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Dec-12-2008 11:35printcomments

A Disturbing Night in Iraq: Witnessing the Abuse of 'Insurgent' Detainees

An eyewitness account of U.S. contractors, possibly Blackwater, administering highly questionable treatment of prisoners in Iraq.

Salem-News.com Reporter/Photojournalist Tim King in Iraq
Salem-News.com Reporter/Photojournalist Tim King in Iraq
Photo by S/Sgt Ryan Ahern U.S. Army 101st Airborne

(FALLUJAH, Iraq) - This story was written in the early days of September, 2008; about the night that I encountered questionable treatment of Iraqi prisoners, while flying in a U.S. Army CH-47 helicopter from Fallujah, to Balad, Iraq.

One of the only images to make
it through that night; the Marine
V-22 Osprey I flew aboard before
the helicopter carrying insurgents

I have delayed publishing it, but more revelations today about the authorized torture and abuse of prisoners in Iraq by Bush Administration officials caused us to make the decision to release this today.

The LA Times and other media groups today published articles about a bipartisan Senate report linking decisions made by the former Defense Secretary with the inhumane treatment of prisoners of war.

This report released Thursday, concludes that the decisions of former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, were a "direct cause" of widespread detainee abuses. The report says other Bush administration officials were to blame for creating a legal and moral climate that contributed to inhumane treatment.

The following is my first-hand account of what I experienced one harrowing night in Iraq.

FLASHBACK... September 9th, 2008:

If a dog were to be subjected to the type of treatment Iraqi prisoners receive at the hands of some U.S. contractors, the people responsible would be arrested. I was witness to this on a very personal level and ultimately, forced to erase the video footage from my television camera.

I didn't feel like I was watching the actions of Americans, instead I thought of groups like the former KGB in the Soviet Union who were known torturers and sadistic government agents free of things like laws and court inquiries.

On this night, U.S. Army Intelligence was complicit in the illegal operations of the other kind of civilian soldier; one not in the military at all. They work for companies like Blackwater.

The fact that I had to erase the video footage, in my opinion, amounts simply to a purging of evidence.

Exactly where the lines of humanity and decency are drawn in this country appear to be largely unknown.

Here in Iraq, millions of dollars are doled out to our former enemies, and lessons learned from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal appear to be a thing of the past - that is if they were ever learned in the first place.

Terror Flight Out of Fallujah

I boarded an Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter three nights ago from the Marine Corps' Camp Fallujah, for a flight back to my home base, the Balad Air Station; a place under the control of the U.S. Air Force and still largely staffed by Army soldiers and a handful of Marines and sailors.

What I saw upon boarding that helicopter was shocking; I did not expect to see a row of prisoners in what looked like white nightgowns, bound with a flat rope to the side of the aircraft.

The night was hot; the type of heat that demands a plentiful amount of water to sustain any level of comfort. Each man was hooded with a neon type of light attached to the hood and hanging from his head. They were cuffed with their arms behind their backs, and were made to sit cross legged. The aircraft had two pilots, two side-door gunners and a rear gunner. Also aboard the CH-47 were several Army soldiers and two contractors in military style clothing.

The prisoners drew the anger of these contractors repeatedly, continually, and most of the time it was difficult to tell what raised their tempers. The prisoners were sitting on the floor in a row on the right side of the aircraft while the rest of us sat in the jump seats on the left side.

What I witnessed is not something I will soon forget. Most of the men were made to sit in the row, but two men at the rear of the helicopter were forced to squash together in a clearly demeaning fashion, with one sitting immediately in front of the other.

The CH-47 is a non-pressurized aircraft and the heat inside this military transport helicopter was tremendous. There is no possibility that the men huddled together were not considerably cramped, overheated and in pain; scared of the contractors, and it was very clear that they were all without any degree of comfort.

The prisoners in the row were forced to point their faces toward the floor and each time one tried to straighten his neck, it was almost immediately jerked downward by the two contractors, one of which was a male and one female.

If the men tried to straighten their legs they were put back into place by the contractors boots for the first part of the flight, and by the hands of the contractors during what seemed to be the second half of the flight. I assumed that they became increasingly aware of my presence on the helicopter and I suspect this may have kept their behavior greatly in check.

I was shocked that I had been manifested aboard this Army bird and in the end I think it was purely a matter of fate.

The prisoners cried and moaned and the sounds emerging from beneath their hooded faces rose above the shrill of the turbines. The air crew smiled and conversed and drank water to ensure their own comfort; none was given to the prisoners. Two of these hooded men drew the wrath of the contractors more than the others, and at one point a soldier sitting near me called a contractor over because a prisoner seated almost directly across from me appeared to go limp.

A contractor jerked him back into place and then yanked his head down. I could not tell for much of this if they were only grabbing the men by their hoods; I thought some were having their hair pulled to put them into place. They were screamed at frequently which is the only way to communicate with a person in this type of environment, but it was always accompanied by a harsh jerk of the head. I sincerely doubt that these contractors were Arabic speakers.

Perhaps the 'rules' do not preclude this type of behavior, I am not an expert at this, but the experience was revolting and I hated hearing the men's moans and at times, screams. They sounded like cries for help that were not unheeded, but met with anger and a violent jerk of the head.

Ramifications of this type of behavior

Perhaps these prisoners were insurgents who had set up IED's; killed American people, or innocent civilians. They might have been people who were simply fingered by other Iraqis for a reward, I do not know. But I do know that this type of treatment is not something anyone would soon, or ever, forget.

I believe in the Golden Rule like many people who have faith in a higher power, and there is not the shadow of a doubt in my mind that these men were being subjected to a treatment that would only build and breed resentment toward our presence in Iraq. We seem to have a very poor track record of gaining convictions and lengthy sentences on the people we are fighting, and I hate to think of the hatred they must feel toward our forces, the majority of which are good and decent people. They in all likelihood, do not distinguish between contractor and soldier and Marine.

What will they do when they are some day free again, if indeed they are?

Will this treatment lead to more IED's, suicide vests and sniper bullets? I don't see how it won't.

Playing by the rules of war

In order to embed with the U.S. military, reporters and their respective news organizations have to agree to a number of rules, most of which seem reasonable. According to the NEWS MEDIA GROUND RULES (IAW Change 3, DoD Directive 5122.5) - "No photographs or other visual media showing detainees' or prisoners' recognizable face, nametag or other feature or item" (are allowed)

An Iraqi flag flying over a Sons of Iraq checkpoint.
Salem-News.com photo by Tim King

I reasoned from this that prisoners who were not identifiable, which was clearly the case aboard this aircraft, were OK to photograph, so I did. That is my job as a news photojournalist trying to tell the story of what is going on in this war. All reports I have filed prior to this, have told a story that reveals success in a war effort that frankly, I did not expect to see. I have seen Army Airborne soldiers and Marines treat Iraqi people with respect and decency, but that all came to a screeching halt when I boarded that aircraft loaded with bound and hooded Iraqi detainees, living at that mercy of mercenaries.

As I recorded video of the prisoners, I was careful not to show a number tag that was hanging from the head of each prisoner. The numbers were mostly blocked by the colored light, which I learned later was used to determine the place they would be unloaded. All told, these prisoners were taken off the aircraft at the Baghdad International Airport, a smaller base in Baghdad with Russian helicopters on the flight deck, (I assumed this was an Iraqi Army base) and Balad, my destination.

I stepped off of the helicopter after the prisoners had been hoisted to their feet and loaded into a white van. I was taken by the arm by an Army sergeant, and he did not want to answer my questions about what unit he was attached to. He answered, "We'll go over that when we get inside."

I knew at that point that something was clearly up, and I was taken to a white SUV and placed in the left rear seat. Three soldiers occupied the remaining seats. I didn't say a word and neither did they. I was driven to an area that I was unfamiliar with at Balad, and we waited in silence for approximately fifteen minutes.

Honest Reporter Falsely Accused

The silence was broken when an Army Lieutenant Colonel who appeared far too young for that elevated field grade rank, opened my door and said, "I understand you recorded video of the prisoners aboard that aircraft."

"Yeah, that's right", I answered.

"And I watched those prisoners being abused for the entire flight, what do you have to say about that?"

This officer then proceeded to accuse me of having boarded the wrong aircraft intentionally, which was a preposterous claim. I could not believe the accusation, and for the first couple of minutes this false charge continued.

I explained the embed rule listed in the above paragraph, and told him that I had every right to record the images because they were not recognizable. He told me that the mission I had just flown on was classified and he told me I would have to erase the video footage.

I asked, "Is that to prevent people stateside from seeing the prisoner abuse?"

He replied by saying, "No prisoners were abused aboard that aircraft." Of course, he had not been aboard the CH-47 and therefore spoke with zero credibility or real knowledge as to the facts of the last hour. He was wrong.

He told me then that I should stop being hostile and I told him that was easy for him to say when I was the one falsely accused of intentionally boarding the wrong helicopter back at Fallujah.

Anyone who has spent time here knows that nobody intentionally boards the wrong aircraft.

While it is not necessarily reflected in the behavior of mercenary contractors, there generally are many checks and balances in military aviation... Crews don't let strangers just climb aboard at will at a Marine Corps Air facility like Camp Fallujah, and there are head counts and manifests to insure that you are in the right place.

In the end I am surprised that I feel little ill will toward the contractors; in fact I believe they were operating according to standard procedure.

The problem lies more with a U.S. government that maintains these civilian militants who are not bound to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The government is quick to charge and court martial our service members, but the 100k a year contractors are exempt from the rules - which leads back to the KGB analogy. I believe again, that this flight happened for a reason, and I suspect this story is that reason. People in the U.S., primarily our Congress and Senate, need to rein this mercenary problem in. And if they are going to continue to operate here and in other locations, they need to be held accountable.

Rules established to govern the behavior of reporters need to be adhered to and not changed for the sake of convenience and public image. The Lt. Col. told me that the reason they did not want the images to go out was because of the fallout from the Abu Ghraib prison debacle, but whose fault is that? The victim in this case is the recorded image of truth on my videotape, and yet I suspect that my description published here goes far and beyond those darkly illuminated frames of the men. The sounds of those prisoners were enough to make any person's skin crawl, and I suspect I won't be forgetting them for a long time.

Here is today's LA Times article on the Senate report: LA Times Rumsfeld blamed in detainee abuse scandals



Tim King: Salem-News.com Editor and Writer

You can write to Tim at this address: tim@salem-news.com.

Visit Tim's Facebook page (facebook.com/TimKing.Reporter)

With almost 25 years of experience on the west coast and worldwide as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor, Tim King is Salem-News.com's Executive News Editor. His background includes covering the war in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007, and reporting from the Iraq war in 2008. Tim is a former U.S. Marine who follows stories of Marines and Marine Veterans; he's covered British Royal Marines and in Iraq, Tim embedded with the same unit he served with in the 1980's.

Tim holds awards for reporting, photography, writing and editing from traditional mainstream news agencies like The Associated Press and Electronic Media Association; he also holds awards from the National Coalition of Motorcyclists, the Oregon Confederation of Motorcycle Clubs; and was presented with a 'Good Neighbor Award' for his reporting, by the The Red Cross.

Tim King reporting from the war in Iraq

Tim's years as a Human Rights reporter have taken on many dimensions; he has rallied for a long list of cultures and populations and continues to every day, with a strong and direct concentration on the 2009 Genocide of Tamil Hindus and Christians in Sri Lanka. As a result of his long list of reports exposing war crimes against Tamil people, Tim was invited to be the keynote speaker at the FeTNA (Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America) Conference in Baltimore, in July 2012. This is the largest annual gathering of North American Tamils; Tim addressed more than 3000 people and was presented with a traditional Sri Lanka ‘blessed garland’ and a shawl as per the tradition and custom of Tamil Nadu

In a personal capacity, Tim has written 2,026 articles as of March 2012 for Salem-News.com since the new format designed by Matt Lintz was launched in December, 2005. Serving readers with news from all over the globe, Tim's life is literally encircled by the endless news flow published by Salem-News.com, where more than 100 writers contribute stories from 23+ countries and regions.

Tim specializes in writing about political and military developments worldwide; and maintains that the label 'terrorist' is ill placed in many cases; specifically with the LTTE Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, where it was used as an excuse to slaughter people by the tens of thousands; and in Gaza, where a trapped population lives at the mercy of Israel's destructive military war crime grinder. At the center of all of this, Tim pays extremely close attention to the safety and welfare of journalists worldwide.


Comments Leave a comment on this story.

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Seeking Justice April 4, 2014 2:07 pm (Pacific time)

It is so disturbing that this sort of terrible activity happens in the name of America regularly. What is worse is that most Americans take the ostrich approach rather than deal with it. Thank you for having the courage to post this!

Oregon Reader December 27, 2009 10:43 am (Pacific time)

This is the way all police seem to be moving.  Do these people abuse people who have been detained because it "feels" right?  Do they like their feeling of superiority when they have the detained completely in control?  This reminds me of the schoolyard bullies.  But as we move into the future, there will be no counterbalancing force to stop the behavior.

Salem-News has the current story about the car accident victims and the abuse suffered by the police.  It makes me sad to know that we are becoming a nation that forgives the "police" and the "military" when they do not maintain the standards they swore to uphold.

Engle December 27, 2009 10:30 am (Pacific time)

Rabbit47FE you are so correct whan it comes to being cautious while moving detainees or anyone else that may pose a possible danger. I have observed a number of our troopers get killed when they dropped their guard down while in Vietnam (and it happened very quickly. Those who will commit suicide to kill you cannot be reasoned with, much less trusted. They have no value of life). Protocols for moving detainees (or the other names that have been applicable over the years) have been in place since time immemorial and for good reason. We made it clear during my time that we would court martial those who failed to observe these protocols. It may look harsh to those with limited understanding of the potential dangers, but as we both know this is when the saying "better safe than sorry" is applicable. A war zone is not a place for untenured and uninformed activism no matter how well meaning.

Tim King: Engle, I appreciate your comment, but I want to state that whether it is Vietnam or Iraq, there are no rules authorizing the physical abuse of prisoners who are already restrained.  If one of these guys would have somehow gotten loose, there were plenty of soldiers aboard with weapons to mow them down, along with the two contractors who had their weapons at the ready.  They may have been detainees but as far as I know nothing was proven.  I was told repeatedly by thinking soldiers and Marines that all abuse of a detainee brings is a larger retribution factor.  

Anonymous December 26, 2009 6:42 pm (Pacific time)

thousands of articles have come out about torture and the relentless acts of the U.S. over the last several decades. You are WAY behind the times Tim. You are not even skimming the surface. But then again, you supported obama and his bush third term. Why the heck would anyone even listen to anythign from the salem-news website? i DONT KNOW. Decades behind real news, and supporting another puppet who is following the bush/clinton agenda to a T.

Tim King: It's just an experience from my life, I don't care what you think of it.  I ran the story last year and brought it back to the front page because it seemed relevant.  All we do is current news, very strange statements from you.  That ends this debate, please don't waste our space like this, OK?  Next time I hit the delete button.

Jeff K - December 26, 2009 5:51 pm (Pacific time)

Bravo, Tim. Now, that's "speaking truth to power". I'm pretty sure Donny Rumsfeld, Evil Dick, G.W. himself and every current Brass Hat and Blackwater operative, et al would lie to you with a straight face about all of this...We're perpetuating the terrorism by creating future generations of radicals who hate America simply based on the mistreatment of prisoners. Thanks Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld and all you other greedy opportunists who opened this can of worms and bailed. Let's hope President Obama has the foresight, decency and most importantly - the courage, to get us out of there (Iraq AND Afghanistan) with some semblance of dignity left for all concerned.

douglas benson December 26, 2009 9:33 am (Pacific time)

Thank you Tim for speaking out .I recently watched the ACLU videos about the detainees and the abuse photographs ect . According to those interviewed there was much more that went on lets review .Military forces rounding up ALL fighting age men in the areas of fighting and the CHILDREN of suspected insurgents . Prisoners who did not exist and were moved around when inspectors came around . The abuse photos were taken not by the "contractors " CIA ect. No tapes or photos have been released from the actual interrogations where the real torture sometimes to the point of death how many we will never know due to the fact they NEVER existed. When the general in charge asked about how and when the prisoners would be released the answer was there are no plans for any release at this time. Coming to a town near you ,the lack of ammunition in this country and talk of further gun restrictions should be an area of serious concern .It begs the question when the terrorists we create today start striking here will these practices be SOP in america ? Will they use thier mercenaries here on american soil for fear our own troops would refuse ? Is this why they are concerned that our returning troops could become a terrorist threat ? I am not being an alarmist but we must watch carefully and not be swayed by fear to give up our liberties .A more proactive aproach would be to demand legislation that not only holds those responsible for these past actions accountable and makes the actions of all goverment agencies and those contracted by them much more transparent to the public regardless of the goverment secrets cry .

Rabbit47FE January 8, 2009 8:47 am (Pacific time)

Tim, As a CH-47 Flight Engineer (the side gunner as you called it) for the last 5 years and being deployed both to Iraq and Afghanistan i find your account interesting. First off, the proper term is detainee and these detainee's are not suspects. They might not have been convicted of anything (yet) but if the US Military is moving them from one base to another there's a reason. Second, as a flight engineer i have moved literally hundreds of detainees. Both on dedicated flights and space-a purposes. While i and comment on why certain things happened, i can comment on the air crews reasons for things. Detainees are kept together, handcuffed and blindfolded. no exceptions. A group of detainees loss on a helicopter could be a extremely dangerous thing. It's a safety thing for the entire helicopter. Personally when i transported detainees they sat in the troop seats with the seat belt around there body and arms. That way they were secure. But the way you describe it it sounds like the guards wanted to watch their hands or something because placing anyone detainees included on the floor is rare. I don't let the detainees talk to each other, move around or take off their hoods / blindfolds. Some might say it's all a bit excessive or extreme, but i will not let one of them kill me, my crew or my passengers so they can become a martyr. and frankly I'm appalled you compared the comfort of the air crew to a detainee. That is our job. And it's hot and can be very physical. I would never abuse a detainee although having lost many friends to insurgents and terrorists it sometimes takes active restraint. But i wont coddle one either.

I just thought you and your readers should hear another perspective on the account.


Tim King: Rabbit, thanks for your comment and perspective. I do understand what you are saying, but I'm pretty sure everything I saw would qualify as "excessive" and I think most would agree. I know you don't create the rules, and I appreciate the fact that you would share your opinion. I don't see how the detainees who are unarmed, cuffed and restrained pose much of a threat to an air crew, and I'm not familiar with accounts of them busting loose an a helicopter. You are armed, they are bound; seems like an analogy for the entire war in Iraq.
In the end, you have to ask yoursef that vital question, "Did I create a terrorist today?" and there is no getting around that. I suspect you might agree with that as you sound like a rational person. I just have an issue with those guys on 47's who power trip the news media. I guarantee that every time a crew chief or flight engineer does that there is a backlash. Thanks for your comments and perspective. Tim

Disbelief December 14, 2008 6:41 pm (Pacific time)

juan, you might want to read the Geneva Convention to learn how the civilized world treats captured combatants.

Anonymous December 14, 2008 5:31 pm (Pacific time)

Tim, it is great to have your view on this issue. It is not right to treat people with such a lack of human respect. If they are guilty, there is a course of action. If they are innocent, they will not be humane in their next contact with US. It is a sad state of affairs, especially when we see this happening within our own borders, to our own citizens... Keep up the good work. I doubt "they" will let you embed with the military again, because you spoke your mind.

juan December 14, 2008 5:01 pm (Pacific time)

tim king. you are probably right. But if that what the lt corenel is his job to keep this under wraps.because if you are sayng that he lied to you. then all the world goverments politicians are liars. they might be subject but you and i dont know why they were under arrest. they could be some one very dangerous. i just read a book about this kind of tortures i sugest you read it. extreme measures by vince flynn.

Tim King: Thanks Juan, I appreciate that and will try to pick up a copy of that, thanks.

juan December 14, 2008 4:41 pm (Pacific time)

ok i understand this kind of treatment is inhumane. wether they r guilty or not. But u have to remember those contractors are in our side nd get payed to protect this great nation( no matter the cost) why should we show human actions against this insurgents when they blow kill innocent people? they could be terrorist planning to bomb a restaurant killing innocent people how do you think this contractors would feel when they failed their job and people die? maybe we shouldent critize this. its a war and in war you dont play by the rules especially terrorist.

Tim King: Juan, I was conflicted over this, and that is why I brought up the lack of convictions, the in-through-the-outdoor approach many U.S. soldiers see and the frustration they experience after being able to haul these suspects in.  But that is what is all comes down to; they are suspects, they were not convicts.  I honestly believe we are dealing with liars here.  That Lt. Col. told me there was no abuse aboard the helicopter.  Yes there was.  That makes him a liar.  If you would have seen what I saw, you might feel differently.  In the end, we are honest people with rules and human decency or, we are what we have become; something far less than that.  Those contractors are not necessarily the great American defenders by the way, some of them are, but many are people after a fast buck. 

Ariel December 13, 2008 10:38 am (Pacific time)

I think anyone who believed this stuff doesn't happen is a fool, but to hear about it from a first hand witness is rare because the government is careful to cover it up. It is kind of tough for me to develop an opinion on this subject because it goes along with "if anyone ever hurt my children, I would do the same or worse to them". I do believe though that if these prisoners did kill American soldiers, they did not need to be abused. They should have just been killed. I agree with you Tim, that if prisoners are captured, abused and tortured, and later they are freed, more and more U.S. soldiers are going to be killed for something they didn't do. Maybe these contractors haven't heard the saying, "Have you created a terrorist today?"....

Vic December 13, 2008 10:01 am (Pacific time)

Thank you for having the courage to write this. No person is as worthy of respect as someone who puts themselves at risk for the good of all and the pursuit of truth !!! Thank you !

Anonymous December 12, 2008 9:53 pm (Pacific time)

Well, Tim, maybe you still don't believe the similar type of abuse our Men in Blue inflict on citizen photographers...

Tim King to Anonymous: there are several stories that I have dropped the ball on in my career and yours is one.  I do wish it wasn't, but the abuse you received happened at the worst time in history, when rights were being stripped from Americans.  Perhaps in the new climate there is some possibility of justice. 

 FYI: Ever since I covered the Sterling Alexander trial, they have have little to say to me over at Salem PD.  I have seen a few of them, but I think the attitude toward me changed.  That was a turning point for me in Salem, and that allows me to be a better journalist I think.  I am friends with the Oregon Guard and several agencies and I don't think there is anything wrong with that, but the KATU days were different and even though I made several enquiries about your story, I just never got it together.  I would like to say that I think you were treated like you were in an Eastern Bloc country based on what I know about it.  It is hard to imagine that happening to a respected, professional state employee in Salem.  I'm happy to talk about it, please write to me if you think I can help: tim@salem-news.com


new2site December 12, 2008 5:02 pm (Pacific time)

to anonymous: good point. During the DNC, the police rounded up and arrested hundreds of people sitting at a park. One of the people buried his camera and went back later to retrieve it. Yes, we have to get innovative to stop the abuse coming from many directions. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7qIwBQ1uYWM

Anonymous December 12, 2008 4:00 pm (Pacific time)

Tim, Seems like it might be interesting to find some kind of camera with a secondary, backup recording device, such as embedded memory/SD card. A camera like that could allow you to erase the questioned material, while still keeping the backup copy on internal memory/card storage.

new2site December 12, 2008 2:55 pm (Pacific time)

Thank you for this story. Altho, I do believe most of our soldiers are honorable, and support them 100%, there is a new faction taking place. Soldiers, from different countries, and mercenaries hired by the government are not just in Iraq, they are in America also. This is a subject that has much importance. People tend to say "well, thats a 3rd world country, a million miles away". This attitude of thinking needs to be enlightened. "Coming to a town near you" might be an interesting way to put it.

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