By Aaron Leonard
Published Washington Square News: Tuesday, April 7, 2009
While President Barack Obama plans to close the Guantánamo Bay prison, the Bagram Air Base facility in Afghanistan, where 600 prisoners are reportedly kept, remains open and has plans to expand to hold 1,100 inmates.
Bagram is not as well-known as Guantánamo but by most accounts has been more brutal. According to a New Republic profile in 2007, Bagram’s tactics routinely included “beatings, anal violation with sharp objects, blows to the genitals and ‘peroneal’ strikes [sharp blows to the leg with an assailants knee].” There were also two well-publicized deaths. The most notable being that of a 22-year-old taxi driver named Diliwar. His corpse was found hanging — bound to the ceiling by shackles — in his cell. The coroner’s report on his death said his body looked as if it had “been run over by a bus.” These events and others were documented in horrific detail in the 2007 Academy Award-winning film “Taxi to The Dark Side,” by director Alex Gibney.
As a result of such revelations — and as a way of taking heat off further revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib — a number of low-level Bagram military interrogators were brought up on charges. The Army recommended 27 soldiers for prosecution. Of those, only four ended up sentenced to prison time: for no more than several months. Meanwhile, those who set the policy that led to actions in Bagram, Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib — Donald Rumsfeld, John Yoo, Gen. Daniel McNeil, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush — have never been called to account.
One of the lower-level Bagram interrogators accused and subsequently brought to trial was Military Intelligence Officer Damien Corsetti. Corsetti is an imposing figure who was picked for his job in part because of his size. At Bagram he garnered the nickname “King of Torture” and “Monster.” He was cleared of all charges at trial and has since become a vocal advocate against torture and prisoner abuse.
Washington Square News columnist Aaron Leonard recently spoke with him by phone.
Aaron Leonard: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Damien Corsetti: I grew up in Fairfax, Va. It was a small town at the time; it’s grown up pretty big now. I did all right in school. Went to college for a little while. I couldn’t really figure out what to do, so I decided to go into the military to get a little direction. I wanted something with a high security clearance, so I could come back to D.C. and get a good job. So I chose counterintelligence agent as what I wanted to go into. I volunteered for the paratroopers, which were stationed at Fort Bragg, and that subsequently put me in the 519th MI.
AL: Were you in the military on 9/11?
DC: Yes I was. I was down in Fort Benning, Ga. It was my second day jumping out of planes for the military.
AL: What kind of impact did that have on you when you heard it was happening?
DC: I was pretty emotional, of course. We didn’t find out for a good two to three hours. They left us sitting in our parachutes in a big ship without telling us what was going on. We knew something was going on; we just didn’t know what. When they finally told us, of course it was emotional. I finally saw the images at 7 or 8 that night. Pretty powerful.
AL: How soon after the start of the Afghan war, which started in October 2001, did you deploy to Afghanistan?
DC: I was in Afghanistan July 29 of 2002.
AL: What were your first impressions of the country?
DC: It was pretty wild. Afghanistan’s beautiful. The first thing when you wake up in Bagram, the first thing you see is the mountain range in the background; it’s absolutely gorgeous. But it’s like a completely different world at the same time.
I remember there’s like a foot, foot and a half, of this dusty powder on the ground. It wasn’t sand; it wasn’t dirt. I don’t know quite how to describe it. It seemed like moon dust.
I remember going to the prison for the first time. We were getting a little tour of the base. I remember walking into the prison, the smell hits you right when you get there. The smell’s quite atrocious. It was a combination of the prisoners only having a bath once week, the open sewage barrels that were in the prison … it was a combination of many things. It was quiet. That was the other thing that hit you when you walked in, how quiet it was.
AL: How did you become an interrogator? What were your responsibilities?
DC: Initially I was put on the screening team. Initially I did in-processing at the facility, getting basic background information. I’d assess their knowledgeability and cooperation. Based on the information provided upon capture, the circumstances of each prisoner’s capture, we’d ask them questions surrounding their capture that we knew to be true. Basically what day, when were you arrested, how did it happen, were you captured with a weapon? We had all this information with us, of course.
AL: All this was done through a translator?
AL: After the screenings what were your duties?
DC: That was my initial duties, and I did some interrogations throughout that time. Then I just got on to doing screenings plus interrogations.
AL: Can you talk some about the interrogations? Who was in the room? What were you trying to find out? What were the limits? What did you understand the limits to be?
DC: Normally, it would be two Military Intelligence personnel and one terp [interpreter]. Basically, the limits, as we understood them from MI, were that we could not strike the prisoner; besides that, we were encouraged to be creative, encouraged to use stress positions, long terms of sleep deprivation … which … I look at now; the use of stress positions and prolonged sleep deprivation is torture.
AL: Could you describe what the stress positions are?
DC: The most standard stress position is to have the prisoner kneeling before you, with their back straight, hands held up over their head, with two sets of shackles one on their hands and one on their ankles.
AL: What about this practice of handcuffing prisoners to the ceiling of isolation cells?
DC: That was an MP [military police] operation. That would have been how they kept the prisoners awake; you saw the sleep chart in [the film “Taxi to the Darkside”], and they would have an up-and-down arrow when [the prisoners] were supposed to sleep … it was very well organized as far as the movement of prisoners who were on sleep depravation cycle. And if they couldn’t get the prisoner to stand up, they would chain them up … For things like speaking, basically communicating with the other prisoners in any way, or breaking any of the camp rules would get the prisoners chained in an airlock [a wire cage].
What you saw in “Taxi” was the isolation cells. They would use the chains to keep people awake and make them stand.
AL: As you went about this, did it get more frustrating, more extreme on the part of the people interrogating, or did it stay on a certain continuum?
DC: There were some hard-core believers there. For the most part, most of us, we used to joke around a lot, we’d tap on the microphone and mimic that we were testifying before the Senate. We were making jokes; we knew how this was going to end up. We really disagreed with what was going on there. At the same time, being in the military you have the option of, “Okay, I cannot follow an illegal order — and that’s the only order I can refuse to do.”
We had JAG [Judge Advocate General] come in, and JAG was like, “Oh, you can use stress positions, you can do this, you can do that.” The bottom line was nobody was willing to put their name on it. But they would say, “Yeah, it’s perfectly legal for you guys to do this.” And we knew, we knew it just had “bad” written all over it from beginning.
AL: What about these peroneal strikes I’ve read about in New Republic?
DC: That was an MP procedure I’m not familiar with.
AL: When you say “hard-core believers,” why did folks call them that?
DC: There were definitely people at the prison and on the MI side that thought we were dealing with the baddest of the bad there, and everybody that would walk through the doors was guilty. The big line of dissent among troops was those of us who felt the Afghans should be qualified under mass protection of the Geneva Convention. It was specifically the Afghans, not the Arab fighters. We didn’t feel it was right that we were keeping the Afghans under these conditions.
AL: I was reading about this Diliwar case, and it turns out he was turned over by someone who himself had been attacking U.S. positions, as a way of deflecting attention on someone else. How many of the folks that ended up in Bagram belonged there, under the criteria the military was following, and how many ended up there by the particular dynamic of Afghanistan?
DC: There’s not really a number I can put on this; I’ve tried to do this in the past. I would just say that the vast majority of people that were there were neither aligned with Al Qaeda or the Taliban, and if they were involved on attacks on U.S. troops it was merely a matter of Afghan nationals not wanting us there. Not a case of Taliban or Al Qaeda affiliation.
AL: Did you also serve in Abu Ghraib?
DC: Yes I did. I opened up Abu Ghraib prison.
AL: How long were you there?
DC: The times on that are real hazy. I was at Abu probably about three or four months.
AL: What were your responsibilities there?
DC: Interrogation operations.
AL: Were you training other people, taking your experience from Bagram, sharing that?
DC: Of course those of us who were at Bagram used it. By then we had people that had been doing interrogations at BIAP [Baghdad Airport] and Talil and other prisons in Iraq that were able to do this. The actual interrogators, ones who had that as a job title; all of them had been doing interrogations. But when they took the counterintelligence guys out of the field and brought them into the prisons, I did help a few of those guys with interrogation techniques, yes.
AL: You make this point in the film: “We all knew why we weren’t getting clear guidance … just in case something like [a death in custody] happened.” Could you talk more about why you think that was the policy?
DC: You know, when I said we used to mimic testifying in front of the Congress and Senate, we did that on a daily basis. It was the general feeling around the prison there that we were getting no guidance, so people could cover their asses in case something went wrong.
AL: But this was all being directed? You weren’t just going in and interrogating?
DC: We had direction. Ultimately where the responsibility lies is of course Donald Rumsfeld; [he] should be held up for it.
George Bush said he never made any decisions concerning the treatment of prisoners up until a certain point … and I thought, “That’s bullshit! You’re the one that decided they were to be called detainees.” And that’s where our whole interrogation view went from, from his choice of wording.
AL: How responsible do you think these folks are? There’s Bush, Rumsfeld, there’s this guy John Yoo, Alberto Gonzales.
DC: I think on the ground in Afghanistan you have Dan McNeil [General, Commander of the coalition forces in Afghanistan], [who] has escaped quite a bit of ridicule, I think. He was the commander on the ground. His office was three doors down. To say he didn’t know what was happening in the prison is preposterous.
AL: Should they be held accountable? Obama says “look ahead”; what’s your feeling on that?
DC: I’m just ready for the healing part of it. Now the biggest concern is: What do we do with these guys? There are some people at Guantánamo that we need to do something with. We can’t leave them held indefinitely, but they need to have trials. I think the biggest thing hurting us right now is we haven’t gone through with any of these trials.
My view on the prisoners there is definitely on a one-on-one case. I have people like Omar Khadr that I will fight for, and I’ll do whatever I can to get that child released.
AL: Who is Omar Khadr?
DC: I knew Omar in my operations in the prison. Of course he spoke English. He was in the same cage as Mozzam Begg [British Muslim, later moved to Guantánamo who was released without charges in 2005], and I would speak with Mozzam Begg on a daily basis, so I’d feel like a real ass not speaking with Omar. He was fifteen at the time. You had to show some compassion on him. He was obviously very young. He allegedly threw a grenade that killed Sergeant Spear, who was an American Delta Force operator.
My feelings on him are twofold: a) The more I read about his circumstances of capture and if he actually threw that grenade … I don’t think he did it, and b) if he did do it, he was 15 years old, and he’s done seven years of very, very hard time. And I don’t think a 15-year-old in the U.S. accused of murder would do time like that. So I think it’s time to let the boy go.
AL: You went to Guantánamo [where Omar Khadr] is held. Could you tell us about that?
DC: It was my second trip to Guantánamo. Unless you’ve been there, there’s no real way to describe it. You have this beautiful pearl in the ocean there and this evil Stalinist Gulag right there with it.
AL: Why ‘Evil Stalinist Gulag’ — what makes that the image?
DC: It goes against everything I’ve been told we fought for. We have to have some kind of higher ground. The best thing about America is our judicial system. If we’re not offering our judicial system to these people we’re trying to help, supposedly, then what are we really fighting for? What are we protecting?
AL: I hear what you’re saying, but it happened; how do you reconcile that? Why do you think all this came to pass?
DC: The problem is the current administration does realize that what we were doing was horribly wrong. At the same time, they realize that they do have some very bad people there, and they can’t just let them go. All this evidence they have, if they give them trials, it’s all coerced testimony … So what do we do with these guys now? That’s the problem they’re facing.
AL: There is this professor Alfred McCoy in “Taxi” who makes the point that 35 percent of Americans polled believe torture is necessary under some circumstances. He then says — citing shows like “24” — that this “shows pop culture has built a constituency for torture.” You’ve seen some things: If everybody else saw what you saw, how would they think about this stuff?
DC: If people saw this through my eyes, they would definitely, they would definitely not agree with that statement. It would definitely not be 35 percent.
Torture is a horrible thing. It haunts me to this day. I still hear screams of prisoners in my thoughts. I still have nightmares every night, thinking about these prisoners. It doesn’t produce good intelligence. It creates terrorism. It creates anti-American sentiment. There’s nothing good that comes out of it, and there’s never a ticking-time-bomb scenario. And even if there was, again, we need a higher ground.