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Posted on Jul 22, 2010 in War College

The U.S. Army and Interrogation in Operation Iraqi Freedom – Maj. D. A. Pryer Interview

By Gerald D. Swick

Major Douglas A. Pryer, an active-duty U.S. Army counterintelligence officer who served in Iraq during the first year of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, has published a study of detainee interrogation in Iraq. The process of detaining and questioning Iraqis and others is often viewed only in terms of the photos taken in Abu Ghraib that shocked and dismayed many who saw them—including Maj. Douglas Pryer, who was in charge of interrogators in Iraq at the time.

He had many questions and later set out to find answers. What he learned was that detainee abuse was more the exception than the norm, but that where it occurred it could be traced to inadequate training, insufficient numbers of trained human-intelligence specialists, and failure of leadership at many levels. He lists around 200 reference sources he used in compiling the information, including a large number of personal interviews. The paper he wrote about his conclusions won the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College’s 2009 Birrer-Brooks Award for the most outstanding Masters of Military Arts and Sciences (MMAS) thesis and the Arter-Darby Award for the most significant historical work for his graduating class.


The Command and General Staff College Foundation recently published a greatly expanded version of that thesis as a 121-page book (not counting front and back matter) titled The Fight for the High Ground: the U.S. Army and Interrogation during Operation Iraqi Freedom, May 2003 – April 2004. The book version includes a lengthy and insightful foreword by Colonel (Retired) Stu Herrington, who inspected Abu Ghraib and Gitmo before those facilities became notorious. It also includes Maj. Pryer’s autobiographical Prologue and two additional tactical-level chapters. The book is available through the CGSC Foundation Press, (913) 651-0624, or at All proceeds from the sale of the book go to support officer education at CGSC.

In an exclusive interview with, Maj. Pryer discusses his conclusions about the moral and practical implications of detainee abuse, why it is self-defeating, and why sometimes systematic abuse occurred when, overall, most infractions were usually minor and occurred immediately after a firefight.

Major Pryer has received the Bronze Star, Combat Action Badge and Parachutist Badge. First of all, why did you choose the title, The Fight for the High Ground? What does that mean to you?

Maj. Douglas A. PryerMajor Douglas A. Pryer: I want to first thank you, Gerald, for this chance to speak to you and your readers. Please keep in mind, though, that I’m speaking to you as a private citizen and not as the representative of the U.S. government or Army.

Now, on to your question. Since the Global War on Terror (GWOT) began, there has been a struggle for what is perhaps best described as the “soul” of our military. Are we going to remain the principled military we have been, at our best, since our founding? Or did the 9/11 terrorist attacks usher in a new age where, since we now fight non-state actors governed by different rules, Americans may employ any technically legal method—no matter how brutal—to achieve desired ends? In my book, I describe the clandestine clash between these two philosophies, from Washington, D.C., to the fields of Iraq, as they pertain to Army interrogation during the first year of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.

Thus, to me, my book’s title mainly refers to this moral battle from the vantage point of the vast majority of Army leaders and interrogators, who, despite being assailed by those who believed their principles no longer relevant, adhered to these principles nonetheless. The title resonates personally for me in other ways as well: the thought of all the battles in history waged for a piece of high, key terrain; the mental image of the Iron Mike statue at Ft. Benning, Georgia, leading and pointing invisible Soldiers toward some remote objective; and the “city upon the hill” metaphor and the idealized “America” that this metaphor presents—an America I believe we must strive to achieve.

(Editor’s Note: In 1630, John Winthrop paraphrased a Biblical expression—"A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden"—to represent how colonists would transform the destiny of the new lands in America as a "city upon a hill." Much later, Ronald Reagan drew upon Winthop’s statement to describe his own vision of America as "a shining city upon a hill.")

ACG: What led you to examine this particular aspect of the Global War on Terror?

MAJ. PRYER: Throughout OIF I, I led interrogators, both at the division and brigade levels. I knew that none of the interrogators in my division had employed so-called “enhanced” interrogation techniques (harsher methods such as forced nudity, sleep deprivation, slapping, etc—Editor). Yet, to read books and news reports, one would think that these techniques were the norm rather than the exception. I knew this perception to be flat wrong, and I was keen to ensure that the historical record reflects the story of those leaders and interrogators who fought to keep to the moral high ground. I also wanted to understand exactly where and why interrogators did choose to descend down the dark path of detainee abuse. After returning home, it had been impossible for me to reconcile the much-publicized misdeeds of certain interrogators at Abu Ghraib and other facilities with the interrogators I personally knew. I hoped through my research to reconcile these differences. Ultimately, at least to my own satisfaction, I succeeded.

Then-Capt. D. A. Pryer (l ctr, behind guidon bearer) and 1st Sgt. Michael Quinn (r ctr, behind guidon bearer) with a portion of Bravo Company, 501st Military Intelligence Battalion, in front of Al Faw Palace, downtown Baghdad, Feb. 29, 2004. Click for larger image.ACG: You served as an Intelligence officer in Iraq, ultimately commanding Bravo Company, 501st Military Intelligence (MI) Battalion. Tell us a bit about your duties and experiences then.

MAJ. PRYER: During the first seven months of my 15-month deployment to Iraq, I was the assistant operations officer for the 501st MI Battalion, which supported Task Force 1st Armored Division in Baghdad. My primary duty was to help manage division-level interrogation operations. I regularly briefed our commanding general on the results of interrogations, and I passed on priorities, lines of questioning, and movement instructions to interrogators at our division facility. In early November 2003, I took command of my battalion’s Bravo Company, which supported the 2nd Brigade Combat Team in downtown Baghdad. Most famously, this brigade established and secured what became known as the “Green Zone.” This may sound like an easy job, but we also had some really dangerous areas, such as the notorious Haifa Street neighbourhoods.

Unquestionably, my crucible leadership experience occurred when I watched my division’s interrogation leadership refuse on principle to implement enhanced interrogation techniques. Since then, I have sometimes wondered how I would have handled being assigned to a unit whose leaders were making different decisions. Fortunately, I had good leaders around me, and I witnessed instead what right looks like under principled leadership. Yes, ethical mistakes were made in our division at platoon level and lower, but thankfully, school-trained interrogators made only minor mistakes.

ACG: You argue that the U.S. military must maintain high moral and ethical standards while gathering intelligence, but many Americans would say, Get down and dirty and do whatever is necessary to get the information to protect our troops and defeat the enemy. How would you respond to a statement like that?

MAJ. PRYER: My essential position is that we must maintain our ethical standards if we are to defeat (or more accurately, politicize) our armed enemies on today’s battlefields. Any other approach will, in the Information Age, lead slowly but surely to our own defeat. When we get “down and dirty” to protect our troops, we are actually placing them in graver danger. We must not forget, for example, that outrage over perceived U.S. atrocities was the main motivation for many, if not most, Muslim men to become suicide bombers in Iraq. In particular, the Abu Ghraib and Gitmo scandals helped de-stabilize Iraq and drove mujahedeen in droves to that country.

ACG: Carl von Clausewitz observed in On War that in matters as dangerous as war, the greatest mistakes are inevitably those of beneficence. As long as you get the desired results, don’t the ends justify the means in a situation where lives, both civilian and military, hang in the balance?

MAJ. PRYER: If Clausewitz advocated cruelty to prisoners of war or civilians in the name of mission accomplishment—which I doubt he did—his conclusions would need to be placed in the context of his times. Napoleonic armies no doubt had brutal options available to them that the armies of mature democracies do not have during the Information Age. Moreover, Clausewitz was keenly aware of the overarching political dimension of warfare, and I strongly doubt that, if writing today, he would draw different conclusions about the political unfeasibility of torture by mature democracies. Perhaps inevitably today, harsh methods cause more lives to be lost than they save. Besides, even if the brutal methods of yesterday’s dictators—such as torture, mass-relocations, concentration camps, and extermination campaigns—did work today, do we really want to engage in such methods as Americans? I think not!

ACG: Most of us have seen the photos from Abu Ghraib, but what sorts of things constitute detainee abuse? Some things such as yelling at the detainee or playing Good Cop, Bad Cop with him seem very mild, yet they are forbidden practices in interrogation.

MAJ. PRYER: Yelling at a detainee is not expressly forbidden by interrogation doctrine, though it is rarely effective and thus hardly ever used by professional interrogators. The good cop/bad cop approach, which military interrogators know as the “Mutt and Jeff” approach, is an authorized approach, but its use requires the approval of the first full colonel in the interrogator’s chain-of-command to use. The requirement for this approval, I believe, is an over-compensation for past scandals.

But I see what you’re getting at. What is considered detainee abuse may not seem all that rough, particularly when you compare it to what we do to our own recruits. Why, for example, can an Army interrogator direct as corrective training that an overweight subordinate run three miles or do 50 push-ups, but he can’t direct a suspected insurgent to run or do push-ups when, in truly exceptional cases, he might extract life-saving intelligence by doing so? Why can’t he falsely threaten a detainee with torture when he is allowed to use other forms of guile to extract intelligence?

The answer comes down in part to something many of us learned in Sunday school—the Golden Rule. We Americans treat detainees exactly the way we would want to be treated by them if our roles were reversed. More specifically, by U.S. law, detainees cannot be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. By legally binding doctrine, our military interrogators cannot use any form of physical or psychological coercion to extract information from detainees.

Other parts of the answer as to why coercing detainees to provide intelligence is off-limits has to do with the general unreliability of any information thus collected; the fact that coercion can make an enemy of someone who is not our enemy, such as the subject’s family or the subject himself; the negative effect such methods have upon our relationship with our allies; the adverse impact of such methods upon our popular support, both at home and on foreign battlefields; the long-term psychological burden abuse places on both the abuser and the abused; and the perception that such tactics run counter to our nation’s and our Army’s prouder traditions.

ACG: Most of us want to cling to the image of American soldiers that was portrayed in movies and TV shows for decades. Our troops are the “guys in the white hats” who fight hard but always within the accepted rules of warfare. How did the reality of Abu Ghraib and other detainee facilities deteriorate so far from that “white hat” image?

MAJ. PRYER: That’s a very good question, one which we must answer well if we are to prevent moral defeats like Abu Ghraib in the future. The noted author and former intelligence officer, Colonel (Retired) Stu Herrington, gave a speech last November in which he referred to a “perfect storm” of conditions leading to serious misconduct on the part of some U.S. interrogators.

I would extend Herrington’s metaphor further, applying it not just to interrogators but to other U.S. troops as well. As a military, we just weren’t as ethically prepared for the Global War on Terrorism as we should have been. During the ’90s, we focused on technological means for winning wars, largely ignoring the human and moral dimensions of warfare.Lebanon, Mogadishu, and the Balkans encouraged a mindset in which we gave priority to force protection—saving the lives of U.S. troops—over mission accomplishment, protecting the local population, and ethical considerations. The rise of effects-based operational planning meant that we no longer rejected brutal methods based on principle alone.

There was also the increasingly invidious influence of popular culture. You mentioned television and the idea of American troops wearing “white hats.” Well, television is not what it once was in this regard. Today, popular culture too often glorifies violence and gangsterism, promotes a win-at-any-cost mentality through so-called “reality shows,” and portrays “good guys” like Jack Bauer, Batman, and the “Inglorious Bastards” as abusing and even killing detainees to extract information. With such conditions set, enter stage left 9/11, a uniquely traumatic event in our nation’s history. Unlike Pearl Harbor, this surprise attack involved attacks upon important national symbols on the mainland by a shadowy, nebulous enemy. Then enter, stage right, a presidential administration keen to expand the military’s options for prosecuting the GWOT. When all these factors are considered, it is perhaps understandable (if not altogether forgivable) why a few military leaders and soldiers lost their moral bearing.

ACG: Was the role of civilian lawyers’ definitions concerning what interrogation techniques were permissible as significant as it has been portrayed?

MAJ. PRYER: The advice given by Beltway lawyers with regard to enhanced interrogation techniques was definitely a key enabler in the spread of these techniques. It is doubtful that enhanced interrogation techniques would have been approved for use at secret CIA facilities or at Gitmo without the legal cover provided to George Tenet and Donald Rumsfeld by these lawyers.

From Gitmo, these techniques quickly migrated via formal and informal means to Afghanistan, and from Afghanistan to Iraq. One must be careful, though, not to confuse authorized techniques (policy) with military orders. Just because a brutal technique was authorized did not mean an interrogator had to use this technique. In fact, as I show in my book, most leaders and interrogators in Iraq chose not to employ enhanced interrogation techniques, even though the blanket approval for their use was provided by higher policy for one month and on a case-by-case basis by a revised policy for another seven months. Sadly, the military leaders and interrogators who employed brutal questioning tactics did so, not because they were ordered to, but because they wanted to.

ACG: You make the point in your book that many units and individuals won the "fight for the high ground" and refused to employ the harsher “enhanced interrogation techniques” that were authorized. You mention in particular the augmented 1st Armored Division (Task Force 1st Armored Division). It had few incidents of reported abuse, despite having 39,000 troops, more than twice the size of a normal division. Why, in your opinion, did such a large unit have so few incidents of abuse?

MAJ. PRYER: A little more precisely, I make the point that this huge unit had zero cases of abuse committed by school-trained interrogators. Task Force 1st Armored Division was just as unprepared for the GWOT as any other unit in Iraq at the time, and it did suffer numerous ethical breakdowns at the platoon level and below. However, to its everlasting credit, this huge unit’s school-trained interrogators did not abuse detainees. Consequently, this unit’s interrogators stayed out of the news. I believe this result is largely due to the fact that the interrogators of this unit did not have a single leader in their chain-of-command, from their commanding general to their warrant officer supervisors, who adopted an intelligence-at-any-cost mindset. As I demonstrate in my book, where strong ethical leadership is present, abuse does not occur. Such leadership was manifest within key leaders at the Task Force 1st Armored Division headquarters, the division’s various brigade headquarters, and its supporting intelligence battalion.

ACG: You did a lot of research into the interrogation situation and techniques in Iraq. Overall, what are your overarching conclusions? What do you hope readers will take away from The Fight for the High Ground?

MAJ. PRYER: One of the key take-aways should be that, contrary to popular perception, the vast majority of interrogators and their leaders conducted themselves honorably from 2003 to 2004 in Iraq. Another key take-away is that strong ethical leadership matters. Units that have good ethical leadership flourish in the Information Age, while those who do not often find themselves on the road to infamy and disaster. Additionally, on today’s decentralized battlefields, the importance of good leadership at the small-unit level—platoon and lower—is especially critical. Unfortunately, however, while U.S. military doctrine and organization has significantly improved, ethics education and training within our military is not consistently producing the leaders, especially those small-unit leaders, which we must have in order to succeed in the 21st century. Bottom line, we must do still more to ensure that, in the ongoing battle for “the soul” of our military, the guys in white hats win.

Click here to download a pdf containing an excerpt from The Fight for the High Ground.

This interview was conducted in July 2010 by Gerald D. Swick, senior Web editor for, and