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The Army captain appeared confused. "You're using 'sledgehammer' figuratively?" he asked the enlisted soldier sitting before him.
"No sir," the soldier replied, lifting his hands about 15 inches apart. "The handle of a sledgehammer, about this big . . . to assault the detainees with."
For Sgt. 1st Class Michael Pratt it would have been far easier to look away. If war is hell, after all, there are going to be some demons. And since hooking up with the Colorado-based 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq in early 2003, the Utah National Guard soldier had learned it was simpler to ignore questionable actions than report them.
But the guardsman couldn't look past what he had seen in the Al Qiem Detention Facility. Not after the death of an inmate whom he believed had been abused by a senior officer. Not even as the Army announced that the prisoner had died "of natural causes."
Army records show that apparent abuses of inmates at the makeshift prison, known as the Blacksmith Hotel, may have been ignored had Pratt not reported his concerns to Utah Guard officials, outside the chain of command of the unit to which he was temporarily assigned. The documents, transcripts from testimony given by Pratt in a closed hearing last March, also detail the soldier's struggles to do what he felt was right in the face of pressure to remain silent.
The record also illustrates a disturbing charge: That the unit with which Pratt found himself in Iraq was little interested in hearing an enlisted soldier's complaints and concerns about the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners.
Contacted by The Salt Lake Tribune, the Bountiful native declined to speak about the matter, saying he wanted to ensure any further testimony would not be tainted by public comment. Maj. Mark Solomon of Fort Carson, Colo., the commander of 3rd Cavalry troops not currently deployed - including four soldiers implicated in the inmate's death - said he could not comment on any of Pratt's allegations.
But a 38-page transcript of previously secret testimony details what Pratt claims to have seen at Blacksmith - and why he ultimately decided that he could not remain silent.
Futile efforts : A soldier with a squeaky-clean record and reputation during his 18 years in the Utah National Guard, Pratt was apparently unprepared for what he found in his first few months with some of the regular Army soldiers of the 3rd Cavalry.
Among the allegations made in his testimony: That he had witnessed a soldier shoot a 14-year-old boy in the back during a raid - as the boy was running away. That matter, he claimed, was never thoroughly investigated, though fellow soldiers assured him that the rules of engagement had been followed when the teen was shot.
Later, when he learned that unqualified soldiers were conducting interrogations, Pratt again logged a compliant. In response, he testified, he was investigated - and told by other soldiers it was for blackmail purposes.
The final blow came when Pratt reported that a group of combat engineers had confiscated a large stash of currency from an Iraqi family who intended to use the money to send their daughter to Jordan for an operation. When he reported the matter to an officer in his chain of command, Pratt said, "he told me I was getting too close to the Iraqis. He accused me of losing my objectivity."
"After that incident," Pratt said. "I realized that it was pointless to report anything."
Though aware that detainees were often stuffed into lockers, wrapped with blankets and electric cords - and, Pratt alleged, sometimes beaten with a sledgehammer handle - he didn't seek an investigation.
Blacksmith bagging: Though he questioned the actions of the covert officers allegedly responsible for the sledgehammer tactics, Pratt didn't report them. They were, he reasoned, out of his chain of command. And in any case, he didn't even know the agents' names.
By comparison, Pratt said, the actions of soldiers like Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer were tame.
"With Welshofer, at least he'd give the detainee a chance to tell the truth," Pratt testified.
Still, Pratt said he confronted the senior soldier after he watched another officer pull a sleeping bag over an inmate, immobilizing the man with cord before slamming him to the ground. When the inmate began to pray aloud, Pratt said, the officer poured water into his mouth and cupped his hands over the inmate's face.
Welshofer, the unit's "subject matter expert" on interrogation techniques, told Pratt "the sleeping bag technique" was authorized, though only certain soldiers were allowed to use it, according to Pratt's testimony. In the following days, the record states, Pratt watched as Welshofer himself applied the technique on another inmate, sitting on the bound man's chest and stomach as he asked him questions.
"I could tell by the way he was sitting, if I was in the detainee's position, I would have had a hard time breathing," Pratt said, adding afterward: "I'm surprised that it didn't kill him."
Later, Pratt said, he watched another officer, Chief Warrant Officer Jefferson Williams, throw a large box of food at another detainee, striking the middle-aged man in the back. It was a practice Pratt found objectionable, as it seemed to be aimed only at inflicting pain upon the detainee.
And within days, that inmate was dead.
The general: A former general with the Iraqi air force, Abed Hamed Mowhoush's October 2003 arrest was lauded by Defense Department officials, who believed Mowhoush had close links to Saddam Hussein.
As attacks on U.S. forces increased in the following month - costing more U.S. lives in the period than in any prior month of the war - interrogators had all the more reason to press the alleged insurgent financier.
It remains unclear just how hard the 57-year-old former Baathist was pressed, but transcripts of proceedings held earlier in the case - kept secret before The Denver Post won a lawsuit to open the hearings to the public - indicate the general had suffered numerous broken ribs and was extensively bruised when his body was examined by medical officials.
Also unclear is when Defense Department medical examiners determined Mowhoush's death was a homicide - as listed on a death certificate bearing his name - or whether Army officials knew the casualty was the result of "asphyxia due to smothering and chest compression" when they announced the death the following day.
In a widely circulated statement, which has since been scrubbed from all Defense Department Web sites, the Pentagon announced that Mowhoush had died "during an interview with U.S. forces."
"Mowhoush said he didn't feel well and subsequently lost consciousness," the announcement claimed. "According to the on-site surgeon it appeared Mowhoush died of natural causes."
Pratt would soon learn that Welshofer had been using the sleeping bag technique on Mowhoush when the general died. But, according to his testimony, he didn't tell anyone what he knew about the interrogating officers' history with the general and the technique.
Ordered to report: It would be more than a month after Mowhoush's death before Pratt would tell anyone what he knew about the goings on at Blacksmith. During that period, he testified, he listened as covert officials at Blacksmith mocked the way the general had died. And he hoped that an investigation that was under way would shed light on the abuses he had seen, giving credence to his concerns.
But although Pratt wanted to let someone know what he had witnessed, he didn't feel it would do any good so long as he was with the 3rd Cavalry.
"I didn't contact my chain of command because the only chain of command I had was Chief Welshofer," Pratt said. "I had reported this kind of action to the 3rd ACR chain of command before, and the response was that every time I reported something, the chain of command would investigate me . . .
"I believe that the chain of command was complicit with the unlawful activities, that is why I didn't report it to them."
On Christmas Day 2003, Pratt traveled from Iraq to Kuwait, where he met up with the Utah National Guard's officer in charge of interrogations. That officer, whose name does not appear in the transcript, would be the first senior official to take Pratt's allegations seriously.
Finally, the enlisted soldier had found the encouragement he had sought all along: "He told me I had to report it."
Utahns stand tall: It was not the first time that members of the Utah National Guard were instrumental in exposing alleged wrongdoing of military interrogators.
Army investigators looking into the in-custody death of a 22-year-old Afghan man were aided in their efforts by an Arabic-speaking linguist from the Utah Guard who claimed to have witnessed abuses at a prison in Bagram, The New York Times reported in May, citing a classified 2,000-page investigative report on the incident.
The man's death certificate lists "blunt-force injuries" as the "condition directly leading to death." But he was widely presumed to be innocent by most of the interrogators at Bagram, The Times reported.
Sgt. James Leahy told investigators that Bagram detainees were considered terrorists until proven otherwise, and while "there was the Geneva Convention for prisoners of war, there was nothing for terrorists," he said, according to the report.
The Army's Criminal Investigation Command has concluded there is probable cause to charge 27 Bagram soldiers with criminal offenses. It does not appear that any of the Utah linguists who were in Bagram will be charged.
That, said Lt. Col. David Thomas of the Utah Guard, has come to be par for the course in detainee abuse scandals.
Though the Utah Guard's unique mix of intelligence specialists, linguists and special forces troops has left its soldiers in close proximity to abuses in Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Blacksmith and Guantanamo Bay, none has yet been impugned, Thomas said.
"We've had linguists in all of those places, but they've had nothing to do with that sort of stuff," he said. "We're proud that they haven't slipped down to that level."
The senior Utah Guard official isn't prepared to say his guardsmen exhibit higher moral standards than others. For now, he figures it's a matter of coincidence - and perhaps a result of the fact that, as Utah's specialist soldiers often attach temporarily to other units, they are in prime position to stay out of the fray.
Epilogue: Welshofer and three others have been charged in connection with Mowhoush's death, with Pratt standing by as one of the prosecution's key witnesses. Though CIA officials have reportedly delivered a report on Blacksmith to the U.S. Justice Department, it remains uncertain whether any of the covert agents who allegedly used the sledgehammer handle on detainees - and who were allegedly present when Mowhoush died - will be charged.
Also uncertain is whether any of Pratt's other concerns - the shooting of the 14-year-old boy, the taking of the Iraqi family's money and the use of nonqualified interrogators at Blacksmith - will be addressed.
For now, Guard officials said, he'll have to be content with knowing he didn't look away - and in doing so, may have taken some of the demons out of the war.