Revolution #69, November 19, 2006


U.S. Torture in Iraq—and the Death of GI Alyssa Peterson

Friends and acquaintances describe Alyssa Peterson as someone who was generous and full of life. She came from a Mormon family. In 2001, after graduating with honors in psychology from Northern Arizona University, Peterson joined the army. With great ability to pick up languages, she learned Arabic and was sent to Iraq as a military interrogator in August 2003.

On Sept. 15, 2003, just three weeks after arriving in Iraq, 27-year-old Peterson was dead. Her family was told that she had been killed as a result of a “non-hostile weapons discharge.” Three days after her death, the Arizona Republic reported that the army “said that a number of possible scenarios are being considered, including Peterson’s own weapon discharging, the weapon of another soldier discharging, or the accidental shooting of Peterson by an Iraqi civilian.”

What the army did not tell the family or anyone else was that Alyssa Peterson’s death occurred shortly after she had objected to and refused to take part in interrogations of Iraqi prisoners. The Army also did not reveal that their own investigation had concluded that Peterson had commited suicide.

Three years later, Kevin Elston, host of “Weekend Edition” on radio station KNAU in Flagstaff, Arizona (Alyssa Peterson’s home town), reported on recently released army documents that revealed new details about Peterson’s death. Elston said that when he first began learning about Peterson’s death, the army’s story didn’t sit right with him. After repeated attempts to get information from the army, Elston filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for documents of army investigations into Peterson’s death.

According to the army documents obtained by Elston, Peterson participated in two interrogations of Iraqi prisoners at the end of August 2003 with her unit (in an area which is known as “the cage”). After the second one, she told superiors that she “could not carry out” the interrogations and asked to be re-assigned. She was placed on duty at the base’s gate. Two weeks later, according to the account in the army documents Elston obtained, Peterson shot and killed herself with her rifle.

In a Nov. 5 article in the Arizona Republic, Elston wrote, “The investigative report states that a sergeant and team leader both ‘detailed the aversion she had towards applying the interrogation methods to detainees.’” Sergeant James D. Hamilton told army investigators, “It was hard for her to be aggressive to prisoners/detainees, as she felt that we were being cruel to them.”

Elston summarized comments made by others in Peterson’s unit about her suicide: “The reactions to the suicide were that she was having a difficult time separating her personal feelings from her professional duties. That was the consistent point in the testimonies, that she objected to the interrogation techniques, without describing what those techniques were.”

Army representatives wouldn’t comment to Elston on Peterson’s death or on the nature of the interrogation “techniques” that she had refused to carry out. An army spokesperson from Fort Campbell, where Peterson’s 311 Military Intelligence Unit is based, said that all the records of the interrogations that Peterson had been part of had been destroyed.

Her death in Iraq occurred 7 months before the Abu Ghraib tortures were exposed to the world, and millions of people saw the crimes being carried out by the U.S. in the prisons in Iraq: detainees beaten to death; simulated drowning by “waterboarding”; snarling dogs unleashed on frightened prisoners; men stripped naked and forced to pile up on each other; prisoners forced into excruciating “stress positions” for hours, etc.

We still don’t know all the details of Alyssa Peterson’s death, what she saw during the interrogations of Iraqi prisoners, and how all this impacted her. What we do know is that her story points to the need for people broadly to support those within the military who come forward to oppose torture and other war crimes being carried out by the U.S.

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