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Climate at Abu Ghraib distressed former interrogator

A former interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison told  NBC News that he was alarmed by the message from military commanders that they needed intelligence at any cost.

As the investigation into Iraqi prisoner abuses continues, NBC News has obtained the first eyewitness account from an interrogator at the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Torin Nelson arrived at Abu Ghraib prison last November and found what he calls one of the worst detention facilities he’s seen in 12 years as an interrogator. “I was worried about working there from the moment I arrived, actually,” he said.

While in the Army, Nelson interrogated prisoners at Bosnia and Guantanamo Bay.  But this time, he was one of 27 civilian interrogators hired by a private company, CACI — known as “KHAKI” — to work in Iraq.

In an interview with NBC News, Nelson said he was alarmed, above all by the message from military commanders that they needed intelligence — at any cost.

“Well, ‘anything goes,’ to me as an interrogator, puts up a red flag," he said, "but with other interrogators that may be a green light, unfortunately.”

Nelson, who quit in February, was listed as a key witness in the Pentagon investigation and won’t discuss whether he saw any abuses. 

But he says military commanders did not provide nearly enough oversight nor indicate what line not to cross to sometimes inexperienced interrogators. 

“There were a number of people, not just on the CACI side, but on the military side, that I felt needed more experience if they were actually going to be working as interrogators,” said Nelson.

He says the quality of interrogators was so uneven it hurt collection and analysis of information and claims the hiring process was extremely lax.  Nelson said he was hired by CACI after only a 35-minute telephone interview — far less scrutiny than usual.  

He also challenged statements by the company and Pentagon that civilian contractors were always supervised. “Sometimes there were interrogations where I was completely alone if I wanted to be,” he said.

On Monday, CACI’s Web site lists some interrogator jobs in Baghdad involving “minimal supervision.”

The Pentagon investigation blames one CACI interrogator, Steve Stefanowicz, for some of the horrors at Abu Ghraib, stating “he clearly knew his instructions equated to physical abuse.”

CACI did not respond to repeated calls but has said none of its employees has been charged with wrongdoing.  The company also says all potential interrogators are carefully screened and qualified.

Lisa Myers is NBC News’ senior investigative correspondent.