"My Name Used to Be 200343"
WASHINGTON, Apr 5 (IPS) - A year ago, Donald Vance learned what its
like to be falsely accused by the U.S. military of aiding terrorists.
He was held without charge for more than three months in a
high-security prison in Iraq, and interrogated daily after sleepless
nights without legal counsel or even a phone call to his family.
On Wednesday, the former private security contractor was honoured for
his ordeal in Washington and for speaking out against the incident. At
a luncheon at the National Press Club, Vance received the Ridenhour
Prize for Truth-Telling, an award named in memory of Army helicopter
gunner Ron Ridenhour who struggled to bring the horrific mass murders
at My Lai to the attention of Congress and the Pentagon during the
Vance was joined by former president Jimmy Carter, who won a lifetime
achievement award, and journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The
Washington Post who was recognised for his recent book, "Emerald City:
Inside Iraq's Green Zone".
As hundreds at the luncheon finished their lobster salad, Vance, a
two-time George W. Bush voter and Navy veteran, recounted the events
of his imprisonment and the grief of his fiancé and family. They did
not know if he was alive or dead, he said. They were already making
inquiries to the U.S. State Department on how to ship his body home.
He then drew a wider circle around his ordeal to include the countless
others who have been held falsely without charge and denied normal
legal constitutional protections under law. "My name used to be
200343," Vance said recalling his prisoner ID. "If they can do this to
a former Navy man and an American, what is happening to people in
facilities all over the world run by the American government?"
Vance's nightmare began last year on Apr. 15 when he and co-worker
Nathan Ertel barricaded themselves in a Baghdad office after their
employer, an Iraqi private security firm, took away their ID tags.
They feared for their lives because they suspected the company was
involved in selling unauthorised guns on the black market and other
nefarious activity. A U.S. military squad freed them from the red zone
in Baghdad after a friend at the U.S. embassy advised him to call for
Once they reached the U.S.-controlled Green Zone, government officials
took them inside the embassy, listened to their individual accounts
and then sent them to a trailer outside for sleep. Two or three hours
later, before the crack of dawn, U.S. military personnel woke them.
This time, however, Vance and Ertel, Shield Security's contract
manager, were under arrest. Soldiers bound their wrists with zip ties
and covered their eyes with goggles blacked out with duct tape.
The two were then escorted to a humvee and driven first to possibly
Camp Prosperity and then to Camp Cropper, a high-security prison near
the Baghdad airport where Saddam Hussein was once kept. Vance says he
was denied the usual body armour and helmet while traveling through
the perilous Baghdad streets outside the safety of the Green Zone or a
U.S. military installation.
It was not the way the tall 29-year-old with an easy charm and keen
mind had expected to be treated. Vance claims that during the months
leading up to his arrest, he worked as an unpaid informant for the
Federal Bureau of Investigation. Sometimes twice a day, he would share
information with an agent in Chicago about the Iraqi-owned Shield
Group Security, whose principals and managers appeared to be involved
in weapons deals and violence against Iraqi civilians. One company
employee regularly bartered alcohol with U.S. military personnel in
exchange for ammunition they delivered, Vance said.
"He called it the bullets for beer programme," Vance claimed while
relating the incident during an interview this week at a cigar bar
just walking distance from the White House.
But his interrogators at Camp Cropper weren't impressed. Instead, his
jailers insisted that Vance and Ertel had been detained and imprisoned
because the two worked for Shield Group Security where large caches of
weapons have been found -- weapons that may have been intended for
possible distribution to insurgents and terrorist groups, Vance said.
In a lawsuit now pending against former Defence Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld and "other unidentified agents," Vance and Ertel accuse their
U.S. government captors of subjecting them to psychological torture
day and night. Lights were kept on in their cell around the clock.
They endured solitary confinement. They had only thin plastic
mattresses on concrete for sleeping. Meals were of powdered milk and
bread or rice and chicken, but interrupted by selective deprivation of
food and water. Ceaseless heavy metal and country music screamed in
their ears for hours on end, their legal complaint alleges.
They lived through "conditions of confinement and interrogation
tantamount to torture", says the lawsuit filed in northern Illinois
U.S. District Court. "Their interrogators utilised the types of
physically and mentally coercive tactics that are supposedly reserved
for terrorists and so-called enemy combatants."
Rumsfeld is singled out as the key defendant because he played a
critical role in establishing a policy of "unlawful detention and
torment" that Vance, Ertel and countless others in the "war on terror"
have endured, the lawsuit asserts, noting that the former defence
secretary and other high-level military commanders acting at his
direction developed and authorised a policy that allows government
officials unilateral discretion to designate possible enemies of the
Because the incident and allegations are now in litigation, the
Pentagon has no comment, spokesman Army Lieut. Col. Mark Ballesteros
said. He referred all inquires to the U.S. Justice Department, which
also had no comment for similar reasons.
But darker allegations are included in the complaint over false
imprisonment. Because he worked with the FBI, Vance contends, U.S.
government officials in Iraq decided to retaliate against him and
Ertel. He believes these officials conspired to jail the two not
because they worked for a security company suspected of selling
weapons to insurgents, but because they were sharing information with
law enforcement agents outside the control of U.S. officials in Baghdad.
"In other words," claims the lawsuit, "United States officials in Iraq
were concerned and wanted to find out about what intelligence agents
in the United States knew about their territory and their operations.
The unconstitutional policies that Rumsfeld and other unidentified
agents had implemented for 'enemies' provided ample cover to detain
plaintiffs and interrogate them toward that end."
It may take some time to sort out the allegations as the legal process
grinds forward, but, in the meantime, Vance is raising new questions
about his detention. He still wonders why his jailers didn't just call
the FBI and have him cleared. They had access to his computer and cell
phone to determine if his claims were true.
"When I told them to do that, they just got angry and told me to stop
answering questions I wasn't being asked," Vance said. "I think they
were butting heads with the State Department. I just snitched on the
wrong people. I took the bull by the horns and got the horn."
And why weren't managers with the Shield Group held and interrogated?
Interrogators were certainly interested in these other individuals,
according to the lawsuit. They wanted to know about the company's
structure, its political contacts, and its owners -- most of whom are
related to a long-established Iraqi family who fled Iraq during the
years the country was ruled by Saddam Hussein, Vance said.
More startling even now is that the company has reformed. At the time
they left, Shield Security held U.S.-funded contracts with the Iraqi
government, Iraqi companies, NGOs and U.S. contractors. As far as
Vance knows, the company still does -- but under a different name:
National Shield Security.
"I built the original web site for Shield Security. All they did was
change the name," he said. "And they are still being awarded millions
of dollars in contracts."
*David Phinney is a journalist and broadcaster based in Washington,
DC, whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, New York Times
and on ABC and PBS. He can be contacted at: phinneydavid @ yahoo.com.
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