One Veteran's Rough Path from Killing and Torturing to Peace

Not yet 30, Evan Knappenberger has already lived several lives.  His story destroys the U.S. government’s case against whistleblower Bradley Manning, exposes the toxic mix of fraud and incompetence that creates U.S. war policies, and highlights the damage so often done to soldiers who come home without visible injuries.

Knappenberger, seen in this video, was trained as an “intelligence analyst” at the U.S. Army’s Intelligence Training Center at Fort Huachuca, Arizona in 2003 and 2004, the same school attended by Bradley Manning.  In April of this year, the PBS show Frontline, responding to an article Knappenberger had published, flew him to Los Angeles on a private jet, and interviewed him for four hours.

Knappenberger told Frontline that he, like Manning, had had access to the U.S. government’s SIPRNet database when he had been in Iraq.  Knappenberger told Frontline that 1,400 U.S. government agencies put their information on SIPRNet, and that 2 million employees were given access to it.  SIPRNet has secret blogs, secret discussions, and its own secret Google search engine.  At one point, the Pentagon encouraged gambling on SIPRNet on the likelihood of future terrorist attacks.  Knappenberger also pointed out that the United States had given the Iraqi Army access to the database, knowing full well that many members of the Iraqi Army were also on the U.S. target list as enemies fighting U.S. troops. 

Knappenberger was in Iraq in 2006, but said he believes the practice of sharing SIPRNet with the Iraqi Army began in 2005.  The U.S. Army ran cables to laptops in Iraqi command posts, and gave each post a CPOF (command post of the future) super computer.  Each Iraqi command post had access to everything Bradley Manning allegedly leaked to Wikileaks.  At some point in 2006, the U.S. Army decided to get serious about security by assigning two U.S. soldiers with security clearances to guard each site.  Each soldier was on guard for 12 hours and off for 12.  Another step taken to boost security was the creation of passwords to access SIPRNet, but because no one could remember the passwords they were written on sticky notes and stuck to the backs of the computers.  Knappenberger says he had the password on the back of his computer and has read that every computer in Manning’s unit had it too.

So, Knappenberger related this kind of information to Frontline for four hours and says that for three or four months afterwards he expected to go to prison for violating nondisclosure aggreements. He popped a lot of PTSD pills and gained a huge amount of weight as a result of nervousness, he says.  Then, the day before he expected the Frontline story to air, he says, the show told him it would not be airing.  Frontline was afraid of being held liable for inducing Knappenberger to violate his nondisclosure aggreements.

Knappenberger has made the same information public without any charges being brought against him.  Frontline would simply have made it more public.  Like Bradley Manning, Frontline would not have provided enemies of the United States with tools to be used against us.  Rather, like Bradley Manning, Frontline would have informed more of us what our government was doing in our name.  And some of what it has been doing is extremely hard to look at without turning away.

This past January, Knappenberger says he testified on the record, via telephone, to the office of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner on the topic of torture.  Knappenberger was not qualified to “interrogate” people, but Donald Rumsfeld’s reorganization of the Army found ways to put non-combat troops into combat roles.  Used to test this model was Knappenberger’s First Special Troops Battalion.  These cooks, military police, signals and chemical specialists, clerks, and analysts were called on to fight terror and spread freedom.  Knappenberger says his platoon sergeant was a payroll specialist who “got his legs blown off in combat he was never trained for,” while a first sergeant “got his head blown off, and he was an intel geek.”  Knappenberger says his roommate was a specialist in fixing radios who lost his hearing and suffered traumatic brain injury on an IED squad.

Knappenberger says that recruiters had told him he’d do desk work.  But he also says that when he joined up he was ready to kill people.  He ended up doing double duty.  There would be 10 or 12 hours at your normal job, he says, followed by 8 hours on a combat job.  Knappenberger’s combat job was not a shooting one.  It was his duty to tell others where to shoot, what to blow up, whom to kill.  Knappenberger at age 20 was one of three “intel” people in his unit at Camp Taji north of Baghdad, the other two being women aged 25 and 26.  None of the three had experience, but they took over for eight well-trained veterans who had been there for two years, and some of whom even spoke Arabic.  The 26-year-old woman in charge was a drone pilot now placed in charge of a combat area with 100,000 people around Camp Taji.  Many FREs (former regime elements) lived right outside the base.

As the only male, Knappenberger says he was assigned to do the questioning of suspects brought in.  Lacking any census, the only database of individuals Knappenberger possessed came from the oil-for-food program.  A friend had found the information in Baghdad and typed it in.  When someone was pulled over, soldiers would radio to Knappenberger who would search for them in the database.  Usually they’d be released.  If someone was caught “with a bloody knife or a tube of mortars” Knappenberger says, “they’d be brought in.”  But without really good evidence they could not be booked for lack of space.  So, good evidence had to be obtained within 24 hours.  The method of choice was coerced confession.

Knappenberger told me they used sensory deprivation on these suspects.  They blindfolded them, put bags on their heads, handcuffed them, sat them on the cold ground in their underwear, etc.  In one case that he described to me, they drove a man in circles around the base blindfolded in a truck, put him on the ground, and gave him a cigarette.  The man “freaked out because he thought he’d been driven to the middle of nowhere to be executed.  But we never told him that, so it was legal.”  The more common approach, Knappenberger said, was to tell someone you would drop him off in the middle of the market and give him $100.  This would amount to framing someone with turning in others, and the penalty would likely be death . . . for the individual and for his family.  “We’d show them pictures of dead bodies and say ‘This is what’s going to happen to you,’ and we’d talk about their wives and girlfriends.”  Knappenberger says he did not engage in physical abuse, but that others did while he literally turned his back.  Iraqi interpreters, wearing masks, hit, slapped, grabbed hair, etc.  Turning your back was understood by the U.S. Army as making you a non-witness, Knappenberger says.

This went on from January to March, 2006, until “I finally got into trouble.”  Afraid that a prisoner would file a complaint after being booked, Knappenberger’s boss promoted him from the tactical to the operational command staff.  Knappenberger’s new job, too, provides a window into the madness of war.

Knappenberger came up with an analysis of likely weapons caches.  Some were in junk yards and other random sites.  But the largest was in a munitions depot supposedly guarded by the Iraqi Army.  The further one moved away from this depot, Knappenberger found, the fewer weapons caches were found.  Similarly, Knappenberger identified likely locations of ethnic killings as Iraqi Army checkpoints.

The Oil Protection Force, a special unit of the Iraqi Army, was headquartered in one of the hottest spots for IEDs in all of Iraq, Knappenberger says.  “We were paying them and they were stealing oil out of the pipeline they were supposedly guarding.”  When Knappenberger’s unit arrested the head of the Oil Protection Force for leading a Sunni militia against U.S. troops, within an hour, he says, a DIA helicopter arrived and “the guys in suits took him and put him back out on the streets.”  Shortly afterwards the pipeline blew up and burned for 30 days.

Another Iraqi whom Knappenberger had an interesting encounter with is Ali Latif Ibrahim Hamad el Falahi.  “I spent eight months trying to find that guy,” he says.  Knappenberger met Falahi at a civil affairs dinner at a sheik’s house his first week in Iraq and spoke with him for about an hour.  Three days later, Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll was kidnapped.  Knappenberger says Falahi was “the suspect” and was “our number two target for a year and a half” as he engaged in ethnic cleansing, decapitation, and ambushing Shiite units in the Iraqi Army.  “I spent 8 months trying to have him killed.  We killed dozens of people trying to find him.  We had a gunship fly around his orchard because of heat signals there.  Thirteen people died there, none him.”  Falahi was reportedly later killed in the same sheik’s house after failing to set off a suicide vest beside a U.S. soldier.

“I think about that guy every day,” says Knappenberger.  “We raided his house.  I had his diary translated.  I had a whole file on this guy.”  Remarkably, Knappenberger recognizes humanity in Falahi, saying “I don’t think he was a bad person because I didn’t get that vibe from him when I talked to him.”  Knappenberger uses the example of Hitler to suggest that there is good in the worst of people.  Of Falahi he says, “He did very bad things.  He killed a lot of people.  There were even allegations that he was raping women.  But before the Americans came he was just a hardworking farmer taking care of his aunt.”  Falahi had gone to his Imam and argued over how to get Americans to leave without violence, says Knappenberger.  “Falahi and his nephews went through Camp Taji and took a bunch of weapons the day Saddam disappeared.  And it was supposed to be for protection.  They set up a militia to guard the village.  They had check points on the road in and out.”  Then the United States armed the Shiites as the new Iraqi Army, and Paul Bremer cut out the Baath Party and banned possession of over 30 rounds of ammunition per family.  “That’s when he got radicalized.”

Evan Knappenberger says he began as an Ayn Rand fan, an atheist and a Republican (and you thought Karl Rove was the only atheist Republican!).  Knappenberger has since turned against Ayn Rand and rightwing politics including war, and gone religious.

Evan says that he found the Army to be “a pretty socialist institution,” in which people are encouraged to protect their friends as a way to motivate them to kill.  But, he says, “I was willing to kill without that.”  Why?  As revenge for 9-11, he says, and as an expression of hatred that Evan says he harbored even before 9-11.  He remembers reading Readers Digest as a kid and learning about “terrorists who want to kill us.”  In the end, Evan says he did not shoot anyone.  But he prepared packets of information on targets, including maps to their homes, photos of them, the reasons they were targets, and what was to be done to them (kill/capture, exploit, source, etc.)  Artillery officers, who Evan says are “notoriously stupid,” became a targeting cell, and whatever he told them (“This guy is bad.  This is where he lives.”) they would work from to plan bombings and raids.

My impression from speaking with Evan Knappenberger is that what turned him against war and militarism, even more than the SNAFU experience in Iraq, even more than the gradual exposure of the lies that launched the war, and more than the “socialism” within the military, was coming into contact with radical inequality of wealth and power within the Army, mirroring our society at large.

On a two-week leave, completely exhausted, in the middle of his year in Iraq, Evan flew back to Charlottesville, Virginia.  On the last leg from Atlanta, he was one of two people in uniform on the plane.  The other was a JAG general with a gold watch and a leather briefcase but no combat patch.  Evan, in contrast, hadn’t had a shower in a week, and it showed.  Apparently the two of them regarded each other with mutual contempt.  While on leave, Evan attended a jobs fair in Crystal City for people with security clearances like his.  At lunch time, he says, lots of officers came over from the Pentagon looking for high-paying jobs.  “I was the lowest ranking person in the room.  And the thing that really shocked the hell out of me: You go six months in Iraq and the highest ranking person you see is a colonel.  And I’m in a room full of generals and sergeant majors of the army and chief warrant officer fives, and not one of them had a combat job in the whole big ball room — not one of those m—– f—— had been in a combat zone for 30 days to get a combat patch — or if they did they weren’t proud of it.  And these were the people making the decisions and making my life hell — and that had a lot to do with turning me against the war.”

Another factor was the unfairness of the policy of stop-loss.  The Army had messed up Evan’s paperwork when he had shipped out, delaying him, and as a result his date for completing his contract just barely made it into the group the Army chose to hold over for additional “service.”  To avoid being stop-lossed, Evan cut a deal with his commanders that would allow him to be honorably discharged for minor misbehavior.  However, a brand new division commander gave Evan a general discharge, eliminating his GI Bill and other benefits.  Evan says it took him three years to get any disability coverage from the V.A.

Evan still has PTSD, as well as a skin problem he attributes to toxic chemicals and garbage burned in open pits in Iraq by the U.S. Army.  On tower guard duty adjacent to such a pit, Evan says he lost his sense of smell and coughed up a black substance.  “That whole year was like a nightmare,” he says.  “Getting mortared every night.  Rockets coming in.  The first couple of times I got shot at on guard duty I had no idea what was going on. . . .  I thought it was bats. . . .  I got so used to getting mortared.  I was at the airport getting ready to leave and was in the portapotty when a siren went off.  Then there were booms and after the last boom dirt clods falling on the portapotty.  I walked out, doing up my belt, and there was a major and a sergeant major under a truck face down in the mud.  And the guy screams at me: ‘Get to the bunker!'”  Evan’s response was a casual “Whatever.  It’s over now.”

In April of 2007, Evan Knappenberger came back to Charlottesville.  He says he’d been dating long distance and had a bad break up on the phone while driving.  He just kept driving for three months, living out of his car and spending his Army money.  He ended up in Bellingham, Washington, where he met a woman at a peace vigil and married her in October.  The marriage has “almost been ruined a few times by PTSD.”

Evan has done a lot of antiwar activism in Bellingham, including helping AWOL soldiers make it to Canada.  He built and did guard duty on a tower in Bellingham and then in Washington, D.C., to protest the stop loss policy.  I organized a press conference for his mother in Charlottesville. 

Evan was nothing if not outspoken.  This included informing an Ohio couple that their son was dead, despite a government coverup and propaganda campaign.  In 2004 Iraqis produced a video of a U.S. soldier, Matt Maupin, held hostage, and then another of him being killed.  According to Knappenberger, the DIA used facial pattern recognition and a study of the blotches on his uniform and was 100% certain that Maupin had been executed.  But the military told the media to suppress the video, and the U.S. media complied.  Maupin’s parents campaigned for Bush’s “reelection” in the swing state of Ohio in ’04 because “John Kerry wants to leave Matt behind,” even though Knappenberger says the government knew that Matt was dead.  As part of the public relations push, Maupin was repeatedly promoted in rank, and his pay was placed in an account for when he was found.

Evan saw the video in 2006.  In 2007 he told a Washington Post reporter who filed a FOIA and was told the information was classified.  So, in September 2007, Evan says he told Maupin’s parents, who were reluctant to believe him.  An hour later, an Army intelligence officer called Evan and threatened him with jail.  According to Knappenberger, he replied, “If you tell the parents I won’t have to.  If you don’t I will.”  Meanwhile, says Knappenberger, “the poor dad was putting together a team to go find Matt.”  Maupin’s dad, Evan says, told him “I’ve got Andrew Card’s number.  I’m calling him right now.”  Two weeks later he was allowed to watch the video at the Pentagon.

One’s heart breaks for those parents and so many others like them, and for the vastly greater number of Iraqis whose loved ones have been killed by U.S. loved ones.  One’s heart breaks for Evan Knappenberger as well.  He says he is committed to nonviolence, but it is a process he is working at.  He grew up in a violent culture and was trained to use and value violence.  Since getting out of the Army, he has repeatedly been accused of threatening violence.  He recounted to me an incident in which he threatened President Bush with violence.  He has threatened rightwing war supporters with violence in blog posts.  Evan’s been hospitalized twice for PTSD.  He’s had an on-again off-again relationship with antiwar groups like IVAW (Iraq Veterans Against the War). 

During what Evan describes as a “really bad breakdown” in January 2009, he showed up at the V.A. hospital in Seattle.  It was full, and he was told to come back Monday.  He called a senator, and had an appointment within an hour.  Within another hour, he says, he was loaded up with antidepressants and on the street.  Four weeks of antidepressants later, he had a worse breakdown that landed him in jail following an attempted suicide and what he says was an unfounded charge of “unlawful imprisonment” of his wife, which he pled to a misdemeanor.

Despite everything our society places in the way of it, Evan Knappenberger has obtained an associate’s degree and is working on a bachelor’s.  After a troubled but useful contribution to Occupy Charlottesville (he says he quit, others say they evicted him), Evan is headed back to Bellingham to work on his marriage and his mortgage payments.  I wish him well and thank him for speaking out.

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