The Backstory: Joshua E.S. Phillips

Investigative Fund reporter Joshua E.S. Phillips discusses the “Detainee Abuse Task Force” which was created in Iraq to investigative allegations of cruel treatment of detainees. Despite their handling of hundreds of cases, not a single one led to a court martial hearing. Phillips discusses the culture of torture that may persist within the Army as a result of impunity for abuses committed during the Bush administration.

After torture at Abu Ghraib prison came to light, the US Army created a “Detainee Abuse Task Force” in Iraq, purportedly to investigate and respond to allegations of cruel treatment of detainees. Beginning in 2005, journalist and author Joshua E.S. Phillips began looking into the actions of the DATF. He discovered that despite the hundreds of cases handled by the understaffed task force, not a single one ever led to a court martial hearing. In an interview with Investigative Fund intern Erika Eichelberger, Phillips discusses stumbling upon this story while researching his book, the difficulty of getting the military to talk, and the culture of torture that may persist within the Army as a result of impunity for abuses committed during the Bush administration. —Eds.

Erika Eichelberger: If you want, start talking about how you decided to do the story and it’s connected your book?

Josh Phillips: Well, I started working on the story I guess in a sense in 2005, in a weird way. I was in the Middle East doing reporting for my book in Syria, Jordan, and to a lesser extent Lebanon, interviewing former detainees. And one of the things that I would commonly hear about, of course apart from their experience, their journey of being arrested, detained, interrogated, abused and sometimes tortured, was also the limited experience with approaching military investigators about what they have gone through.

And I sort of filed that away in my mind, not really thinking that I would pursue that dimension of their stories as a serious topic. But I interviewed a former detainee who was in Abu Ghraib, who was being represented by a then-Philadelphia-based attorney named Susan Burke who was basically pursuing a class action lawsuit against military contractors, who she alleged had conspired with the government to abuse and torture detainees. And I interviewed one of her clients in 2005. And in 2006, the New York Times had a story about him. And they basically said that he was the “hooded man” that is the detainee in the iconic hooded man photograph. And this detainee, Ali Shalal Qaissi, said, “No, I said I was hooded. I don’t know if I was the ‘hooded man’ necessarily.” And what happened was the Times wrote a very terse retraction, basically challenging the validity of this detainee’s story and questioning his truthfulness as a whole. And one of the points that Susan Burke made in the course of answering for him was that the military never even interviewed him, and I found that to be a kind of shocking revelation, because it did align with what other detainees had told me that they felt not only upset because they have been abused and tortured, but that their accounts had never been pursued.

There were some detainees I met, very, very few, in Afghanistan, who said that the military actually did interview them about other cases of detainee torture, but that was really a minority position. And so from there Susan Burke told me about this experience she had meeting with members of what was then called the Detainee Abuse Task Force, the small task force that was basically assigned to look into all allegations of detainee abuse and torture that the military had been involved with in Iraq.

And she met with the agents in Kuwait, and she described the meeting in which she met with the agents in Kuwait in 2005. And she and her investigator Keith Roman presented accounts, corroborating accounts, all kinds of evidence. They met with the agents for over or for about three days in a hotel in Kuwait and were representing at that time over a hundred detainees and they repeatedly made offers to provide the detainees to the military investigators and nothing happened. And so from there I was starting to look more seriously into this task force, but also the task force represented just one dimension of a widespread problem with systemic impunity or widespread military impunity for detainee abuse and torture.

There are many other dimensions, but with respect to the difficulties of reporting abuse both from whistleblowers or internally with units for various reasons, the reasons why investigations would falter both within the Detainee Abuse Task Force and beyond, and ultimately, there was no real serious accountability. So, the Detainee Abuse Task Force one of the things that came out about it apart from sort of understanding the nexus of reasons why reporting and investigations into detainee abuse faltered, it also revealed how pervasive abuse and torture might have actually been in Iraq.

One of the things I found really striking, and we didn’t highlight perhaps enough in the article, was that according to the military investigators themselves, there were hundreds if not thousands by their estimate, by the military investigators’ estimate, hundreds if not thousands of allegations of detainee abuse and torture that might not have even reached them.

Eichelberger: Can you talk more about challenges in reporting on the military, and the military intelligence, with just getting contacts, let alone information, out of them?

Phillips: Well, it was very difficult. It was very difficult to simply interface with and gain access to members of the Detainee Abuse Task Force. Part of the problem was simply that there were members of the task force that were still in the military in one form or the other, or were working as private military contractors. And so, they had to proceed very cautiously with what information they would provide, how would they relate it to me and the extent to which they would go on the record. Because they knew that by doing so, they would be effectively ending their military or private military career in some capacity. And in fact that’s part of the reason why the investigative work took so long. We had to wait for key members of the task force to be done with the private military contracts.

Eichelberger: Oh really? Like who for example?

Phillips: Well Jon Renaud, who was the head of the Detainee Abuse Task Force. We had to wait for him to finish his contract. I believe he was doing investigative work for a private military contractor in Iraq. And so too was Angela Birt.

Eichelberger: And what about Dean? I think you mentioned something about him.

Phillips: Well, Dean. So, Kenneth Dean wasn’t a special agent in charge of the task force. But he was one of the main agents on the task force. I believe he did have some minor supervisory role. And he was one of the agents that met with Susan Burke and Keith Rohman, and who was fairly dismissive according to them, and he was fairly dismissive of the kinds of abuse that Burke and Rohman alleged their patients, their clients, had suffered from.

And also, he joked that they should wait till after his tour was over before he should pursue bringing their clients to the military. So, in any case, Kenneth Dean works still at the Fort Worth police station. He’s a police officer. I believe he’s a narcotics officer. And I tried many, many times to reach him and I was never able to secure an interview. But as a result of that, we had to sort of rely on internal memos that Burke and Rohman had produced, logging their meetings with agents Dean and Tyler but I never reached him. And so that was challenging, but I think we got enough corroboration to establish certain dimensions of what occurred in that meeting.

Eichelberger: And do you get a sense from this sort of systemic impunity that even though that Obama banned torture that this is still ongoing?

Phillips: Well, those are two different questions in a sense. I would say from my read on what’s going on, which is mostly filtered at this point through human rights organizations, because I haven’t been back to Afghanistan in a while and haven’t been back to the Middle East in a while, but my sense is while there are still certain cases of detainee abuses that are occurring, it has largely subsided.

Having said that, the grave concern by human rights workers, torture researchers, as well as members of the military, both the investigators and military intelligence personnel and so forth, is that because we have not truly reckoned with torture, and we have not held people to account, we have members of the military both the soldiers but also principally the mid-level commanders who either oversaw or gave tacit orders that encouraged detainee abuse or in some ways simply did not do anything to halt it these people have not been held accountable and they remain in the military, and so you effectively have a certain kind of, you could say, a detainee abuse / torture subculture that remains in the military, and under the right conditions, it’s not inconceivable to think that those same people, either through a new war, or heaven forbid a new terrorist attack, a change of administration, and they are in leadership, those people could once again engage in abuse and torture, or oversee it, or ignore it, or something to that effect. And we could be revisiting this kind of crisis all over again.

Let’s see, what else am I working on? I’m working on two broadcast projects that relate to the ongoing legacy of detainee abuse and torture as it affected the perpetrators themselves. Which is sort of the core narrative of my book. It’s a tragic legacy.

About the reporter

Joshua E. S. Phillips

Joshua E. S. Phillips

Joshua E. S. Phillips is an award-winning investigative reporter, foreign correspondent, and broadcast producer.