Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine M. Grossman
July 12, 2007
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U.S., Iraq Freed Roughly 44,000 Suspected Insurgents Since March 2003
U.S. and Iraqi government officials have released approximately 44,000 of 65,000 suspected Iraqi insurgents or sectarian killers detained at the theater level since March 2003, according to the U.S.-led military coalition in Baghdad. Commanders cite a variety of reasons behind the ample releases that include prison overcrowding, global politics and corruption in the Iraqi justice system.
Over the same time period, fewer than 600 captives have been transferred to the Iraqi government for prosecution, according to information the U.S.-led headquarters provided to Inside the Pentagon in response to questions.
Though the official figures are rough estimates, they suggest that about two of every three suspected insurgents or sectarian killers captured by American troops have been released back into Iraqi communities over the past four years since U.S. military operations began. (Officials caution that the data reflect total in-processes through the system and do not reveal how many individuals have been incarcerated more than once.)
Commanders tell ITP the system for releases has improved over time, but coalition spokesmen said they were unable to provide year-by-year totals that might show how releases have tapered off. An article in the June issue of Marine Corps Gazette suggests otherwise, saying 25,000 prisoners — more than half the total — have been released from theater-level incarceration over the past two years alone.
The several-year-long revolving door for captured Iraqis has not gone unnoticed by U.S. troops, who have dubbed the phenomenon “catch and release.”
Despite the droll nickname, the massive releases have had serious ramifications for the U.S.-led counterinsurgency effort in Iraq, commanders report. U.S. forces say they have seen insurgents and militia members they have captured return time and again, weeks or months later, to create trouble in the cities and towns they patrol.
In a Jan. 8 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Bing West and Eliot Cohen called the chronic capture and release of suspected killers “the single weakest link in the U.S. strategy.” West is a former assistant secretary of defense and Cohen is a national security scholar who joined the State Department this year as an adviser to Secretary Condoleezza Rice.
If prisoner releases at all levels of detainment were counted, the figures would be even higher.
A great many of those captured by U.S.-led forces in Iraq are deemed innocent and released at the small-unit level shortly after being taken into custody. In the absence of good evidence, about half of all detainees are released within 18 hours, according to Bing West and Owen West, who wrote about the issue in a June 15 New York Times op-ed. Bing West’s son, Owen, is a Wall Street trader who served two tours in Iraq as a Marine Corps officer.
U.S.-led “round-ups” of suspected insurgents that often yielded as many innocents as insurgents — largely for lack of reliable intelligence — have become more rare since 2004, defense sources say.
Those whose confinement is continued are sent from the battalion to brigade level, where a commanding colonel, assisted by a military attorney, reviews each case within 72 hours and determines whether the evidence package is solid enough to withstand additional review.
At a theater-level internment facility called Camp Cropper, a “magistrate cell” reviews the evidence again within seven days and may release additional prisoners, according to the U.S.-led military headquarters in Baghdad.
Coalition spokesmen told ITP the “vast majority of [these] cases meet the standard for internment” as “an imperative threat to the security of Iraq or MNF-I” — shorthand for Multi-National Forces-Iraq, the U.S.-led coalition.
Yet the spokesmen also acknowledge that “most of the releases of security internees since 2003 occurred as a direct result of [theater- level] CRRB recommendations for release, which were later approved by MNF-I.”
Approximately 21,000 individuals are behind bars today at the coalition’s theater-level internment facilities, where the average stay is about 300 days, according to the spokesmen.
>From theater detention, a relatively tiny number have been referred to the Central Criminal Court of Iraq for prosecution. Coalition spokesmen estimate 600 or fewer cases have gone up to the Iraqi court.
In turn, Iraqi judges typically dismiss about half the cases before them, according to the Wests’ op-ed.
Others remaining at theater-level confinement go before the Combined Review and Release Board, a U.S.-Iraqi administrative panel that determines whether detainees are eligible for release, the coalition spokesmen said. That board reviews each case every six months.
Some officials concerned about the capture-and-release phenomenon nonetheless caution that the figures are vague estimates.
“Any numbers that end in three zeroes should be considered at best gross exaggerations,” says one senior U.S. military officer with considerable experience in Iraq. The multiple layers of review, any of which might result in the release of detainees, “create a welter of numbers,” the officer said. “I think [the] numbers are very far off, but [I] cannot say authoritatively in which direction.”
(This officer and several others interviewed for this article declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.)
Yet even if the U.S. military data correctly reflects only the order of magnitude, the 44,000 or so set free from theater-level prisons remains significant, according to several officials interviewed. That is because these detainees were released despite U.S. determinations through the first levels of screening that there was sufficient evidence they committed violence and posed a continued threat, U.S. military officials with Iraq experience tell ITP.
Why so many releases? American officials cite a complex set of factors, including limitations in prison space and rampant corruption in the Iraqi justice system.
Critics also say U.S. and Iraqi military and civilian leaders have set unrealistically high standards for collecting battlefield evidence.
“In response to the shameful abuses at Abu Ghraib, the American military instituted vastly excessive civil rights protections for detainees,” the Wests write in their op-ed.
The senior officer agrees, telling ITP late last month that “largely in response to the Abu Ghraib scandal,” the chronic releases “put known enemy back on the streets.”
Field officers complain that U.S. military lawyers have been too quick to agree to releases, often failing to appreciate the life-and-death stakes involved for American and Iraqi troops, as well as for the Iraqi public.
“We have chosen to swim upstream even though we control the current,” Owen West writes in his own piece in the June Gazette.
With a growing number of congressional Republicans calling for phased troop withdrawals, citing the continued violence, some experts say one casualty of the capture-and-release cycle could be the very ability to meet U.S. objectives in Iraq.
“It’s a disastrous approach that has been practiced,” a former Iraqi government official said in an interview this week. “These detention centers have been centers for [insurgent and militia] training and recruiting.”
ITP reported in December that U.S. forces sometimes refer to prison facilities in Iraq as “gladiator camps,” where insurgents rest and build physical strength as they await release (ITP, Dec. 7, 2006, p1).
“I know of people who walked in there young and innocent, and walked out radicalized,” the former Iraqi official said in the July 9 interview.
Despite good intentions on the part of the review boards, the process had “huge holes in it,” this source said. The “machine” of the judicial bureaucracy undercut the critical objective of keeping violent Iraqis off the streets, the source said.
Over the past six months or so, improvements have been made to the internment policy at the recommendation of a group of colonels handpicked by Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to advise him on the surge strategy, according to American military officials. A separate assessment of detainment issues led by Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone, who became Petraeus’ deputy commanding general for detainee operations in April, drew similar conclusions, military officials tell ITP.
One effort begun under the former commander for Iraq operations, Army Gen. George Casey, and now being spearheaded by Petraeus, is to build more prison capacity, U.S. officials say.
Previously, “we basically based our release policy on prison capacity,” says one U.S. military officer with experience in Iraq. “It was a policy that undermined the counterinsurgency effort.”
Some officers and experts again cite the political sensitivities surrounding Abu Ghraib, as well as the detention of suspected combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as a political factor behind years of sluggishness in building more prison beds.
“Gen. Petraeus is trying to correct this, but the Iraqis have no plans for increasing the prisons,” Bing West told ITP in a July 3 e-mail. “Many in the U.S. high command want the coalition out of the imprisonment system, given the tremendous adverse publicity associated with even imprisoning murderous terrorists.”
There is a long way to go. U.S. and Iraqi jails in the Persian Gulf nation now hold about 40,000 prisoners, according to the West op-ed. By contrast, the state of Texas, with a smaller population, has more than 170,000 in confinement, they write.
“The scale of imprisonment must be doubled or tripled if we are serious about prevailing,” the two write. “There is no deterrence in Iraq today because most captured insurgents are released. We will never defeat an insurgency we allow to regenerate.”
Prison overcrowding has become a serious concern.
“They’re just creating conditions for more Abu Ghraibs,” one military source said.
Amid such worries, Petraeus appears even more troubled by the ramifications of detainees being set back onto Iraqi streets. The top commander has resisted high-level Iraqi and U.S. pressure to allow a mass prisoner release, the Wests report.
Another evolving effort has been to await the assent of local U.S. commanders before a prisoner is released and returned to an area of Iraq, according to American officials.
Navy Capt. John Fleming, a spokesman for Petraeus on detainee operations, said this policy has been in practice on a longstanding basis.
“Local units, as well as intelligence and law enforcement organizations, do have a say in the decision process regarding detainee releases,” he said in written response to a query last week.
But one officer with Iraq experience calls into question the assertion of a longstanding procedure.
“They were doing it in theory, but in practice it wasn’t happening,”
this source said in an interview.
Fleming described one new aspect of prisoner release policy: The coalition is now seeking the agreement of local sheiks and civic leaders before returning a detainee to a given area.
“It means somebody wants him back in the local community and will vouch for him,” explained the senior military officer. “If they don’t want him back, [it is] much less likely that the Americans or local Iraqis will see him released to cause more mischief.”
On their own initiative, some U.S. commanders also have instituted parole systems of sorts, where former prisoners are required to register at a local police station and report in periodically, officials say.
Coalition spokesmen say the “recapture rate” for suspected insurgents is an average 8.5 percent since January 2005 — higher than the 6 percent the command cited late last year but well short of the magnitude commanders and experts say is more likely the case.
In Anbar province, “upwards of 25 percent of the detainees a year ago were guys who’d been previously detained and had photos of themselves in orange jumpsuits,” according to one U.S. officer.
Bing and Owen West call for an integrated database of criminal fingerprints and photographs, searchable by U.S. forces anywhere in Iraq, that could effectively track repeat offenders — a capability police employ routinely across the United States. Absent such a capability, violent Iraqis can be unwittingly released, they say.
Bing West calls the 8.5 percent recapture rate the “most disturbing statistic” released by the Baghdad-based command.
“Recidivism in [the] U.S. for violent offenders is over 60 percent,” he told ITP by e-mail. “Either Iraqi insurgents, to include the jihadists, are six times more law-abiding after being captured once, or the Iraqi and coalition system is deficient.”
—Elaine M. Grossman