From the Fall 2004 UNO Alum
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By Anthony Flott, Editor | Photo by Joe MixanFrom the Fall 2004
One gets the feeling after spending only a short time with Steve Novotny that this is a guy John Wayne probably would have liked.
He’s a police officer and second-generation war veteran. A deadeye rifleman who competes in shoots across the country. At home, a United States flag hangs on one corner of his garage, a U.S. Army flag on the other. The art on his bedroom wall includes a map of Iraq with the hostile Sunni Triangle neatly delineated in red. On other walls hang a sword and its scabbard and photos of military buddies. On a cluttered table rests a thick book of military quotations.
Novotny himself doesn’t say much. The 48-year-old UNO graduate’s look, though, speaks volumes. His military-issue flattop is gray but cropped as high and tight as a fresh recruit’s. His mug is stone granite and as likely to crack a smile as any of the faces on Mt. Rushmore.
Certainly there was nothing to smile about this past May when Novotny, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, testified before a Congressional committee on Reserve readiness in the fight against terrorism. As could be expected, talk then turned to the infamous Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.
Sadism was nothing new in Abu Ghraib, Saddam Hussein’s house of horrors where criminals and opponents were executed and tortured. When Operation Iraqi Freedom forces tightened their grip on the country, Saddam’s goons abandoned Abu Ghraib to its occupants, who promptly torched the place. Four months later it opened under U.S. management for detaining Iraqi war prisoners.
Novotny was in Abu Ghraib prior to the transfer of any Iraqi POWs there, conducting reconnaissance should his battalion be assigned responsibility for it. The place was being cleaned then when Novotny came across a pair of sheepish-looking Iraqis sweeping the execution chamber. They recounted stories of how prisoners during the Saddam regime would be told, “Today is your day; you’re going to be executed,” then would be left alone, moved to another cell, or executed as said. How, just for kicks, jolts of electricity would current through a copper cable that ran down the hangman’s noose before the floor eventually dropped. How executioners who would hang one man after another, two at the same time when they grew bored. “If these people pissed of a guard or something,” Novotny says, “Boom, ‘We’re gong to execute you.’”
Novotny’s battalion was assigned elsewhere, Abu Ghraib falling to the watch of the Army’s 372nd Military Police Company. Saddam’s evils, though, do not absolve what happened in Abu Ghraib when the U.S. flag flew there: prisoners punched, slapped and kicked; detainees photographed and videotaped in sexually explicit positions or arranged naked in a pile on which U.S. soldiers jumped; detainees masked with a sandbag while wires were attached to their fingers, toes and penis to simulate electric torture. And so on.
Criminal charges were filed against seven soldiers said to have committed the abuses between October and December of 2003. All seven were reservists in the 372nd, one of eight battalions within the 800th Military Police Brigade that operated 12 U.S. prisons and detention camps across Iraq. The brigade included the Omaha-based 530th MP Battalion commanded by Novotny.
An investigative Army report by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba faulted Brig. General Janis Karpinski, commander of the 800th, for “the refusal of her command to both establish and enforce basic standards and principles.” Taguba recommended she be relieved of command and officially reprimanded. Her subordinates at Abu also were censured and recommendations were made that brigade, battalion and company commanders be relieved and reprimanded.
Taguba’s findings were echoed in late August in two other reports. One, an independent report commissioned by the U.S. Defense Department, said the direct responsibility for the scandal lay with soldiers and commanders in the field (rather than in Washington). An Army report issued a day later linked abuses to 46 soldiers and referred one commander at Abu Ghraib to Army authorities for possible disciplinary action, which could prompt criminal charges.
While there has been plenty of blame to go around, none of it has fallen on Novotny’s shoulders. In fact, Novotny not only escaped fault but also was praised for his command at one of the detention facilities, Camp Ashraf. He was one of the few bright spots in Taguba’s investigation, earning commendation near the end of the general’s 51-page report. “His soldiers were proficient in their individual tasks and adapted well to this highly unique and non-doctrinal operation,” Taguba wrote.
Taguba presented his report to the Senate May 11, the same day an Islamic militant website showed the beheading of Nicholas Berg. Novotny and a handful of others, Taguba wrote, “Overcame significant obstacles, persevered in extremely poor conditions, and upheld the Army Values.” Novotny testified that same day before the Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats, and International Relations. After Novotny’s testimony Virginia Congressman Ed Schrock singled the Nebraskan out for praise as “One battalion commander who did his job very well in the detention business, better than anyone else, I would imagine. I think we ought to hank him for that.” Military officers, lawmakers and aides broke into applause.
Novotny deflects the praise. “I felt that all the soldiers that came under my command, active duty and reserve and National Guard, did a tremendous job,” he says. “I was proud of them all no matter where they came from. I felt this (Congressional testimony) was an opportunity to represent the entire military, the Army, and also my command, and get the word out about what actually happened where we were at.”
A Bad BunchThe 530th’s “highly unique and non-doctrinal operation” of which Taguba wrote is one of the prisoner of war successes—and there are plenty of them—overshadowed by Abu Ghraib. Novotny’s battalion operated Camp Ashraf, about 45 miles northeast of Baghdad and housed not with Iraqis, but with Iranians. Specifically, the People's Mujahedin Of Iran (PMOI), a militant, Marxist-Islamist organization founded in the 1960s. Iran-Interlink, an anti-Mujahedin organization, notes on its website that the PMOI was founded “based on revolutionary armed struggle to free Iran from capitalism, imperialism, reactionary Islamic forces and despotism.” That armed struggle began in the 1970s when it killed U.S. military personnel and U.S. civilians working on defense projects in Tehran.
The PMOI later participated in the 1979 revolution deposing the Shah and is suspected by some to have supported the American embassy takeover in November later that year. As the Ayatollah Khomeini grew in power, he saw the PMOI as an increasing threat. A crackdown on a Mujahedin march on parliament in 1981 killed more than 30 PMOI and began arrests and executions of that group’s members.
Soon, the PMOI was expelled from Iran. It found refuge first in France, then Iraq. PMOI leader Massoud Rajavi eventually established his Mujahedin forces in about a dozen camps in Iraq. Saddam Hussein provided financing and weapons as the PMOI fought against fellow countrymen during the Iraq-Iran war. Known by numerous other aliases (i.e., the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization, the National Liberation Army of Iran, etc.) the PMOI was listed by the U.S. State Department in 1997 as a terrorist group.
“They're a very, very bad bunch,” an official with the anti-Saddam Iraqi National Congress said in a March 2002 National Review article.
But today, as the Iran-Interlink website notes, the Mujahedin “has become more cult-like . . . more closed and insular.” By many accounts it is has become a cult of personality centering on Rajavi and his wife, Maryam. The former, whereabouts and welfare unknown, is the self-proclaimed ideological leader of the resistance movement; the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran named the later as president-elect for the future Iran.
French police in Paris on terrorist charges arrested Maryam Rajavi in June 2003. She was released while remaining under investigation, but not before followers staged hunger strikes and 10 PMOI members had set themselves on fire, two of them dying.
Maryam Rajavi’s election culminated the organization’s astonishing feminization as women assumed many of the organization’s top leadership positions. New York Times writer Elizabeth Rubin visited the camp in 2003 and talked of “a fictional world of female worker bees. Of course, there are men around; about 50 percent of the soldiers are male. But everywhere I turned, I saw women dressed in khaki uniforms and mud-colored head scarves, driving back and forth along the avenues in white pickups or army-green trucks, staring ahead, slightly dazed, or walking purposefully, a slight march to their gaits as at a factory in Maoist China.”
Still, it likely came as a surprise to U.S. soldiers encircling Camp Ashraf in the spring of 2003 when they encountered female tank commanders.
Blooming in the DesertCamp Ashraf, as the National Post (Canada) newspaper noted, is not really a camp at all. “Blooming out of the Iraqi desert, near the border with Iran, it has a convention centre, two museums, a pool, park, garden, hospital and university. It covers about 50 square kilometres, and has its own electrical substation.”
It is no oasis, though. The camp sits on the fringe of the hostile “Sunni Triangle” near the city of Baqubah, today known as the IED capital (improvised explosive device) of Iraq.
American troops bombed a PMOI camp near the Iran-Iraq border in April 2003. A cease-fire was signed shortly thereafter, followed by surrender of the camp in May. By one count, noted the Christian Science Monitor in December, the PMOI surrendered to U.S. troops 300 tanks, 250 armored personnel carriers, 250 artillery pieces and 10,000 small arms.
Novotny and the 530th arrived in Iraq about the same time Camp Ashraf was being bombed. The battalion’s first assignment was 24-hour patrols around the perimeter of Camp Bucca (Named for Ron Bucca, a New York fire marshal and Army special forces reservist who died in the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks) near the Persian Gulf port of Umm Qasr in Southern Iraq. The 530th also maintained traffic control points, secured a water purification unit and guarded a tanker and its crew caught trying to smuggle oil. “Those are things you don’t think about and aren’t in the rulebook,” Novotny says of the last assignment. “When somebody drops a mission off like that to you, you’re not going to get any support.” In June, Novotny assumed command of the entire facility, which at one point held about 8,000 Iraqi prisoners of war.
It was not Novotny’s first service in Iraq. He also served six months during Desert Storm as a captain with the 403rd military police company, a unit he had joined less than half a year earlier following a 12-year active duty career. His Desert Storm duties as an assistant operations officer and enclosure commander included ID processing of 12,000 refugees and the construction and manning of a POW compound that at times held up to 4,000 prisoners.
That’s about how many Mujahedin members the 530th secured when in October they were transferred from Camp Bucca to Camp Ashraf. There Novotny oversaw up to 800 reserve, active duty and national guard troops who processed PMOI members into a terrorist database via fingerprinting, palm printing, DNA collection and retinal scans.
It was perhaps the oddest of assignments in the nearly dozen prisoner of war camps. The Mujahedin, notes Novotny, were allowed to procure their own food, get their own water and fuel and sign contracts. “They were pretty much taking care of themselves.” In fact, he adds, “their attitude towards us was that we were their guests at the facility. They never acknowledged that we were detaining them or they were our prisoners.”
The group’s cultish aspects manifested themselves during discussions between Novotny and Mujahedin leaders. “The leaders were very well dressed. Very well behaved,” Novotny recalls. “Manners impeccable. They were very much on formality, as far as protocol, how people interacted with each other, how the discussions and meetings would progress.”
A request Novotny might have of the Mujahedin that, with cooperation, should have taken no more than five minutes could drag on for hours. Meetings began with tea and cookies then lengthy, informal discussions that had little to do with the matter at hand. Novotny, for instance, would be asked to express sympathy for the recent earthquake in Bam, Iran, that had killed tens of thousands of Iranians.
“They’re our prisoners, and they would refuse to talk if we didn’t go through this formality every time,” Novotny says. “Just like the North Koreans; very regimented in what they do. If you throw them a curveball, they’ll sit there and look and they won’t know what to do because you’ve thrown them something different than what they’re used to. I would say that they are so far along that they actually set down as a staff or as a committee and came up with different proposals, like, ‘If the Americans do A, we’re going to do B. And they would develop a position paper on it.”
The meetings became excruciating when Novotny began processing the group’s members. “Somebody would say, ‘I think I shouldn’t have to do the DNA because only criminals have to do DNA, as in your country, and I don’t believe that is right. So I refuse to do anything because you’re making me do the DNA swab.’”
More discussions would follow. “Then you would see . . . handlers. Just like a dog handler you’d see snap his fingers, you would actually see a handler nod his head, that person would get up and go through the line. Then the next person would go: ‘I do not believe that you have shown enough sympathy toward my group. My group has only one goal, and that is to free our country of Iran from the total regime situation that it is and to get rid of the regime that’s oppressive towards all people. I feel the United States and the PMOI have the same goals and objectives and I do not understand why you’re holding us in this facility.’”
More discussions. “Then you would see one of the handlers nod his head, the guy would get up and go. After they did five or six people like that, then the majority would get up and go through a line. Then the next group would come in. Same thing.
“You’re repeating the same thing over and over. I felt I was a POW myself sometimes. Finally, I put one of our captains in charge and let him suffer through that.”
At the extreme, the group’s leaders would make innuendos that its members might commit suicide or that they could not guarantee the PMOI wouldn’t take action against U.S. soldiers. The 530th also had to deal with a group of about 150 defectors from the main PMOI body, some of whom were causing dissension in the camp. Novotny responded with a 5 a.m. raid on PMOI quarters during which about 40 of the defectors were bagged, taken away and detained from the rest of the camp.
And so Novotny’s days went from November until February when the 530th got its orders to go home. They returned to the United States in early April.
In July the Mujahedin was granted “protected status” under the Fourth Geneva Convention, though it remains listed as a terrorist entity. The new Iraqi government wants it expelled and Iran would love nothing better to get its hands on the PMOI, but as of September 2004 its fate was undecided.
Novotny, meanwhile, has returned to his Papillion home and duties as an Omaha policeman and school resource officer at Omaha Burke High School.
A 1974 Omaha Bryan High School graduate who also earned degrees from
Kemper Military School and College in Boonville, Mo., and from UNO (BGS, 1986), Novotny had to get clearance to discuss his experiences and still was hesitant to do so after receiving the green light.
Part of that is due to the negative publicity surrounding Abu Ghraib. “It was terrible,” Novotny says of the scandal. “Terrible.” Because of it, all military police are tainted in the eyes of some. “I guess that’s one thing that kind of irks me is that, again, we’re focused on six people, and there were thousands who worked there honorably to take care of these prisoners.”
Soldiers who, as Novotny saw, played with the children of a woman whose husband had abandoned her, asking their families back home to send clothes and toys. Or medics who provided care to wounded Iraqi soldiers. Or hungry prisoners who were fed. Weekly coordinated visits between families and POWs despite the extensive planning and efforts required to do so by U.S. troops.
“That’s one thing that the press never puts out is the number of soldiers in the story,” he says. “The stories behind those folks who were killed protecting those prisoners in that compound. And there have been other people, other MPs who were patrolling and protecting that prison, and also those persons inside who have been killed since the end of hostilities.
Then there are the efforts of Novotny that earned General Taguba’s and Congressional praise. How was he able to maintain control when commanders at Abu Ghraib, apparently, failed to do so?
Novotny addressed that at the Congressional hearing in May. The first step, he says, was providing his troops proper training and instruction at Fort Riley, Kansas, prior to the battalion’s deployment. “Prior to the mobilization, I read every word of the Geneva Convention that applies to taking care of prisoners to establish my basis,” Novotny said before the Congressional committee.
Whenever situations arose, says Novotny, training our guidance would be developed and made public for the soldiers to adhere to. Follow-ups were made to ensure standards were being enforced.
At the end of his panel’s testimony, Rep. Schrock offered Novotny his praise, but it’s something the UNO graduated today still deflects. “They key was flexibility and having trained people who were qualified to do their job,” he says. “We were successful because of the quality of people that we had. It just wasn’t one person. And I’ve said over and over and over, it wasn’t me. It was the total group, the total spectrum that we had, the good people that we had from the Omaha area, from Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas. That’s what got us through. That’s the reason why we were successful.”
Hey, even John Wayne needed help every now and then.
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