General H.R. McMaster, who was confirmed last week as White House National Security Advisor, is widely regarded as one of the best military men of his generation.
But a retired senior U.S. Military Police officer, Colonel Arnaldo Claudio, 61, has a different view of the decorated three-star Lieutenant General.
In an exclusive interview with Univision Investiga Claudio alleged that McMaster violated the human rights of hundreds of detained Iraqis in 2005.
Claudio said he was sent to investigate concerns about detainee operations in the city of Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq while McMaster, 54, was the commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment battling Islamic militants.
What he saw in April 2005 shocked Claudio. At a camp designed for 250 detainees, more than 900 prisoners were being held in conditions that violated U.S. regulations and the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners of war.
He found between 300 and 400 detainees, some kneeling, others lying side-by-side in the sand, tied together with plastic hand-cuffs, and without food or water, he said.
When he got out of his car he was immediately overwhelmed by the stench of urine and the defecation, Claudio said.
“It was really brutal,” he said.
The prisoners appeared to be severely dehydrated. "Their skin was completely dry ... you can see the lips that were just cut because of dryness. You can see their hair, the dirtiness of the hair. I mean just, just ... inhumane,” said Claudio.
With the help of an interpreter he discovered some had been there three, four, even five days.
Claudio next entered a tent where the detainees were supposed to be housed and discovered 400 more prisoners in equally unsanitary conditions, with the same stench of feces and urine.
Memories of Abu Ghraib
The United States had invaded Iraq two years earlier. The images of the torture scandal involving the U.S. Army and the CIA at Abu Ghraib prison the previous year were still fresh, deeply wounding the U.S. government's image as the war in Iraq spiralled out of control.
Claudio was then the 18th Airborne Corps Provost Marshal in command of U.S. military police conduct in Iraq. He said he was sent to Tal Afar to investigate why McMaster's regiment had accumulated such a large number of detainees when it lacked the proper facilities.
“We started looking at the numbers and the numbers for Tal Afar just didn't jive,” said Claudio. “We thought there's a problem and we started asking questions.”
He soon discovered that the rules for moving prisoners to larger facilities were not being followed, creating serious over-crowding.
“When we looked at it we said 'oh my god this is a facility [for] about 250 [people]. We think there's about eight or nine hundred people there. There has to be accountability of these people, they are human beings,'” he said.
While at Tal Afur, Claudio sought out McMaster and found him in the dining room having a cup of coffee. Claudio said he informed McMaster that he had orders to look into the detainee operations.
McMaster greeted him rudely, he said.
“What came out of his mouth was basically 'I don't know what the f*** you're doing here. But I want you to leave as soon as possible,'” Claudio recalled.
He said he told McMaster that if he found anything illegal he was instructed to “take your ass back in handcuffs, period.”
McMaster stood up and left, Claudio said. It was the last time they spoke.
'Good behavior program'
Claudio said his investigation found that U.S. soldiers at Tal Afar were running a “good behavior program for detainees” that consisted of releasing them only if they provided useful intelligence.
Claudio said his team ordered the removal of the handcuffs, as well as feeding the detainees and providing medical treatment.
Within 24 hours 120 detainees were released, with another 400 over the next three days, he added.
Claudio said he completed his inspection and wrote up a report for the U.S. Army Inspector General’s office. He said U.S. law prevented him from sharing a copy of his report with the media.
Now retired, he said he never learned if the Pentagon took any action over his report.
McMaster, who is widely respected with the armed services, was picked by President Donald Trump last month after the former National Security Advisor, retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, resigned over misleading statements about his contacts with Russia. McMaster is known for his military intellect and wrote a book, Dereliction of Duty, which was critical of the handling of the Vietnam War.
McMaster did not respond to several requests from Univision for comment. The White House also did not return several messages.
The Pentagon's Office of the Inspector General told Univision it needed more information in order find a record of Claudio's report.
Claudio remains convinced that what he saw was a serious violation of the Geneva Conventions that cover the treatment of prisoners of war.
Levels of torture
“There's levels of torture and for me that was torture," he said. "I mean how can you go ahead and handcuff a person next to each other, for days, let them defecate, let them urinate over themselves, don't [let them] take a shower, don't feed them?"
The allegations describe conduct that likely violated the Geneva Conventions and the Torture Convention, both a part of U.S. law, said Andrea Prasow, Deputy Washington Director for Human Rights Watch.
"They should have been thoroughly and transparently investigated at the time but sadly even more serious conduct was often ignored, condoned or even praised," she said. "It's not too late for a thorough investigation and, if appropriate, accountability and compensation for the victims."
Another military officer who participated in the investigation confirmed Claudio’s version, but asked to remain anonymous.
“They weren’t only tied by the hands to each other, when they took them to the latrines they beat them with a stick,” he said.
During his 30-year career Claudio said he gained plenty of experience regarding human rights violations. He served as a Special Forces advisor in Colombia as well as advisor on detainee operations at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in the 1990s.
He believes McMaster should have been court martialed in 2005 and is the wrong choice for National Security Advisor.
"If you have the audacity to think for one minute that you're beyond the law ... what is to say you're not going to do it again?" he said.
On a positive note, Claudio said the situation at Tal Afar was quickly corrected. “The good part about that is that I got to Tal Afar and that we fixed it … the worst part is that it happened, and there's no f***ing accountability.”
Additional reporting by David Adams