Video: American held captive in Iraqi prison

By Lisa Myers Senior investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/17/2007 7:25:35 PM ET 2007-06-17T23:25:35

This report aired Dateline NBC Sunday, June 17

For Donald Vance, a 29-year-old veteran and an American citizen, the desire to play a small part in a big event would lead to the scariest experience of his life. While in Iraq, he was neither a victim of a roadside bomb nor taken prisoner by insurgents. Instead, he was held captive by the U.S. government — detained in a secret military prison.

"It's probably the worst thing I've ever lived through," says Vance, who along with another American is now suing his own government, which he says "treated me like a terrorist."

It all started in the summer of 2005 when Vance went to Baghdad. Born in Chicago, Vance had joined the Navy after high school and later worked in security.

He took a job with an Iraqi company, Shield Group Security, or SGS, which provides protection for businesses and organizations. Vance supervised security and logistics operations. Before long, he says he started noticing troubling things at the company — explosives and huge stockpiles of ammunition and weapons, including anti-aircraft guns. He worried they were going to militias involved in sectarian violence.

There was "more ammunition than we could ever, ever need," says Vance. "We employed somewhere between 600 and 800 Iraqis. We had thousands of rifles."

Vance became so alarmed by what he saw that when he returned to Chicago in October 2005 for his father's funeral, he called the FBI office there and volunteered his services. He says he became an informant because, "It's just the right thing to do."

Once back in Baghdad, Vance says he began almost daily secret contact with the FBI in Chicago, often through e-mails and with officials at the U.S. embassy, alleging illegal gun-running and corruption by the Iraqis who owned and ran the company.

"I really couldn't tell you how many days I thought about, 'What if I get caught?'" says Vance.

In April 2006, he thought that day had come. His co-worker, Nathan Ertel, also an American, tendered his resignation. And with that, Vance says, the atmosphere turned hostile.

"We were constantly watched," Vance says, "We were not allowed to go anywhere from outside the compound or with the compound under the supervision of an Iraqi, an armed Iraqi guard."

Vance says an Iraqi SGS manager then took their identification cards, which allowed them access to American facilities, such as the Green Zone. They felt trapped.

"We began making phone calls," Vance recalls. "I called the FBI. The experts over at the embassy let it be known that you're about to be kidnapped. We barricaded ourselves with as many guns as we can get our hands on. We just did an old-fashioned Alamo."

The U.S. military did come to rescue them. Vance says he then led soldiers to the secret cache of rifles, ammunition, explosives, even land mines.

The two men say they — and other employees who were Westerners — were taken to the U.S. embassy and debriefed. But their ordeal was just beginning.

"[We saw] soldiers with shackles in their hands and goggles and zip-ties. And we just knew something was terribly wrong," says Vance.

Vance and Ertel were eventually taken to Camp Cropper, a secret U.S. military prison near the Baghdad airport. It once held Saddam Hussein and now houses some of the most dangerous insurgents in all of Iraq.

Here's what Vance and Ertel say happened in that prison: They were strip-searched and each put in solitary confinement in tiny, cold cells. They were deliberately deprived of sleep with blaring music and bright lights. They were hooded and cuffed whenever moved. And although they were never physically tortured, there was always that threat.

"The guards employ what I would like to call as verbal Kung-Fu," says Vance. "It's 'do as we say or we will use excessive violence on you.'"

Their families back home had no idea what was happening. Until they were detained, Vance had called or e-mailed his fiancée, Diane Schwarz, every day while in Iraq — and now he was not allowed to do either.

"I am thinking, you know, he's dead, he's kidnapped," recalls Schwarz.

After a week of intense interrogations for hours at a time, Vance learned why he was detained. He was given a document stating the military had found large caches of weapons at Vance's company and suspected he "may be involved in the possible distribution of these weapons to insurgent/terrorist groups."

He was a security detainee, just like an insurgent. And he says he was treated that way.

"The guards peeking in my cell see a Caucasian male, instantly they think he's a foreign fighter," says Vance. He recounts guards yelling at him, "You are Taliban. You are al-Qaida."

Vance says the charges against him were false and mirror exactly the allegations he had been making against his own company to the FBI.

"I'm basically saying to them: 'What are you talking about? I've been telling you for seven months now that this stuff is going on. You're detaining me but not the actual people that are doing it!'"

A military panel, which reviews charges against detainees, eventually questioned Vance and Ertel. Both men were given a document that said, "You do not have the right to legal counsel." The men say they could not see all the evidence used against them and did not have the legal protections typically afforded Americans.

But they were eventually allowed very infrequent phone calls, which were very frustrating for Vance and his fiancée.

"He's crying, you know, he's not getting any answers and I'm not able to help him," says Schwarz. "And he's not able to help himself."

The military cleared Ertel and released him after more than a month in prison. But Vance stayed locked up.

At that point, prohibited from keeping notes, he began secretly scribbling diary entries and storing them in his military-issued Bible, whenever he had access to a pen.

The military now acknowledges that it took three weeks just to contact the FBI and confirm Vance was an informant. But even after that, Vance was held for another two months. In all, he was imprisoned for 97 days before being cleared of any wrongdoing and released.

"I looked like hell, completely emaciated, you know — beard, shaggy, dirty," remembers Vance. "They showered me, shaved me, cleaned me up and dumped me at Baghdad International Airport like it never happened.

Throughout the ordeal, the U.S. military said it thought Vance was helping the insurgents. Wasn't that a reasonable basis to hold and interrogate him?

"They could have investigated the true facts, found out exactly what was happening," says Vance. "What doesn't need to happen is throw people in a cell, we'll figure out the answers later. That's not the way to do things."

Donald Vance and Nathan Ertel have now filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government and Donald Rumsfeld, who was secretary of defense when they were detained. It is generally very difficult to sue the government, but experts say this case may be different because Vance and Ertel are American citizens; they were civilians held by the U.S. military; and they were detained for such a long time.

Military officials would not comment, but a spokeswoman previously has said the men were treated fairly and humanely. The FBI also declined to comment, as did officials at SGS. The company’s name has changed, but it's still doing business in Iraq. Neither the company, nor its executives, has been charged with any wrongdoing.

Vance says he hopes the lawsuit will reveal why the military held him so long, and why he was denied the legal protections guaranteed American citizens.

"This is just another step of our Constitution slowly being whittled away," says Vance when asked why with all the tragedies and injustice in Iraq anyone should care about his story. "It's basic fundamental rights of our founding fathers."

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