, an elite Special Operations forces unit converted one of Saddam Hussein's
former military bases near Baghdad into a top-secret detention center.
There, American soldiers made one of the former Iraqi government's
torture chambers into their own interrogation cell. They named it the
In the windowless, jet-black garage-size room, some soldiers beat
prisoners with rifle butts, yelled and spit in their faces and, in a
nearby area, used detainees for target practice in a game of jailer
paintball. Their intention was to extract information to help hunt down
Iraq's most-wanted terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, according to Defense Department personnel who served with the unit or were briefed on its operations.
The Black Room was part of a temporary detention site at Camp Nama,
the secret headquarters of a shadowy military unit known as Task Force
6-26. Located at Baghdad International Airport, the camp was the first
stop for many insurgents on their way to the Abu Ghraib prison a few
Placards posted by soldiers at the detention area advised, "NO
BLOOD, NO FOUL." The slogan, as one Defense Department official
explained, reflected an adage adopted by Task Force 6-26: "If you don't
make them bleed, they can't prosecute for it." According to Pentagon
specialists who worked with the unit, prisoners at Camp Nama often
disappeared into a detention black hole, barred from access to lawyers
or relatives, and confined for weeks without charges. "The reality is,
there were no rules there," another Pentagon official said.
The story of detainee abuse in Iraq is a familiar one. But the
following account of Task Force 6-26, based on documents and interviews
with more than a dozen people, offers the first detailed description of
how the military's most highly trained counterterrorism unit committed
It adds to the picture of harsh interrogation practices at American
military prisons in Afghanistan and Guantßnamo Bay, Cuba, as well as at
secret Central Intelligence Agency detention centers around the world.
The new account reveals the extent to which the unit members
mistreated prisoners months before and after the photographs of abuse
from Abu Ghraib were made public in April 2004, and it helps belie the
original Pentagon assertions that abuse was confined to a small number
of rogue reservists at Abu Ghraib.
The abuses at Camp Nama continued despite warnings beginning in
August 2003 from an Army investigator and American intelligence and law
enforcement officials in Iraq. The C.I.A. was concerned enough to bar
its personnel from Camp Nama that August.
It is difficult to compare the conditions at the camp with those at
Abu Ghraib because so little is known about the secret compound, which
was off limits even to the Red Cross. The abuses appeared to have been
unsanctioned, but some of them seemed to have been well known
throughout the camp.
For an elite unit with roughly 1,000 people at any given time, Task
Force 6-26 seems to have had a large number of troops punished for
detainee abuse. Since 2003, 34 task force members have been disciplined
in some form for mistreating prisoners, and at least 11 members have
been removed from the unit, according to new figures the Special
Operations Command provided in response to questions from The New York
Times. Five Army Rangers in the unit were convicted three months ago
for kicking and punching three detainees in September 2005.
Some of the serious accusations against Task Force 6-26 have been
reported over the past 16 months by news organizations including NBC,
The Washington Post and The Times. Many details emerged in hundreds of
pages of documents released under a Freedom of Information Act request
by the American Civil Liberties Union. But taken together for the first
time, the declassified documents and interviews with more than a dozen
military and civilian Defense Department and other federal personnel
provide the most detailed portrait yet of the secret camp and the inner
workings of the clandestine unit.
The documents and interviews also reflect a culture clash between
the free-wheeling military commandos and the more cautious Pentagon
civilians working with them that escalated to a tense confrontation. At
one point, one of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's top aides, Stephen A. Cambone, ordered a subordinate to "get to the bottom" of any misconduct.
Most of the people interviewed for this article were midlevel
civilian and military Defense Department personnel who worked with Task
Force 6-26 and said they witnessed abuses, or who were briefed on its
operations over the past three years.
Many were initially reluctant to discuss Task Force 6-26 because its
missions are classified. But when pressed repeatedly by reporters who
contacted them, they agreed to speak about their experiences and
observations out of what they said was anger and disgust over the
unit's treatment of detainees and the failure of task force commanders
to punish misconduct more aggressively. The critics said the harsh
interrogations yielded little information to help capture insurgents or
save American lives.
Virtually all of those who agreed to speak are career government
employees, many with previous military service, and they were granted
anonymity to encourage them to speak candidly without fear of
retribution from the Pentagon. Many of their complaints are supported
by declassified military documents and e-mail messages from F.B.I. agents who worked regularly with the task force in Iraq.
A Demand for Intelligence
Military officials say there may have been extenuating circumstances
for some of the harsh treatment at Camp Nama and its field stations in
other parts of Iraq. By the spring of 2004, the demand on interrogators
for intelligence was growing to help combat the increasingly numerous
and deadly insurgent attacks.
Some detainees may have been injured resisting capture. A spokesman
for the Special Operations Command, Kenneth S. McGraw, said there was
sufficient evidence to prove misconduct in only 5 of 29 abuse
allegations against task force members since 2003. As a result of those
five incidents, 34 people were disciplined.
"We take all those allegations seriously," Gen. Bryan D. Brown, the
commander of the Special Operations Command, said in a brief hallway
exchange on Capitol Hill on March 8. "Any kind of abuse is not
consistent with the values of the Special Operations Command."
The secrecy surrounding the highly classified unit has helped to
shield its conduct from public scrutiny. The Pentagon will not disclose
the unit's precise size, the names of its commanders, its operating
bases or specific missions. Even the task force's name changes
regularly to confuse adversaries, and the courts-martial and other
disciplinary proceedings have not identified the soldiers in public
announcements as task force members.
General Brown's command declined requests for interviews with
several former task force members and with Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal,
who leads the Joint Special Operations Command, the headquarters at
Fort Bragg, N.C., that supplies the unit's most elite troops.
One Special Operations officer and a senior enlisted soldier
identified by Defense Department personnel as former task force members
at Camp Nama declined to comment when contacted by telephone. Attempts
to contact three other Special Operations soldiers who were in the unit
Ś by phone, through relatives and former neighbors Ś were also
Cases of detainee abuse attributed to Task Force 6-26 demonstrate
both confusion over and, in some cases, disregard for approved
interrogation practices and standards for detainee treatment, according
to Defense Department specialists who have worked with the unit.
In early 2004, an 18-year-old man suspected of selling cars to
members of the Zarqawi terrorist network was seized with his entire
family at their home in Baghdad. Task force soldiers beat him
repeatedly with a rifle butt and punched him in the head and kidneys,
said a Defense Department specialist briefed on the incident.
Some complaints were ignored or played down in a unit where a
conspiracy of silence contributed to the overall secretiveness. "It's
under control," one unit commander told a Defense Department official
who complained about mistreatment at Camp Nama in the spring of 2004.
For hundreds of suspected insurgents, Camp Nama was a way station on
a journey that started with their capture on the battlefield or in
their homes, and ended often in a cell at Abu Ghraib. Hidden in plain
sight just off a dusty road fronting Baghdad International Airport,
Camp Nama was an unmarked, virtually unknown compound at the edge of
The heart of the camp was the Battlefield Interrogation Facility,
alternately known as the Temporary Detention Facility and the Temporary
Holding Facility. The interrogation and detention areas occupied a
corner of the larger compound, separated by a fence topped with razor
Unmarked helicopters flew detainees into the camp almost daily,
former task force members said. Dressed in blue jumpsuits with taped
goggles covering their eyes, the shackled prisoners were led into a
screening room where they were registered and examined by medics.
Just beyond the screening rooms, where Saddam Hussein was given a
medical exam after his capture, detainees were kept in as many as 85
cells spread over two buildings. Some detainees were kept in what was
known as Motel 6, a group of crudely built plywood shacks that reeked
of urine and excrement. The shacks were cramped, forcing many prisoners
to squat or crouch. Other detainees were housed inside a separate
building in 6-by-8-foot cubicles in a cellblock called Hotel California.
The interrogation rooms were stark. High-value detainees were
questioned in the Black Room, nearly bare but for several 18-inch hooks
that jutted from the ceiling, a grisly reminder of the terrors
inflicted by Mr. Hussein's inquisitors. Jailers often blared rap music
or rock 'n' roll at deafening decibels over a loudspeaker to unnerve
Another smaller room offered basic comforts like carpets and
cushioned seating to put more cooperative prisoners at ease, said
several Defense Department specialists who worked at Camp Nama.
Detainees wore heavy, olive-drab hoods outside their cells. By June
2004, the revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib galvanized the military to
promise better treatment for prisoners. In one small concession at Camp
Nama, soldiers exchanged the hoods for cloth blindfolds with drop veils
that allowed detainees to breathe more freely but prevented them from
Some former task force members said the Nama in the camp's name
stood for a coarse phrase that soldiers used to describe the compound.
One Defense Department specialist recalled seeing pink blotches on
detainees' clothing as well as red welts on their bodies, marks he
learned later were inflicted by soldiers who used detainees as targets
and called themselves the High Five Paintball Club.
Mr. McGraw, the military spokesman, said he had not heard of the
Black Room or the paintball club and had not seen any mention of them
in the documents he had reviewed.
In a nearby operations center, task force analysts pored over
intelligence collected from spies, detainees and remotely piloted
Predator surveillance aircraft, to piece together clues to aid soldiers
on their raids. Twice daily at noon and midnight military interrogators
and their supervisors met with officials from the C.I.A., F.B.I. and
allied military units to review operations and new intelligence.
Task Force 6-26 was a creation of the Pentagon's post-Sept. 11
campaign against terrorism, and it quickly became the model for how the
military would gain intelligence and battle insurgents in the future.
Originally known as Task Force 121, it was formed in the summer of
2003, when the military merged two existing Special Operations units,
one hunting Osama bin Laden in and around Afghanistan, and the other tracking Mr. Hussein in Iraq. (Its current name is Task Force 145.)
The task force was a melting pot of military and civilian units. It
drew on elite troops from the Joint Special Operations Command, whose
elements include the Army unit Delta Force, Navy's Seal Team 6 and the
75th Ranger Regiment. Military reservists and Defense Intelligence
Agency personnel with special skills, like interrogators, were
temporarily assigned to the unit. C.I.A. officers, F.B.I. agents and
special operations forces from other countries also worked closely with
the task force.
Many of the American Special Operations soldiers wore civilian
clothes and were allowed to grow beards and long hair, setting them
apart from their uniformed colleagues. Unlike conventional soldiers and
marines whose Iraq tours lasted 7 to 12 months, unit members and their
commanders typically rotated every 90 days.
Task Force 6-26 had a singular focus: capture or kill Mr. Zarqawi,
the Jordanian militant operating in Iraq. "Anytime there was even the
smell of Zarqawi nearby, they would go out and use any means possible
to get information from a detainee," one official said.
Defense Department personnel briefed on the unit's operations said
the harsh treatment extended beyond Camp Nama to small field outposts
in Baghdad, Falluja, Balad, Ramadi and Kirkuk. These stations were
often nestled within the alleys of a city in nondescript buildings with
suburban-size yards where helicopters could land to drop off or pick up
At the outposts, some detainees were stripped naked and had cold
water thrown on them to cause the sensation of drowning, said Defense
Department personnel who served with the unit.
In January 2004, the task force captured the son of one of Mr.
Hussein's bodyguards in Tikrit. The man told Army investigators that he
was forced to strip and that he was punched in the spine until he
fainted, put in front of an air-conditioner while cold water was poured
on him and kicked in the stomach until he vomited. Army investigators
were forced to close their inquiry in June 2005 after they said task
force members used battlefield pseudonyms that made it impossible to
identify and locate the soldiers involved. The unit also asserted that
70 percent of its computer files had been lost.
Despite the task force's access to a wide range of intelligence, its
raids were often dry holes, yielding little if any intelligence and
alienating ordinary Iraqis, Defense Department personnel said.
Prisoners deemed no threat to American troops were often driven deep
into the Iraqi desert at night and released, sometimes given $100 or
more in American money for their trouble.
Back at Camp Nama, the task force leaders established a ritual for
departing personnel who did a good job, Pentagon officials said. The
commanders presented them with two unusual mementos: a detainee hood
and a souvenir piece of tile from the medical screening room that once
held Mr. Hussein.
Early Signs of Trouble
Accusations of abuse by Task Force 6-26 came as no surprise to many
other officials in Iraq. By early 2004, both the C.I.A. and the F.B.I.
had expressed alarm about the military's harsh interrogation
The C.I.A.'s Baghdad station sent a cable to headquarters on Aug. 3,
2003, raising concern that Special Operations troops who served with
agency officers had used techniques that had become too aggressive.
Five days later, the C.I.A. issued a classified directive that
prohibited its officers from participating in harsh interrogations.
Separately, the C.I.A. barred its officers from working at Camp Nama
but allowed them to keep providing target information and other
intelligence to the task force.
The warnings still echoed nearly a year later. On June 25, 2004,
nearly two months after the disclosure of the abuses at Abu Ghraib, an
F.B.I. agent in Iraq sent an e-mail message to his superiors in
Washington, warning that a detainee captured by Task Force 6-26 had
suspicious burn marks on his body. The detainee said he had been
tortured. A month earlier, another F.B.I. agent asked top bureau
officials for guidance on how to deal with military interrogators
across Iraq who used techniques like loud music and yelling that
exceeded "the bounds of standard F.B.I. practice."
American generals were also alerted to the problem. In December
2003, Col. Stuart A. Herrington, a retired Army intelligence officer,
warned in a confidential memo that medical personnel reported that
prisoners seized by the unit, then known as Task Force 121, had
injuries consistent with beatings. "It seems clear that TF 121 needs to
be reined in with respect to its treatment of detainees," Colonel
By May 2004, just as the scandal at Abu Ghraib was breaking,
tensions increased at Camp Nama between the Special Operations troops
and civilian interrogators and case officers from the D.I.A.'s Defense
Human Intelligence Service, who were there to support the unit in its
fight against the Zarqawi network. The discord, according to documents,
centered on the harsh treatment of detainees as well as restrictions
the Special Operations troops placed on their civilian colleagues, like
monitoring their e-mail messages and phone calls.
Maj. Gen. George E. Ennis, who until recently commanded the D.I.A.'s
human intelligence division, declined to be interviewed for this
article. But in written responses to questions, General Ennis said he
never heard about the numerous complaints made by D.I.A. personnel
until he and his boss, Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, then the agency's
director, were briefed on June 24, 2004.
The next day, Admiral Jacoby wrote a two-page memo to Mr. Cambone,
under secretary of defense for intelligence. In it, he described a
series of complaints, including a May 2004 incident in which a D.I.A.
interrogator said he witnessed task force soldiers punch a detainee
hard enough to require medical help. The D.I.A. officer took photos of
the injuries, but a supervisor confiscated them, the memo said.
The tensions laid bare a clash of military cultures. Combat-hardened
commandos seeking a steady flow of intelligence to pinpoint insurgents
grew exasperated with civilian interrogators sent from Washington, many
of whom were novices at interrogating hostile prisoners fresh off the
"These guys wanted results, and our debriefers were used to a civil
environment," said one Defense Department official who was briefed on
the task force operations.
Within days after Admiral Jacoby sent his memo, the D.I.A. took the
extraordinary step of temporarily withdrawing its personnel from Camp
Admiral Jacoby's memo also provoked an angry reaction from Mr.
Cambone. "Get to the bottom of this immediately. This is not
acceptable," Mr. Cambone said in a handwritten note on June 26, 2004,
to his top deputy, Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin. "In particular, I want
to know if this is part of a pattern of behavior by TF 6-26."
General Boykin said through a spokesman on March 17 that at the
time he told Mr. Cambone he had found no pattern of misconduct with the
A Shroud of Secrecy
Military and legal experts say the full breadth of abuses committed
by Task Force 6-26 may never be known because of the secrecy
surrounding the unit, and the likelihood that some allegations went
In the summer of 2004, Camp Nama closed and the unit moved to a new
headquarters in Balad, 45 miles north of Baghdad. The unit's operations
are now shrouded in even tighter secrecy.
Soon after their rank-and-file clashed in 2004, D.I.A. officials in
Washington and military commanders at Fort Bragg agreed to improve how
the task force integrated specialists into its ranks. The D.I.A. is now
sending small teams of interrogators, debriefers and case officers,
called "deployable Humint teams," to work with Special Operations
forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Senior military commanders insist that the elite warriors, who will
be relied on more than ever in the campaign against terrorism, are now
treating detainees more humanely and can police themselves. The C.I.A.
has resumed conducting debriefings with the task force, but does not
permit harsh questioning, a C.I.A. official said.
General McChrystal, the leader of the Joint Special Operations
Command, received his third star in a promotion ceremony at Fort Bragg
on March 13.
On Dec. 8, 2004, the Pentagon's spokesman, Lawrence Di Rita, said
that four Special Operations soldiers from the task force were punished
for "excessive use of force" and administering electric shocks to
detainees with stun guns. Two of the soldiers were removed from the
unit. To that point, Mr. Di Rita said, 10 task force members had been
disciplined. Since then, according to the new figures provided to The
Times, the number of those disciplined for detainee abuse has more than
tripled. Nine of the 34 troops disciplined received written or oral
counseling. Others were reprimanded for slapping detainees and other
The five Army Rangers who were court-martialed in December received
punishments including jail time of 30 days to six months and reduction
in rank. Two of them will receive bad-conduct discharges upon
completion of their sentences.
Human rights advocates and leading members of Congress say the
Pentagon must still do more to hold senior-level commanders and
civilian officials accountable for the misconduct.
The Justice Department inspector general is investigating complaints
of detainee abuse by Task Force 6-26, a senior law enforcement official
said. The only wide-ranging military inquiry into prisoner abuse by
Special Operations forces was completed nearly a year ago by Brig. Gen.
Richard P. Formica, and was sent to Congress.
But the United States Central Command has refused repeated requests
from The Times over the past several months to provide an unclassified
copy of General Formica's findings despite Mr. Rumsfeld's instructions
that such a version of all 12 major reports into detainee abuse be made