April 25, 2008—Newly released U.S. government documents, detailing how Bush administration officials punched legalistic holes in the Geneva Convention’s protections of war captives, stand in stark contrast to the outrage some of the same officials expressed in the first week of the Iraq War when Iraqi TV interviewed several captured American soldiers.
Then, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush and other administration officials orchestrated a chorus of outrage, citing those TV scenes as proof of the Iraq’s government contempt for international law in general and the Geneva Convention in particular.
“It is a blatant violation of the Geneva Convention to humiliate and abuse prisoners of war or to harm them in any way. As President Bush said yesterday, those who harm POWs will be found and punished as war criminals,” Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said on March 24, 2003.
That same day, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told the BBC that “the Geneva Convention is very clear on the rules for treating prisoners. They're not supposed to be tortured or abused, they're not supposed to be intimidated, they're not supposed to be made public displays of humiliation or insult, and we're going to be in a position to hold those Iraqi officials who are mistreating our prisoners accountable, and they've got to stop.”
At a March 25, 2003, press briefing about progress in the U.S.-led invasion, Secretary Rumfeld said, “This war is an act of self defense, to be sure, but it is also an act of humanity. ... In recent days, the world has witnessed further evidence of their [Iraqi] brutality and their disregard for the laws of war. Their treatment of coalition POWs is a violation of the Geneva Conventions.”
The U.S. news media also assisted in this one-sided indictment by uncritically reporting the administration’s complaints while staying silent on the fact that just days earlier, American TV had run scenes of captured Iraqi soldiers, some forced to kneel down at gunpoint to be patted down by U.S. soldiers.
This behavior of the U.S. news media during the early phase of the Iraq War fit with its lack of skepticism in the months leading up to the March 19, 2003, invasion as Bush administration officials spoon-fed the press false intelligence alleging secret Iraqi WMD stockpiles and covert links to al-Qaeda terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
So, perhaps it should have come as no surprise when the U.S. news media treated the TV footage of American POWs as further evidence that Iraq was run by a lawless regime with no respect for the rules of war. [For a contemporaneous account of the POW issue, see Consortiumnews.com’s “International Law a la Carte.”]
In retrospect – now with much more of the documentary record available – the disparity between the administration’s outrage toward the Iraqis for showing the video and the abuse inflicted by the U.S. government on captives from the Iraq and Afghan wars is stunning.
Declassified documents reveal that the Bush administration concocted legal theories to justify sidestepping the Geneva Convention when it came to prisoners incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, at secret CIA prisons and at various locations in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib where shocking photos were leaked of sexual and physical abuse in 2004.
Indeed, while U.S. government officials were preaching to Iraqis about the rules of war, the Bush administration was seven months into a secret interrogation program that authorized CIA interrogators to question Afghan and al-Qaeda detainees using brutal methods.
The techniques included painful “stress positions,” forced nudity in cold conditions and the simulated drowning of waterboarding, practices that human rights organizations say violated Geneva and anti-torture laws.
The Bush administration also ordered the CIA to engage in “extraordinary renditions,” which involved kidnapping terror suspects and shipping them to countries that are known to practice torture.
If held to the same standards that the Bush administration demanded of the Iraqi military, U.S. officials implicated in these policies would be guilty of violating the Geneva Convention, said Claire Tixeire, a "human rights fellow" with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and an attorney.
“They clearly knew that the laws of war were supposed to apply to prisoners apprehended by the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they found every legal loophole to find ways it didn't apply to the U.S. side,” Tixeire said in an interview.
Tixeire, whose organization is defending some of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, said that while U.S. officials may have had a point in accusing the Iraqi military of violating the Geneva Convention over the TV interviews, the way the U.S. treated Iraqi captives was much worse.
“It’s clear to me these actions came down from the very top,” Tixeire said. “Denying prisoners of war humane treatment is a grave breach of the Geneva Convention. It's a war crime. They put U.S. troops at risk for being treated inhumanely if they were captured.”
When asked recently about the past statements about Iraqi violations of the Geneva Convention, representatives for Clarke, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld said the now-former officials would not comment for this story.
The actions of the Bush administration also flouted the 1984 "Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment," which was approved by 145 nations, including the United States. It declares that:
"No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."
Moreover, the convention says individuals who resort to torture cannot defend their actions by saying they were acting on orders from superiors and it mandates that torturers be prosecuted wherever they are found.
The United States signed the Convention Against Torture in 1988 under President Ronald Reagan, who hailed it as “a significant step” in preventing torture, which he called “an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today.”
In a May 20, 1988, message to the U.S. Senate, Reagan noted that “the core provisions of the Convention establish a regime for international cooperation in the criminal prosecution of torturers relying on so-called ‘universal jurisdiction.’”
According to that provision, “each state party is required either to prosecute torturers who are found in its territory or to extradite them to other countries for prosecution.”
It was this Convention, ratified by the Senate in 1994, that Bush administration officials sought to bypass with legal memos, many drafted by John Yoo of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
The administration memos argued that the Geneva Convention did not apply to detainees in the “war on terror” and that President Bush’s commander-in-chief powers allowed him to ignore laws in the interest of protecting the nation.
The record now shows that during the same week in March 2003 – when Rumsfeld was publicly berating Iraq for violating the Geneva Convention by broadcasting footage of American POW’s – he was engaged in drafting a top-secret plan that would give military interrogators at Guantanamo wide latitude to use harsher techniques to obtain information from prisoners.
Rumsfeld signed off on the plan on April 2, 2003, according to documents declassified and turned over to the American Civil Liberties Union last month in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
Though some of the more extreme techniques were dropped as the list was winnowed down to 24 from 35, the final set of interrogation methods Rumsfeld approved still included tactics for isolating and demeaning a detainee, known as "pride and ego down."
Such degrading tactics would appear to contravene the Geneva Convention, which bars abusive or demeaning treatment of captives.
Weeks after the Iraq invasion, human rights groups started receiving information about the abuse of dozens of Iraqi prisoners at Camp Cropper, Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib, and the deaths of two prisoners, one of whom died of a crushed larynx, and the other with a hard blow to the head.
Amnesty International sent a letter to the head of the U.S. occupation, Paul Bremer, on June 26, 2003, raising concerns about abuses during house searches, treatment during arrest and detention, people being forced to lie face down on the ground; use of hoods or blind folds, exposure to sun and heat for hours, limited amount of water supplied, and lack of proper washing and toilet facilities.
One month later, Amnesty International released a report, "Iraq: memorandum on concerns relating to law and order," warning of allegations of torture and abuse in U.S. prisons, including Abu Ghraib.
"Regrettably, testimonies from recently released detainees held at Camp Cropper and Abu Ghraib Prison do not suggest that conditions of detention have improved," the report said.
There are "a number of reports of cases of detainees who have died in custody, mostly as a result of shooting by members of the Coalition forces." A Saudi national "alleged that he was subjected to beatings and electric shocks."
Photographs backing up these allegations would surface a year later in two investigative news reports, one by Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker and the other by "60 Minutes II," which detailed the systematic abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
Months before the worldwide condemnation of the treatment of the Abu Ghraib prisoners, Rumsfeld sent Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller was sent to Baghdad from Guantanamo Bay to “hit back at the [Iraqi] insurgents...through unorthodox means,” according to a May 10, 2004, front-page story in the Washington Post.
"He came up there and told me he was going to 'Gitmoize' the detention operation," turning it into a hub of interrogation, said Brig. Gen. Janis L. Karpinski, then commander of the military prison system in Iraq, according to the Post.
Hersh wrote in The New Yorker’s May 24, 2004, issue that “the roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists but in a decision, approved last year  by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to expand a highly secret operation, which had been focused on the hunt for Al Qaeda, to the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq. ...
“The solution, endorsed by Rumsfeld and carried out by Stephen Cambone, was to get tough with those Iraqis in the Army prison system who were suspected of being insurgents. ... Rumsfeld and Cambone went a step further, [bringing] unconventional methods to Abu Ghraib. ... The male prisoners could be treated roughly, and exposed to sexual humiliation.”
Amrit Singh, a staff attorney at the ACLU’s Immigrant Rights Project and the co-author of Administration of Torture, added that Rumsfeld and other top Bush administration officials by “holding up the Geneva Convention and saying it did not apply to some prisoners have tarnished the image of the U.S. throughout the world.”
Even after the programs governing interrogations were exposed, Rumsfeld made sure that a loophole in a new Defense Department policy issued in November 2005, which barred torture and called for the "humane" treatment of detainees, gave him and his deputy the authority to override it.
"Intelligence interrogations will be conducted in accordance with applicable law, this directive and implementing plans, policies, orders, directives, and doctrine developed by DoD components and approved by USD (I), unless otherwise authorized, in writing, by the secretary of defense or deputy secretary of defense," the policy says. "USD (I)" refers to the undersecretary of defense for intelligence.
Rumsfeld resigned in November 2006.
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This story was published on April 28, 2008.