A bipartisan congressional report traces the U.S. abuse of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib to President George W. Bush’s Feb. 7, 2002, action memorandum that excluded “war on terror” suspects from Geneva Convention protections.
The Senate Armed Services Committee’s report said Bush’s memo opened the door to “considering aggressive techniques,” which were then developed with the complicity of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and other senior officials.
Three months ago, Rice admitted that she led high-level discussions beginning in 2002 with other senior Bush administration officials about subjecting suspected al-Qaeda terrorists to the harsh interrogation technique known as waterboarding, according to documents released by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, committee chairman.
“The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of ‘a few bad apples’ acting on their own,” the committee report said. “The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees.”
The Dec. 11 report also disputed the Bush administration’s rationale that the harsh interrogation methods were effective in extracting valuable intelligence and protecting the country from terrorist attacks.
Instead, the report said, “Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.”
The findings, which were released by Sens. Levin and John McCain of Arizona, this year’s Republican presidential nominee, drew no dissent from the 12 Republicans on the 25-member committee.
The 19-page report is the final installment in the Armed Services Committee’s 18-month investigation, which generated 38,000 pages of documents and relied upon the testimony of 70 people.
The White House declined comment, but Keith Urbahn, an aide to Rumsfeld, told the Washington Post that the allegations were “unfounded” and called the committee report a “false narrative.”
The report’s narrative of the prisoner abuse begins in early 2002 when Rumsfeld’s Defense Department inquired about what limits should be placed on interrogations of terror suspects detained during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
Those questions sparked an internal administration debate and led to Bush’s Feb. 7, 2002, memo stating that the Third Geneva Convention, which sets standards for treatment of prisoners from armed conflicts, “did not apply to the conflict with al-Qaeda and concluding that Taliban detainees were not entitled to prisoner of war status or the legal protections afforded by the Third Geneva Convention,” the report said.
“The President’s order closed off application of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which would have afforded minimum standards for humane treatment, to al-Qaeda or Taliban detainees.
“While the President’s order stated that, as ‘a matter of policy, the United States Armed Forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of the Geneva Conventions,’ the decision to replace well established military doctrine, i.e., legal compliance with the Geneva Conventions, with a policy subject to interpretation, impacted the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody.”
What followed were senior-level meetings deciding which interrogation techniques could be used and which couldn’t.
“In the spring of 2002, CIA sought policy approval from the National Security Council (NSC) to begin an interrogation program for high-level al-Qaeda terrorists,” Rice said, according to the report. Rice is now Bush’s Secretary of State.
“Secretary Rice said that she asked Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet to brief NSC Principals on the program and asked the Attorney General John Ashcroft ‘personally to review and confirm the legal advice prepared by the Office of Legal Counsel.’ She also said that Rumsfeld participated in the NSC review of CIA’s program," according to the report.
In July 2002, Rumsfeld and his legal counsel, William Haynes, solicited input from military psychologists about developing harsh methods that interrogators could use against detainees who were being held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“Mr. Haynes was not the only senior official considering new interrogation techniques for use against detainees,” the report said. “Members of the President’s Cabinet and other senior officials attended meetings in the White House where specific interrogation techniques were discussed.”
John B. Bellinger, Rice’s legal adviser at the State Department, said they recalled participating in meetings with Ashcroft and Rumsfeld in July 2002 about an Army and Air Force survival training program called Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE), which was meant to prepare U.S. soldiers for abuse they might suffer if captured by an outlaw regime.
“SERE training techniques were designed to give our troops a taste of what they might be subjected to if captured by a ruthless, lawless enemy so that they would be better prepared to resist," Levin said Thursday. "The techniques were never intended to be used against detainees in U.S. custody.”
Last April, President Bush told an ABC News reporter during an interview that he approved meetings of the NSC’s Principals Committee to discuss specific interrogation techniques the CIA could use against detainees. The Principals Committee included Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, CIA Director George Tenet and Attorney General Ashcroft as well as Rumsfeld and Rice.
On Dec. 2, 2002, Rumsfeld authorized “aggressive interrogation techniques,” leading to “interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials [that] conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody,” the committee report said.
"What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.”
After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and amid the rising Iraqi insurgency against the American occupation in 2004, the harsh interrogation tactics, which had been used at Guantanamo, spread to the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Bush’s Feb. 7, 2002, memo prompted Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, who became the top commander in Iraq, to institute a “dozen interrogation methods beyond” the Army’s standard practice under the convention, according to a report by a panel headed by James Schlesinger on the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses in 2004.
Sanchez said he based his decision on “the President's Memorandum,” which he said had justified "additional, tougher measures" against detainees, the Schlesigner report said.
The abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib exploded into an international scandal in 2004 when photos were leaked showing American prison guards parading detainees around naked and forcing them into mock sexual positions.
Bush, Rumsfeld and other senior administration officials expressed outrage over the Abu Ghraib photos and blamed the abuses on low-level soldiers acting on their own.
Eleven enlisted soldiers, who were guards at Abu Ghraib, subsequently were convicted in courts martial.
Cpl. Charles Graner Jr. received the harshest sentence – 10 years in prison – while Lynndie England, a 22-year-old single mother who was photographed holding an Iraqi on a leash and pointing at a detainee’s penis, was sentenced to three years in prison. Their superior officers either were cleared of wrongdoing or received mild reprimands.
The Bush administration’s handling of the Abu Ghraib scandal drew especially sharp criticism from the Armed Services Committee chairman.
“Attempts by senior officials to pass the buck to low-ranking soldiers while avoiding any responsibility for abuses are unconscionable,” Levin said. “The message from top officials was clear; it was acceptable to use degrading and abusive techniques against detainees."
Regarding the prison abuse at Abu Ghraib, the committee’s report concluded that it “was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own.” The report added: “Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques for use at Guantanamo Bay was a direct cause of detainee abuse there.”
Human rights organizations have pressed Barack Obama to aggressively investigate the Bush administration’s actions once he is sworn as President next month.
In a recent interview with “60 Minutes,” President-elect Obama told correspondent Steve Kroft “that America doesn’t torture and I’m going to make sure we don’t torture. Those are part and parcel an effort to regain America’s moral stature in the world.”
But Obama has not indicated whether Eric Holder, his choice for Attorney General, will pursue an investigation into Bush's interrogation policies.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said this week that he told Obama’s transition team that some of the Bush administration’s interrogation policies should remain intact.
In an interview with Congress Daily, Reyes, D-Texas, said dealing with suspected terrorists requires that “some options” beyond interrogation rules in the Army Field Manual need to be available.
"There are those that believe that this particular issue has to be dealt with very carefully because there are beliefs that there are some options that need to be available," Reyes said. "We don't want to be known for torturing people. At the same time we don't want to limit our ability to get information that's vital and critical to our national security. That’s where the new administration is going to have to decide what those parameters are, what those limitations are."
Meanwhile, Attorney General Michael Mukasey has argued that there is no legal basis to prosecute current and former administration officials for authorizing torture and warrantless domestic surveillance because those decisions were made in the context of a presidential interest in protecting national security.
"There is absolutely no evidence that anybody who rendered a legal opinion, either with respect to surveillance or with respect to interrogation policies, did so for any reason other than to protect the security in the country and in the belief that he or she was doing something lawful,” Mukasey said during a Dec. 3 roundtable discussion with reporters.
“If the word goes out to the contrary, then people are going to get the message, which is that if you come up with an answer that is not considered desirable in the future you might face prosecution, and that creates an incentive not to give an honest answer but to give an answer that may be acceptable in the future,” Mukasey told the reporters.
Rep. John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, immediately took issue with the “breadth” of Mukasey’s statement “and the blanket conclusion that everyone involved in approving these policies believed they were acting within the law.”
Conyers reminded Mukasey that reams of evidence – including testimony from career military and law enforcement officials – show that top White House officials may have broken the law by authorizing torture and warrantless domestic surveillance.
Indeed, Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who led an early investigation of abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, said “there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”
Christopher Anders, the American Civil Liberties Union senior legislative counsel, said the Armed Services Committee's report "makes clear the role of top White House and Defense Department officials in authorizing torture and abuse.”
Jason Leopold has launched a new Web site, The Public Record, at www.pubrecord.org.
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This story was published on December 12, 2008.