The effort to obtain information from al Qaeda and Taliban fighters detained at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba has been hampered by inexperienced interrogators and linguists, military bureaucracy and squabbles among private language contractors, according to sources familiar with the government's mission there.
With many of its best interrogators and speakers of Middle Eastern dialects dispatched to Afghanistan, the military has been forced to rely on someunderqualified officers whoare overmatched by captives trained in methods of evasion, according to people familiar with the interrogations. In a few cases, young questioners in uniform were conducting some of their first interrogations.
"Some of the interrogators are very inexperienced, nervous," said one linguist stationed at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, where 299 detainees are being questioned. "They twist their pen 2,000 times a minute. The detainee is in full control. He's chained up, but he's the one having fun."
Compounding the problem is a lack of familiarity with Middle Eastern terrorism among officers of the military's Miami-based Southern Command (Southcom), which at times has impeded the flow of key intelligence to Guantanamo Bay interrogators, sources said. That has occasionally limited questioners' ability to pursue lines of inquiry with the detainees, they said.
Moreover, two companies that have supplied linguists for some of the interrogations have squabbled bitterly with each other,according to knowledgeable officials in the public and private sectors.
These assessmentsby military officers and private contractors are the first glimpse of obstacles facing interrogators at Guantanamo Bay's Camp X-Ray, the hastily built military jail where the Pentagon is holding some of its fiercest enemy captives.
Officials are trying to shake loose critical information to thwart future acts of terror, and perhaps build criminal cases against the fighters. It is difficult to determine the extent to which these linguistic and bureaucratic problems have hindered theintelligence-gathering effort, but they suggest that the United States is woefully short of some of the skills needed in the war on terror.
Army Col. Ron Williams, spokesman for Southcom, said that problems with interpreters and interrogators are temporary, and denied that any of them have been unable to handle the captives.
"I don't know of cases where the detainee was in charge," Williams said. "He may not give up information. It's a mano a mano thing." Rookie interrogators are getting better, he said, adding that "it takes a while to be competent in any field."
Williams strenuously denied that Southcom has in any way stalled the movement of intelligence data to interrogators.
"In today's world, moving intelligence information is almost instantaneous," he said. "They build databases over in Afghanistan, and it's shared by us, by Washington. Everybody knows the same things."
But he acknowledged that interrogators sometimes don't receive answers to intelligence queries they send up the chain to Southcom if they are deemed irrelevant.
Williams also conceded that Guantanamo Bay interpreters, along with linguists throughout the U.S. intelligence community, lack facility with the widely varying regional dialects of Arabic and other languages used by detainees, because military linguistic programs have deemphasized them for a decade.
A spokeswoman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld did not respond to requests for comment.
20 Prisoners Cooperate
Even critics of the Guantanamo Bay interrogations said thatmost of the American personnel there are motivated and competent, and that some are top quality. U.S. officials say the interrogations have yielded a number of successes – some made public and some kept secret – that likely have prevented terrorist attacks.
In one grueling, hours-long session in February, a pair of Arabic-speaking FBI agents patiently pried loose information from one detainee that led to a worldwide alert for Fawaz Yahya Al-Rabeei, a Yemeni national, and 16 other al Qaeda members suspected of plotting an attack in the United States or Yemen.
Last week, U.S. prosecutors who charged American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh with conspiracy to murder Americans said in court papers that at least 20 of the detainees have given statements to interrogators.
But little other information has emerged about what is being learned at Guantanamo Bay and how the interrogations are conducted.
Camp X-Ray opened in January on a dusty, windswept field next to a rock-crushing operation at the U.S. naval base. The prisoners, flown by military transport jets from Afghanistan, are housed in chain-link pens and taken one by one to "interrogation booths" in two plywood huts. There their ankle chains are looped through bolts in the floor while they are questioned.
Controversy has dogged the operation since its inception. Human rights groups raised questions about the detainees' treatment, arguing that they should be deemed prisoners of war. But the government maintains that the captives are treated humanely, with access to food and medical care.
Officials said many of the captives are likely to be held indefinitely, and a more permanent prison is under construction.
For decades, U.S. intelligence officials have increasingly relied on electronic eavesdropping and satellite imagery, and interrogation skills have slowly withered, experts said. While many of the 30 or so interrogators and an equal number of interpreters in Cuba are highly skilled, others lack the street smarts or strength of personality to manage an emotional confrontation, several sources said.
"A few of the interrogators just didn't have what it takes," said William Tierney, a former Army intelligence officer who worked as a contract Arabic linguist at Camp X-Ray for six weeks before losing his job in a dispute with superiors. "You have to be in control in an interrogation, and that just isn't their personality. . . . Some younger interrogators addressed the detainees like they were friends at the malt shop."
One interrogator persisted in asking Taliban detainees for details about their wives, despite admonitions from others that Afghan men are likely to view such queries as insulting and would refuse to cooperate. That was the result.
One source who worked at Camp X-Ray said it was a mistake to assign women as interrogators; because of their religious and cultural beliefs, some detainees refuse to communicate with women on personal subjects. "You put a woman in front of him, he'll say, 'Go to hell,' " the source said.
Among the deficient interpreters Guantanamo Bay are some whose regular intelligence jobs involve interpreting taped foreign telephone conversations day after day, sources said. A number of them find it hard to engage in the sometimes emotionally charged interrogations, sources said, where they must mimic the interrogators' tone of voice – yelling when they yell, whispering when they whisper.
One interpreter repeatedly interrupted an interrogator to remind him that he had previously posed the same questions earlier in that session – not realizing that it is a common tactic for interrogators to double back for more detail or to test the captive's truthfulness.
In what some people called a cultural misstep, one of the contractors, Fairfax-based BTG,assigned an Iranian American man who speaks Farsi to interpret thereplies of Afghan detainees who speak Dari. While the two languages are similar, they are different enough that the choice helped spark angry debate on the interrogation team, sources said.
"There's an animosity of culture between Iranians and many Afghans," said one source. "Afghans aren't going to cooperate."
Wil Williams, a BTG spokesman, denied there were any such problems, adding that there are now sufficient Dari speakers in Cuba.
BTG is locked in bitter disputes with its smaller competitor, Maine-based Worldwide Language Resources, which also has employees in Cuba. One conflict arose when BTG successfully discredited a Worldwide employee who had worked with BTG a few weeks earlier but had been dismissed after a series of arguments, sources said. The Worldwide employee was removed from Guantanamo Bay.
"Yes, there's friction between the companies," said Larry Costa, Worldwide's president. "When one of my guys shows up on the island and three hours later BTG has him run off, yes."
BTG's Williams denied that his company played a role in the removal of the man, and declined to comment on the corporate struggles.
Ron Williams of Southcom said the acrimony between the two firms has not harmed the intelligence-gathering effort, which he added has improved with the arrival last month of Army Reserve Maj. Gen. Michael Dunlavey as head of the interrogation unit, known as Joint Task Force (JTF) 170.
"This operation has been very successful," Col. Williams said. "With the [creation] of JTF 170, the senior leadership being put on the ground, and the maturing of that task force, it's getting even better."
By all accounts, interrogators at Guantanamo Bay face a daunting challenge. Employed by the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and other military units around the world, half have been assigned to gather information for use in possible criminal trials or military tribunals, and half are seeking intelligence for use in the military's war on terrorism, sources said.
In a variety of ways, the message that interrogators transmit to the detainees is this: The sooner you give us verifiable information, the sooner you'll know when you can leave here.
The interrogators script out an approach based on a psychological profile of each prisoner, deciding beforehand whether the order of the day will be yelling, an offer of cigarettes or a debate about the Koran.
"You try to help them find a plausible way they can explain to themselves ratting out their buddies," one source said.
Gleaning a Detail
The first step in persuading an al Qaeda detainee to talk is breaking down the alibi he gave U.S. questioners in Afghanistan to explain why he was captured in the battle zone. Many offer a variation on two cover stories – that they were in Afghanistan to find a wife, or were teaching the Koran in a remote village and lived in a spare room off a mosque – suggesting the fighters had prepared their stories in advance.
The goal is to get the detainee talking, about even the most minor matters.
"Just being kind can help," one source said. "It often breaks through their security training because they don't expect it. . . . If I have to stand on my head and whistle 'Dixie' to get them to talk, I do it."
An interrogator will often spend hours asking whether a source knows any al Qaeda or Taliban fighters from lengthy lists of names. Oddly, after enough time, sometimes even the most hardened captive will own up. Then the questioner has what he has been waiting for: a detail to focus on.
The record, sources said, was a seven-hour interrogation.
The captives, who are held in open-air pens, quiz each other as they return from interrogation and their leaders are known to try to keep track of what information each detainee has divulged, sources said.
All the while, the information is entered into databases and meshed with other intelligence from Afghanistan and around the world. One avenue that has proved helpful is tracking the detainees through the clerics they follow, and matching them with others following the same leader.
But military sources said interrogators sometimes don't receive answers when they direct intelligence-related questions to Southcom, where officials have next to no experience with Osama bin Laden and Muslim extremists.
"It's a problem of having an operation [at Guantanamo Bay] that is outside the theater in which it originated" – Afghanistan – said one military officer. "There's been a lot of wheel-spinning at Southcom."
Another military officer with close ties to Southcom said that the interrogation process "would have been far superior" if it were being run by a different military unit, Central Command. That Tampa-based outfit is responsible for the Middle East, and is both prosecuting the war in Afghanistan and questioning hundreds of other detainees there.
Southcom's Williams said his command is working closely and cooperatively with the Middle East experts at Central Command. "We're on the phone with Centcom all the time," he said, "and there's absolutely no turf problem."
Staff writers Thomas E. Ricks and Brooke A. Masters contributed to this report.www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A22119-2002Apr20.htmlE-mail this article