The Business End

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Financial Times Magazine
June 28, 2008 By Andrew K. Woods
The top half of Major General Douglas Stone's head is covered with black hair, slicked back a la Gordon Gecko, a businessman's coif that suggests money or power or both. The bottom half is a ring of grey, shaved in a severe military fade. It is a dual-use cut: in a suit he is all business; with a helmet on, he is a Marine Commander.
Seated in the back of a black hawk helicopter, shrouded in kevlar body armour and desert fatigues, he appears the marine. To his right sits his personal security detail, a grave-looking fellow with a Bowie knife and two shotgun rounds strapped to his flak jacket. To his left sits a leather attache case.
The land below is barren, save the occasional train of camels, and the only indication that we've entered Iraqi airspace is the sound of the gunner locking and loading his heavy machinegun. After 25 miles of dust and wind, a large structure becomes visible in the distance. The helicopter approaches a huge 400-acre grid of wire, containers and stadium lights, and circles it twice, tilting nearly 90 degrees as it turns, giving Stone a wide-angle view of Camp Bucca, America's largest detention centre in Iraq.
Surveying the structure, Stone could be the mayor of a small city. And in a sense, he is. Camp Bucca, which is named after a New York City fireman who died on September 11 2001, is said to be Iraq's 63rd-largest community. It is the third-largest forward operating base in Iraq, and the only place south of Baghdad with continuous electrical power. "I'm told it's bigger than 78 per cent of all American cities," Stone says with pride. He is the Commanding General of Task Force 134 (Detainee Operations), charged with overseeing the coalition's 19,000 detainees here at Camp Bucca, and another 3,000 held at Camp Cropper near Baghdad. By comparison, the US holds 630 detainees at Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan and 275 at Guantanamo Bay.
An imperial city like this - guarded by an occupying army whose legitimacy has been in the balance since the prison abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib in 2004 - is an unlikely place to test the claim that a more humane military is a more effective one. But, then, Stone is an unlikely commander. A Marine reservist who made a fortune in Silicon Valley before taking a doctorate in public administration, he is now fanatical about winning what he calls "the battlefield of the mind".
Since arriving in Iraq, he has instituted significant changes to coalition detention centres, including new review boards which explain to detainees why they are being held and what they can do about it; a pledge-and-guarantor programme whereby soon-to-be-released detainees swear in front of a judge that they will not return to the fight; increased family visits to the prisons; education programmes, including maths, Arabic and English classes; vocational training programmes; and religious discussion classes, where privately hired sheikhs discuss the Koran with detainees.
The reforms may seem obvious as a matter of law, or common sense, but they represent a significant shift from the US military's previous detention regime in Iraq, under which increasing numbers of detainees were warehoused and riots were commonplace.
Seen from above, the 20-odd compounds of the Bucca camp have a clinical stillness that befits what goes on below: what Stone calls his massive "social experiment", and what his critics call the world's largest religious re-education camp.
The headquarters of task force 134 is set apart from the rest of what is now called "camp victory" on the outskirts of baghdad, 300 miles northwest of Camp Bucca. General Stone's office is spare, save a bookshelf lined with volumes about counterinsurgency and the rule of law. Above his desk, Stone has tacked a piece of crayon-lettered fan mail from an American boy: "Dear soldier," it reads, "I hope you win and this is what I want you to do punch them and kick them and whack them with your gun and thorw boms [sic] at them and win!!!"
Stone admires the boy's singular focus. It was his own obsession with victory, after all, that drove him to leave the military in 1978, just five years after graduating from the Naval Academy, to work as David Packard's assistant at the fast-growing Hewlett-Packard. It was why he says he walked away from an IBM vice-presidency several years later to start his own small tech company, risking the mortgage on his California home in the process. And it was what led him to fly across the world last year to run a detention system no one else wanted to touch. Stone lives to win.
The boy's letter also seems to doubt the logic of soft power brandished by an invading army. Stone himself brags that he has "a high tolerance, a very high tolerance" for killing. "Don't get me wrong," he says. "You have to have violence. The moderate mosques had extremist imams. Those extremist imams are now with Allah."
Stone's great innovation, however, is that the US and its allies must limit indiscriminate killings - and detainee mistreatment - as a matter of public diplomacy rather than principle. This theory is a military doctrine that offers rare common ground for human rights advocates and hard-nosed generals, and it is one Stone has been working on for a while.
In the 1990s, after he graduated from Stanford Graduate School of Business, and at the same time that he "bounced in and out of" several tech firms and acquired hundreds of acres of northern California's wine country, Stone was working towards a doctorate in public administration at the University of Southern California. His dissertation is a study of international non-government networks, which he said would wield power by relying on "information operations and perception management... to attract rather than coerce". By then a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps reserves, Stone received his doctorate two weeks before September 11. In the wake of those attacks, many American pundits stressed the importance of winning the "war of ideas". The "terror war" would be fought "on the plane of theories, arguments, books, magazines, conferences, and lectures", wrote the social historian and neo-conservative Paul Berman. "It was going to be a war about the 'cultural influences' that penetrate the Islamic mind... it was going to be, in the end, a war of persuasion."
But all of that faded once attention turned to Iraq, and the US announced it would invade regardless of its ability to persuade. Military strategists turned their focus to kinetic battle tactics and the complexities of the Ba'athist hierarchy. Only after a full-blown insurgency had taken root and the crimes of Abu Ghraib had come to light did strategy discussions return to soft power. The military drafted a new counterinsurgency manual, and while it did not spell out detailed detention policies, it did emphasise the harms of wrongful detention, noting that in Algeria and in Northern Ireland, mass detentions had stoked the flames of local insurgencies.
At the time of the Iraq invasion, Stone was serving in Pakistan as deputy to General John Abizaid, Commander of US Central Command. It was in Pakistan that Stone began his self-described quest to understand "the Islamic mind". In late 2006, when he heard that he would be in charge of detention policy in Iraq, he approached the RAND Corporation, a policy think tank, for ideas on detention. He left for Baghdad with a briefcase full of proposals to turn military detention from a liability into a "strategic asset". He arrived in mid-May of 2007 to a detention camp in flames.
Riots had erupted in several compounds at Camp Bucca, where as many as 10,000 detainees were slinging rocks at the guards, tearing down their tents and using the canvas to feed the conflagration. The detainees donned signs that read "Death to American MPs" and threatened to storm the fence and kill their captors if their demands weren't met.
Since Camp Bucca was built in 2003, riots have been commonplace. The staff holds leadership training in a room whose walls display photographs, masks and rock-trophies from previous uprisings. YouTube even features clips of Bucca's early revolts. But the guards say they had never seen anything like the riot that broke out that May, and Stone, who had been brought in to clean up a mess, was hesitant to create another one. (An investigation was still under way into the events that led guards to shoot and kill four detainees to quell a riot that rocked five compounds in January 2005.) "We had a panic meeting here, and someone came up with the idea to electrify the fence. I mean, that's where we were," Stone says.
He gathered his leadership team and asked a basic question: why are they rioting? "Sir, they're rioting because they believe that we're holding them hostage," a soldier responded.
A UN Security Council resolution authorises coalition forces to detain any person they deem an "imperative security threat", which means that detention can be indefinite, and without charge. The US army emphasises that detainees are not technically prisoners - the Iraqi government holds another 25,000 men and women accused of, and sometimes charged with, insurgent and criminal activity - but the detainees live behind bars all the same. Few have been convicted of crimes, let alone been given a trial.
Stone launched several programmes to quell the detainees' anger and, according to the military's data, 2007 was a good year for Detainee Ops. Since Stone took charge, the number of significant acts of violence between detainees or against guards is down 80 per cent, in spite of a prison population that has doubled since "the surge" of US troops. Detainee recidivism rates from 2003 to 2006 ranged from 7 to 9 per cent. By contrast, since September 2007, coalition forces have released almost 8,000 men (just 14 of all coalition detainees are women), of whom, Stone says, only 24 have been recaptured - a recidivism rate of less than a quarter of 1 per cent.
Stone's numbers, like data about the success of the surge, can be hard to read. One explanation for the reduction in recidivism is that there is simply less fight to return to outside the camp. Or perhaps the reduced recidivism rates point to a hardening of detainees: those who have been released may be better at evading capture, thanks to their time in detention, networking with expert insurgents.
But by most accounts, conditions in the camps have improved significantly in the last year. When I asked a UN human rights officer in Baghdad what he thought about the conditions of the US-run detention centres, he described them as "five-star". A far bigger concern, he said, are the Iraqi prisons, where overcrowding and abuse are the norm for the approximately 25,000 convicts and detainees. Joanne Mariner, the terrorism and counter-terrorism programme director at Human Rights Watch, said Stone's reforms are "not just a public relations campaign... it's not taking you on the Potemkin village tour while they're torturing people in the backroom, no".
Or: it is a public relations campaign, and that's the point. Better detainee treatment is by itself good information operations, just as mistreatment at Abu Ghraib was bad information operations that provided ideological ammo for a young insurgency. But if Stone's programmes are a step in the right direction in terms of how the US treats its detainees in the so-called war on terror - and they seem to be - a dark cloud hangs over the project: occupation. It may not matter how well an invading army treats its prisoners, if it holds them for years on end - the average stay lasts 300 days - in the desert without trial.
When families come to visit relatives who have been detained at either Camp Bucca or Camp Cropper they are given a cartoon picture book that explains the detention process through the story of "Ahmed", a fictional detainee. The first frame shows a smiling brown figure sitting in the forest. The next frames show insurgents handing cash to Ahmed - and then an explosion occurs. Ahmed is next seen kneeling, handcuffed and blindfolded. Soldiers take him to Camp Cropper and the caption reads, "Ahmed receives a yellow uniform". He is seen studying in class and working in a factory before his release. In the final frame, he is free again, and smiling.
Euphoric as it sounds, this is the way Task Force 134 was originally envisioned. Several policy planners say, off the record, that detention was always thought of as the cornerstone of a new civil society in Iraq. Because they suspected that the rule of law was corrupted under Saddam, American planners decided they would have to rebuild the country's legal system from the ground up. Detention was seen as a good incubator for "rule of law programmes" - a training ground for Iraqi judges and lawyers, and thereby a means of manufacturing civil society.
None of that materialised. By the time the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in April 2004, detention was a shambles and cycles of rioting and repression were the norm. While Abu Ghraib provoked better oversight - at least of soldiers' cameras - detention's basic contours remained static, but the number of detainees was rising fast.
Less than a third of the detainees take part in the classes. But the number of detainees given access to job placement programmes is increasing, and before they leave detention, every detainee will have the option of going through the educational programmes designed by Stone's team. This is, as Stone's staff points out, basic corrections work. And yet, now that the programmes are in place amid a much-disputed occupation, they feel surreal.
In January this year, the guards at Camp Bucca held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a school that was built with the help of the detainees. Before sharing a celebratory chai with the detainees, Sheikh Abdul Sattar, a contractor working for the coalition, told the pupils that the first word Mohammed received from God was "read". "So you must do your best to learn everything, and if you are ignorant of something - shame, shame," he said. The detainees were seated in neat rows, with armed guards standing alongside them, arms crossed, batons at hand.
This was a proud moment for Stone's staff, and seemingly so for some of the detainees who had a hand in building the school. But was it a "win"? Stone seems to have increased the quality of life in the detention camps, and he appears to act within the bounds of international law, but doing so allows the military to avoid scrutiny about the tens of thousands of men detained without trial. It is astonishing, in fact, how little attention Camp Bucca has received.
When the surge in US troops began in early 2007, a key strategy seems to have been to scoop up huge numbers of Iraqis, causing the coalition's prison population to double. To this day, says Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch, "the American default option remains detaining [all] military-age men who are located somewhere an operation or attack has taken place". And while Stone has made basic improvements to the review procedure, including allowing detainees to be present for their hearings, there is still a heavy reliance on secret evidence to which the detainee has no access. Many of the detainees were brought in originally on a tip from someone who was probably feeding information to the Americans for political advantage. Says Mariner: "You may be detained based on secret testimony ... but if you knew who [the accuser] was, you could say 'that's my personal enemy.'"
Detainee status is reviewed every six months, in what is known as a Multi-National Force Review Committee (MNFRC) review board. In a trailer at Camp Bucca, with track panelling and a generator grumbling outside, detainees are asked simple questions such as "do you know why you are here?" On a recent visit to three separate reviews, I saw soldiers on the board rifling through a file that the detainees could not see, whispering to each other, then asking questions that seemed designed to catch the detainee lying. When one detainee professed innocence, the members of the review board looked pained, and pointed to the file.
The board has three options for each detainee: release; continued detention; or continued detention with enrolment in educational classes, which signals a likelihood of eventual release. Stone says he is trying to process as many detainees as possible; already the MNFRC boards see an average of 160 cases a day. The goal, Stone says, is to get as many of the detainees into the educational programmes as possible, and he estimates that at least a quarter of the current detainees should be released as soon as they complete the education programmes. "If Gitmo [Guantanamo] is a bad example, and Afghanistan potentially a bad example, then the one thing we shouldn't do is hold on to detainees," he says.
Not everyone agrees. Prominent military analysts Max Boot and Bing West have suggested that the current detention levels are not high enough, given that Iraq has a lower incarceration rate than the US, despite being far more violent. Stone balked when asked about differences of opinion within the military establishment, but it is widely known that he has clashed with former Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, who will soon take over from General David Petraeus as commanding general of Multi-National Forces in Iraq. Odierno is known for his brutal battle tactics - made notorious in Thomas Ricks's 2006 book Fiasco - and he admits that, in the heat of the battle, his men have made mistakes as to who and how they detain. For almost a year, Odierno and Stone sat on opposite ends of the detention system, with Odierno in charge of who went in and Stone in charge of who went out. One side saw increased detention as a necessary short-term solution to insurgent violence (and perhaps a good way to finesse the surge's numbers); the other side saw minimal detention as crucial to the occupation's legitimacy.
The latter argument seems to have prevailed - General Petraeus recently announced that the US would significantly reduce the number of detainees it holds in Iraq. They are currently being released at a rate of 40 per day, while new detentions are made at about 25 a day. The military, meanwhile, has never defined "imminent security threat", the UN standard required for detention. Other than Stone's modest reforms, nothing seems to indicate rigorous due process. A document produced by a contractor of religious services in the detention centres suggests that the imams and psychologists working with detainees make recommendations to the MNFRC board based on three factors: whether a detainee presents "no security threat", a "psychological threat" or an "ideological threat".
But who constitutes an ideological threat - and how would you know?
Because Stone hopes to treat the root causes of the insurgency, incoming detainees are put through a week-long screening by psychologists, education specialists and imams. The detainees answer questions about their education, religious background and psychological state. Most questions are benign. Will he watch television? Does he smoke? "If he has a beard, it's a data point," Stone says.
Each compound has its own team of what Stone calls "sociological observers of behaviour" - contractors brought in to work with "counterinsurgency teams" who have infiltrated the compounds and who report back to Stone about the psychological, religious, class and tribal identities of the detainees. Stone is primarily looking for those he calls "the irreconcilables", the radically ideological prisoners whom he says he cannot change. Once identified, these detainees are moved to a red or yellow compound so they do not "infect" the detainees in the green (moderate) compounds.
Stone says the best way to find out who is an extremist - or Takfir, as he calls them - is the religious discussion group. "It allows us to determine the guys that don't really give a **** about the Koran in the first place - they're using it as a discipline. Those guys are beginning to fall into the category of irreconcilables, and that's helpful to me. I want to know who they are. They're like rotten eggs, you know, hiding in the Easter basket. So we scoop them out," he says, his hands raking through the air, "and what we see is a flattening" - a calm in the behaviour of the remaining detainees.
The Islamic discussion programme is headed by Sheikh Abdul Sattar, who works for Operational Support & Services, a subcontractor of Russian and East European Partnerships Inc., which specialises in "intercultural communications". On leave from his Sunni mosque in Baghdad, Sheikh Sattar spent a recent afternoon sitting with a dozen detainees, answering questions about "offences", deeds prohibited by the Koran. The discussion was run without guards. "Don't let them deceive you," Sattar told the students. "You should take from the mouth of Prophet Mohammed."
For questions of religious interpretation, Stone's staff has developed a directory of radical refrains, along with responses to each from what they say are moderate passages of text. The directory of moderate arguments was put together, Stone says with no small amount of pride, by "former al-Qaeda guys who now work for me," because "they know the messages".
Sattar and Stone are hoping to create what they call "moderate missiles". When someone is identified as a cleric in training, the intelligence teams try to "flip" him. If he flips, Stone says, "I've got a moderate imam in the future." Stone's analysts estimate the average Iraqi has a social network of at least 100 people, which is comparatively quite dense - meaning that the stakes in a war of ideas are high. "I like talking to 24,000 people," Stone says, "because 24,000 people will talk to 2.4 million people. That's viral marketing. And viral marketing works." He adds: "There are one billion in the Ummah [the Islamic diaspora] who are watching Baghdad."