We just called him "the General." He was the highest-ranking guy we had gotten so far. I took it upon myself to do the interrogation. I knew the S-2 would be asking about him, and since I as the team leader would have to answer to the S-2, I figured it would be best if I could say that I was the one who talked to the General, so the responsibility would fall solely on me.
From the statements in the detainee packet it was obvious that the informant knew the General and his family. Probably one of his neighbors, I thought. The statements by the informant were very sloppy, and according to our interpreter, T.K., a Palestinian, the grammar indicated a person of little education. This was typical, and although it wasn't a sure indicator of a bogus informant, it didn't give me any confidence in the General's guilt.
According to the accusations, The General had melted away after the invasion and was now part of something called the Secret Islamic Army. Supposedly, the former commanding officer of all air defense forces for Baghdad during the Gulf War of 1991 was now out on the streets of Baghdad setting up 122-millimeter Katyusha rockets by himself. The scenario seemed implausible, and the information seemed unreliable. Typically the bogus informants will be right on with certain pieces of information, like the target's full name, address, description of his house, family members, color of his car, etc, but then they will throw in some ludicrous allegations to spice things up. I tried to picture a retired General Schwartzkopf in some future doomsday scenario out in a farm field in Virginia, setting up Katyusha rockets to strike some foreign invading force, a la Red Dawn.
The statement from the informant was also much too specific. Most Iraqis seem to not know their own birthdays, much less their wives' or children's birthdays, and they don't have a sense of time, a sense of needing to be somewhere at a certain time, so I never believed it when an informant could rattle off the date and time when he saw so-and-so shooting mortars by the American Base or setting an IED by the Airport Road. It's always possible, anything's always possible, but dealing with Iraqis, trying to get information from them, taught me that "true" is when most of the pieces add up to make a somewhat plausible story, and "false" is when the parts of the story just don't add up at all. That's what we had in Iraq instead of true and false, plausible or implausible.
When I first met the General he was in an orange jumpsuit on one side of the table and T.K. and I were on the other side of the table. He was not what I expected. He was a large man, probably over six feet tall, and bulky. He had a little paunch but he wasn't obese like a lot of the old Ba'ath Party guys. About 60 years old, he had dyed-black hair and a dyed-black mustache, but was otherwise clean-shaven. He had bags under his eyes. He had long arms and big hands -- he dwarfed me. I may have been a little intimidated by his size, age, and position. I wasn't afraid for my safety or anything, but I didn't feel qualified to interrogate him.
The General spoke Arabic, English, Russian, German, and French, had attended officer's training in the Soviet Union, and went to graduate school in aeronautical engineering in France. He was a nice man, very cooperative, very sincere. His politeness made me more suspicious of him. I let him call me "Mr. Mike," and I called him "General." I tried out a few French phrases on him, and of course he spoke it fluently, while I did not. He told me about his family. The subject of his twentysomething daughters intrigued me -- I wondered if they were good-looking. I was surprised that he was a Shiite Muslim. He explained that Saddam really didn't care about one's religion. He only cared about loyalty. The General did point out that only the Tikritis would be able to rise to Saddam's innermost circle. We talked about Tariq Aziz, the Christian. I showed the General a deck of the "Iraq's Most Wanted" playing cards. He told me which guys he knew, but maintained that he didn't know where any of them were at the present time. He had already retired from the army when the most recent war started, so he was out of the loop. I believed him.
The detainee packet contained pictures of his home, which had beautiful marble floors, real woodwork, leather sofas, and an entertainment center -- top-notch stuff. There was also a picture of a briefcase full of U.S. Dollars. I asked him about that -- he admitted it was his. I asked if he was funding the insurgency or supporting it in other ways. He laughed, and told me where the money came from. What he described is commonly known in America as a "pyramid scheme."
The General was the Baghdad representative of GulfQuest, a corporation based in the United Arab Emirates. He had given GulfQuest $7,000, and that money had purchased him a certain number of shares in GulfQuest. He earned his cut by recruiting other Iraqis into "investing" in GulfQuest. Each recruit would pay the General a certain amount of money, most of which he would keep. Then he would send a small percentage of that money back to the guy who recruited him, and so on. So the original investors make money off of everybody below them in the "pyramid." As for GulfQuest, it was a real corporation, but it neither produced nor provided anything to anyone. Thus, it was a "scheme" or a "scam." Call it what you will, this was how the retired Iraqi Army Air Defense General was making his briefcases full of money. He could have been lying, but if I was going to lie about where I got a briefcase full of money, I would come up with something a little less complicated. The story was plausible. It was also plausible that the General was fooling me.
I asked him about his military career, and my notes spanned several pages. He was a military officer even before the Ba'athists took over Iraq. During the Gulf War he commanded Iraqi Air Defense Forces around Baghdad, at that time the most formidable in the world. His expertise was in radar systems. I told him that he was being accused of building Katyusha rockets for the insurgents to strike the American bases. He pleaded with me to listen to him, that he didn't know anything about building surface-to-surface rockets, he was an expert at radar systems only. Once he became a general, he didn't have anything to do with the technical side of things, anyway. "Iraqi Generals don't do work, you know," he said. I laughed, and said that ours didn't either.
He was from Basra, in the south of Iraq near Kuwait, and still had family there. He was not a religious man, and his children were all college educated. His brothers down in Basra were all successful businessmen. I asked him if they were involved in GulfQuest too. He said that two of his brothers had become involved with the company when he did.
By the end of the first interrogation, I was pretty sure that the General was not shooting Katyusha rockets at us in his spare time, nor was he building Katyusha rockets, nor was he a member of the Secret Islamic Army (a Sunni Muslim group). I thought perhaps he might be financing some former Ba'ath Party holdouts, however. A briefcase full of money is not all that uncommon -- the Iraqi banking system has not gotten on its feet yet, and Visa and MasterCard don't grant credit there either -- but it was worth holding him on. Also, there was the issue of GulfQuest. Maybe some of our analysts could look up the company, and see if the General really was involved with them. Maybe GulfQuest was a front business to launder money for the Ba'ath Party holdouts that were financing the insurgency. In my first interrogation report, I recommended that the General be held for further investigation. I requested that some specialized intelligence personnel come over to debrief him on his Ba'ath Party connections and his Gulf War experience -- maybe the info could help us locate Scott Speicher, the only US serviceman still missing from the 1991 Persian Gulf War. I sent up my requests and did my own checking on the Internet. GulfQuest did in fact exist. It had a very sharp, professional looking website, but I was unable to determine if the General was a part of the company or not.
The next morning I reported to the Tactical Operations Center for my morning briefing. The S-2 was there, and he pulled me aside. "You need to hit that general again today. We know he's involved in rocket attacks. We need to know who else he works with." I asked the S-2 if anyone from DIA or OGA was coming to talk to the General about his Ba'ath Party connections or about Scott Speicher and the Baghdad air defenses of 1991. He said he'd get back to me on that.
I talked to the General again that afternoon. He was still very cooperative and polite. We talked about our families. I showed him a picture of my year-old son, and he said he looked just like me. He seemed very much a civilized, well-mannered gentleman. I asked him about going to school in France in the 60's. I asked him if he had a lot of girlfriends there, and he laughed and said of course. I told him that I had to ask him about some military topics because my boss wanted me to, and he said he understood. I asked to whom did he give the Katyusha rockets after he modified them to fly longer ranges. He smiled because he knew I was only asking that absurd question because my boss wanted me to. I smiled too because I wanted him to know I thought it was an absurd question and I really didn't want an answer.
"At least tell me about the air defense radar systems of Baghdad, in non-technical terms, if you can, Monsieur General."
I needed something to put in my report.
On the third day I reported again to the Tactical Operations Center to hear the morning briefing. The S-2 caught me and told me that some analysts from Central Command had read my initial report and liked it. I asked the S-2 if they were sending any debriefers. He said he would get back to me on that, and added that I needed to hit the General again to get that info about the rocket attacks. I told the S-2 that I honestly didn't think he was involved with any rocket attacks, but he definitely knew a lot about the Ba'ath Party, Baghdad air defense in the Gulf War, and pyramid schemes. The S-2 said he was definitely involved in rocket attacks, that the informant's statements implicated him without a doubt. "The Colonel has a hard-on for this guy," he added.
I spoke to the General every day for two weeks, and every morning I was told by the S-2 that we needed to find out about the rocket attacks, and every morning I asked the S-2 when DIA was coming to talk to him, and every time the S-2 said he would get back to me on that. The General and I spent many hours talking about Iraqi history, the Soviet Union, our families, and the current situation in Iraq. I brought him dates and baklava. We practiced our French and I tutored him in English. Eventually even Abu Fay, our Iraqi interpreter who hated the Ba'athists with a passion, warmed up to him. They were about the same age, and they both had daughters. They talked with each other in Arabic about the old days before the Ba'ath came to power, while I read John Le Carre's The Russia House. Of course, every session ended with him asking when he was going to get released, and my answer that I was doing the best I could and that he had to be strong and be patient. Every day I could see his dye job fading, his hair growing longer, getting grayer, his clean-shaven face turning stubbly and finally fully gray-bearded. Every day he seemed to get thinner, and shorter, and his shoulders slumped more and more until he was no longer the proud general I had met on the first day but now a sober version of one of the pathetic generals out of Turgenev or Chekhov.
Then just prior to the first Iraqi elections of January 2005, I was sent to a forward command post at an Iraqi Police station in the city, where I waited and waited for someone to bring me someone to interrogate. Nobody came. I just waited around for the inevitable implosion of the building I was in. I returned to the prison eight days later. I was sure they would have either transferred or released the General by then. It had been three weeks and I had been recommending that they either get him professionally debriefed by someone in DIA or OGA, or just release him. It didn't matter to me. I could see the man's health failing every day he was in that place. If we didn't release him he would eventually die there. I tried to make the case to the S-2 that we didn't want the guy dying in our custody because then there would be an investigation and someone was likely to go down. The S-2 agreed, but said his hands were tied because the Colonel had a hard-on for the guy.
So when I came back to the prison, and the General was still there, languishing in a 10-by-12 cell with six other detainees, I suddenly forgot that I was happy to have survived the elections, and that I was almost done with my tour, and it was clear to me again that I was part of a Kafkaesque system where human beings were nothing more than bugs. Not only that, but to these men in the orange jumpsuits, I was that system, I held their fate in my hands, and if they were still being held for weeks and weeks with no end in sight, then I must be the one keeping them there.
I went to the General's cell, where he sat leaning up against the wall on his mattress, just staring. He looked like only one-third of his former self; his hair was totally gray, his mustache and beard white. His paunch was still there, but the muscles of his large frame were gone. He didn't notice me squat down right next to him on the other side of the bars. The other detainees got up and approached to plead with me about their innocence, but I shooed them away.
"Bonjour, Mon General, ca va?" His head turned slowly like a tortoise's.
"Bonjour Mr. Mike. Ca va." I took him out of the cell and brought him to the interrogation room.
I sat him down gently in his chair, and moved my chair from the other side of the table so I could sit next to him. Abu Fay took his chair around the other side. I went to get something for him to eat. When I returned with a grilled cheese sandwich and some mashed potatoes, he was sitting and smoking with Abu Fay.
"Quelque chose de manger," I said. He thanked me sincerely but did not touch the food. He drank a little of the orange juice. Abu Fay seemed to absorb the General's despair. They both seemed to age twenty years in front of me. They both reminded me of my own father, what little I remember, anyway -- the gray hair, the stubbly beard, big hands, the slight paunch. I remembered no hours of conversation with my own father, though.
The General finished his cigarette and drank some more orange juice.
"You have to remain strong, General. You will get out of here any day now."
"Thank you Mr. Mike, but I have no hope. I will die in this prison."
"No you will not. At the very worst you will be transferred to Abu Ghraib prison and there they will assess your condition and they will release you. They don't have a good case on you and you are unhealthy. They don't want unhealthy people with weak cases clogging up the prison system."
"Thank you, Mr. Mike. Tell me, why don't they believe me? I have nothing. I was in the Ba'ath Party, yes. I told you this. I was a General of the Air Defense, I told you this too. I know nothing about rockets or modifying rockets to make them go faster or farther. I was a radar specialist but mostly I was a bureaucrat. I have a nice house and money because of the GulfQuest. I never saved a lot of money from Saddam's time. My children are at home but they are college educated. I don't worry about them. They will take care of my wife. Nobody needs me. But I don't want you to think I hate the Americans. I know the guards in the prison here, they are nice boys. I know you, Mr. Mike, you are beautiful. I don't hate you. I never loved Saddam. I was loyal to him because I needed to do this to be successful. You do not just quit the Ba'ath. You stay in it but it doesn't mean you love Saddam. I was in the Ba'ath before Saddam became president. I know nothing of the Secret Islamic Army or the Katyusha rockets or anything else. Why don't they just let me go or kill me? Why do they leave me to rot inside this place?"
I told him I didn't know why. I told him I was sure that his case would be decided any day now, and that he had to hang in there. I told him to eat more, and exercise in his cell, and to not lose hope. He nodded his head but he didn't eat, or drink any more orange juice, or ask for another cigarette. He just looked down at his hands.
The last time I saw the General was on the day he was transferred to Abu Ghraib, 35 days after his arrest. He was wearing the clothes from when he was first detained -- gray slacks, black oxford shoes, and an off-white dress shirt. He was blindfolded with a first-aid cravat and flex-cuffed behind his back, and his head was down. I came up close behind him and whispered to him.
"Mon General, ca va?" He turned his head despite the guard's orders to face front, head down.
"Hello Mr. Mike. How are you?" he whispered back.
"You are leaving today."
"Yes. I am going today."
"You are going to be fine, OK? You just remain strong and eat and do not lose hope. You will be released soon." I put my hand on his shoulder.
"I hope so. Mr. Mike?"
"I am glad to meet you."
"I'm glad to meet you too, General."
"Maybe we will meet again someday, après la guerre est fini."
"I can visit you after the war is over. I have your address, remember?"
"I will see you then."
"Adieux, Mon General."
Mike Nowacki lives and writes Chicago. In Iraq, he was an interrogator for the U.S. army.