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Profile: Alyssa Peterson
Alyssa Peterson was a participant or observer in the following events:
Private Alyssa Peterson. [Source: Arizona Daily Sun]Private Alyssa Peterson, deployed as an Arabic-speaking interrogator in Iraq, commits suicide rather than participate in torturing Iraqi prisoners. Peterson, from Flagstaff, Arizona, serves with the 311th Military Intelligence Unit, a part of the 101st Airborne, at an American air base in Tal Afar. Her death is initially cited as an accident resulting from a “non-hostile weapons discharge,” a not uncommon citation. Shortly after her death, Army officials tell the Arizona Republic 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.” In 2005, reporter Kevin Elston will probe more deeply into Peterson’s death; documents released under the Freedom of Information Act will show that, according to Elston’s report for radio station KNAU: “Peterson objected to the interrogation techniques used on prisoners. She refused to participate after only two nights working in the unit known as the cage. Army spokespersons for her unit have refused to describe the interrogation techniques Alyssa objected to. They say all records of those techniques have now been destroyed.” Official records show that Peterson had been “reprimanded” for showing “empathy” for the prisoners. The report of her death states, “She said that she did not know how to be two people; she… could not be one person in the cage and another outside the wire.” She was reassigned to gate duty, and sent to suicide prevention training, but, the report reads, “[O]n the night of September 15th, 2003, Army investigators concluded she shot and killed herself with her service rifle.” A notebook is found next to her body, but its contents are entirely redacted. Peterson also leaves a suicide note, which Elston will be unable to obtain. After reviewing the records documenting the circumstances of her death, Elston will say: “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.” Peterson’s parents will not be told of their daughter’s suicide for three years, but are told merely that she died as a result of an accident. [Huffington Post, 4/24/2009] In 2009, reporter and author Greg Mitchell will interview former Sergeant Kayla Williams, an Army interpreter who served briefly with Peterson at Tal Afar. Williams, like Peterson, objected to abusive techniques being used on prisoners, and is eventually transferred to different duties (see Late September 2003). Williams will note that there are probably more factors involved in Peterson’s suicide than her revulsion to torture. “It’s always a bunch of things coming together to the point you feel so overwhelmed that there’s no way out,” Williams will say. “I witnessed abuse, I felt uncomfortable with it, but I didn’t kill myself, because I could see the bigger context. I felt a lot of angst about whether I had an obligation to report it, and had any way to report it. Was it classified? Who should I turn to?… It also made me think, what are we as humans, that we do this to each other? It made me question my humanity and the humanity of all Americans. It was difficult, and to this day I can no longer think I am a really good person and will do the right thing in the right situation.” Mitchell will write, “Such an experience might have been truly shattering to the deeply religious Peterson.” [Huffington Post, 4/24/2009]
Kayla Williams. [Source: Bowling Green State University]Sergeant Kayla Williams, an Army interpreter, witnesses prisoners being abused while being detained in Mosul. Williams is troubled by the death of an acquaintance, Private Alyssa Peterson, who actually committed suicide rather than take part in the torture of prisoners (see September 15, 2003 and After). Williams witnesses an incident that closely parallels the kind of interrogation Peterson objected to. She is taken into a special holding area called “the cage,” where she sees US soldiers punching a naked detainee in the face and burning him with lit cigarettes. There is no interrogation, just the brutalization of a prisoner. Williams will later write: “It’s one thing to make fun of someone and attempt to humiliate him. With words. That’s one thing. But flicking lit cigarettes at somebody—like burning him—that’s illegal.” She will later write that soldiers will soon tell her that “the old rules no longer applied because this was a different world. This was a new kind of war.” In 2005, Williams will recall the incident on CNN: “I was asked to assist. And what I saw was that individuals who were doing interrogations had slipped over a line and were really doing things that were inappropriate. There were prisoners that were burned with lit cigarettes. They stripped prisoners naked and then removed their blindfolds so that I was the first thing they saw. And then we were supposed to mock them and degrade their manhood. And it really didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me. I didn’t know if this was standard. But it did not seem to work. And it really made me feel like we were losing that crucial moral higher ground, and we weren’t behaving in the way that Americans are supposed to behave.” After that session and several others that same day, she tells a superior officer that she will not take part in future interrogations. “I sat through it at the time,” she will recall. “But after it was over I did approach the non-commissioned officer in charge and told him I think you may be violating the Geneva Conventions.… He said he knew and I said I wouldn’t participate again and he respected that, but I was really, really stunned.” In 2009, Williams will say: “In general, interrogation is not fun, even if you follow the rules. And I didn’t see any good intelligence being gained. The other problem is that, in situations like that, you have people that are not terrorists being picked up, and being questioned. And, if you treat an innocent person like that, they walk out a terrorist.” [Huffington Post, 4/24/2009]
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