By blurring the lines between terrorism and combat – and by linking the 9/11 rationale to groups only tangentially connected to al-Qaeda – the Bush administration spread the policy of harsh interrogations far beyond terror suspects who worked directly for Osama bin Laden, newly released Justice Department memos reveal.
Most significantly, the Bush administration let the interrogation policy spill over into U.S.-occupied Iraq, where ambushes of American and allied troops were regarded as the legal and moral equivalent of terrorist attacks against civilians on U.S. soil, one of the memos, dated May 30, 2005, makes clear. That belief, in turn, appears to have set the stage for the Abu Ghaib prison abuse scandal.
The memo – written by Steven Bradbury, then acting head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel – describes the criteria for identifying a “high value” detainee who would be a candidate for “enhanced interrogation techniques.” While describing the supposedly restrictive nature of the criteria, Bradbury actually reveals how broad the category was.
Such a detainee is someone “who, until time of capture, we have reason to believe: (1) is a senior member of al-Qai’da or an al-Qai’da associated terrorist group (Jemaah Islamiyyah, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, al-Zarqawi Group, etc.), (2) has knowledge of imminent terrorist threats against the USA, its military forces, its citizens and organizations, or its allies; or that has/had direct involvement in planning and preparing terrorist actions against the USA or its allies, or assisting the al-Qai’da leadership in planning and preparing such terrorist actions; and (3) if released, constitutes a clear and continuing threat to the USA or it allies,” the memo states.
In other words, an Iraqi insurgent allegedly linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who led a particularly violent faction of the Iraqi war against U.S. occupation, could qualify for harsh interrogation if he might know about future attacks on American or allied troops inside Iraq.
Though terrorism is classically defined as acts of violence directed against civilians to achieve a political goal, the Bush administration broadened the concept to include attacks by Iraqis against U.S. or allied soldiers occupying Iraq. So, for instance, a suspected Iraqi insurgent who might know about the location of roadside bombs would fall under these criteria.
Since the Bush administration blamed Zarqawi for much of the violence against U.S. forces in Iraq, that would have opened the door for rough treatment of any number of captured Iraqis. Indeed, that is what some of the prison guards at Abu Ghraib claimed to have thought they were doing, softening up Iraqi detainees for questioning by U.S. intelligence interrogators.
The Justice Department memos also buttress the testimony of former Army Sgt. Sam Provance, who served as a military intelligence officer at Abu Ghraib for four months starting in September 2003 and was the only one in such a position to blow the whistle on the cover-up that sought to focus blame for the scandal on low-level military police.
“While serving with my unit in Iraq,” Provance said in a statement submitted to Congress, “I became aware of changes in the procedures in which I and my fellow soldiers were trained. These changes involved using procedures which we previously did not use, and had been trained not to use, and in involving military police (MP) personnel in ‘preparation’ of detainees who were to be interrogated.
“Some detainees were treated in an incorrect and immoral fashion as a result of these changes. After what had happened at Abu Ghraib became a matter of public knowledge, and there was a demand for action, young soldiers were scapegoated while superiors misrepresented what had happened and tried to misdirect attention away from what was really going on.”
As a computer expert working the night shift, Provance came to know many of the interrogators, including a female who “told me detainees were routinely stripped naked in the cells and sometimes during interrogations (she said one man so shamed had actually made a loin cloth out of an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) bag, so they no longer allowed him to have the MRE bag with his food).
“She said they also starved them or allowed them to only have certain items of food at a time. She said they played loud music – ‘Barney I Love You’ being the interrogators’ favorite. ... She said they used dogs to terrify and torment the prisoners. She also said they deprived them of sleep for long periods of time.”
Provance said these strategies were “all part of a carefully planned regimen that had been introduced after the arrival of the teams from” the Guantanamo Bay prison facility where detainees from the “war on terror” had been concentrated.
Provance also recounted a conversation at the Camp Victory dining facility where one military intelligence guard “told an entire table full of laughing soldiers about how the MP’s had shown him and other soldiers how to knock someone out and to strike a detainee without leaving marks. They had practiced these techniques on unsuspecting detainees, after watching, he had participated himself.”
What is striking about Provance’s account in retrospect are the similarities between the CIA techniques approved by the Bush administration and the treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib, including the notorious photographs of naked Iraqis paraded in front of female soldiers.
In both cases, nudity -- especially in front of women -- was used to degrade the prisoners; their diets were manipulated to weaken their resolve (the CIA fed its detainees Ensure); they were deprived of sleep (the CIA hung prisoners by their wrists and used icy water to keep them awake for a week or more); their personal fears were exploited; and they were roughed up in ways designed not to leave marks (the CIA used a technique called “walling,” slamming prisoners repeatedly into a false wall that made a loud noise).
There were some differences, too. While the Abu Ghraib photos revealed prisoners being piled up in fake sexual positions, the CIA program included the near-drowning experience of “waterboarding” against three “high-value detainees,” including its use 266 times against two detainees, Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Perhaps the most significant difference, however, was that photographs of the Abu Ghraib abuses reached the public, while the CIA destroyed 92 videotapes of its interrogations of detainees. Because the Abu Ghraib photos got out, President George W. Bush and other senior officials decided to denounce the humiliating treatment as disgraceful.
“I shared a deep disgust that those prisoners were treated the way they were treated,” Bush said. “Their treatment does not reflect the nature of the American people.”
Eventually, 11 enlisted soldiers, who were guards at Abu Ghraib, 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.
Superior officers were cleared of wrongdoing or received mild reprimands. For his whistleblowing about the systemic problem at Abu Ghraib, Sgt. Provance was threatened with prosecution and saw his military career destroyed.
The consequences for American troops in Iraq were also unpleasant. The Abu Ghraib scandal fueled the Iraqi insurgency in a war that has claimed the lives of more than 4,200 U.S. soldiers.
The link between the Abu Ghraib abuses and the U.S. death toll was described by a lead U.S. interrogator in Iraq, who used the pseudonym “Matthew Alexander” for a Washington Pos Outlook article on Nov. 30, 2008.
“Alexander,” a U.S. Air Force special operations officer, said it was his team’s abandonment of those harsh tactics that contributed to the tracking down and killing of the murderous al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Zarqawi in June 2006.
“Alexander” said he arrived in Iraq in March 2006, amid the bloody civil war that Sunni extremist Zarqawi had helped provoke a month earlier with the bombing of the golden-domed Askariya mosque in Samarra, a shrine revered by Iraq's majority Shiites.
“Amid the chaos, four other Air Force criminal investigators and I joined an elite team of interrogators attempting to locate Zarqawi,” he wrote. “What I soon discovered about our methods astonished me. The Army was still conducting interrogations according to the Guantanamo Bay model. ... These interrogations were based on fear and control; they often resulted in torture and abuse.
“I refused to participate in such practices, and a month later, I extended that prohibition to the team of interrogators I was assigned to lead. I taught the members of my unit a new methodology -- one based on building rapport with suspects, showing cultural understanding and using good old-fashioned brainpower to tease out information.”
By getting to know the captives and negotiating with them, his team achieved breakthroughs that enabled the U.S. military to close in on Zarqawi while also gaining a deeper understanding of what drove the Iraqi insurgency, “Alexander” wrote.
“Over the course of this renaissance in interrogation tactics, our attitudes changed. We no longer saw our prisoners as the stereotypical al-Qaeda evildoers we had been repeatedly briefed to expect; we saw them as Sunni Iraqis, often family men protecting themselves from Shiite militias and trying to ensure that their fellow Sunnis would still have some access to wealth and power in the new Iraq.
“Most surprisingly, they turned out to despise al-Qaeda in Iraq as much as they despised us, but Zarqawi and his thugs were willing to provide them with arms and money,” the interrogator wrote, noting that this understanding played a key role in the U.S. military turning many Sunnis against the hyper-violent extremism of Zarqawi’s organization.
“Alexander” added that the new interrogation methods “convinced one of Zarqawi's associates to give up the al-Qaeda in Iraq leader's location. On June 8, 2006, U.S. warplanes dropped two 500-pound bombs on a house where Zarqawi was meeting with other insurgent leaders.”
From hundreds of interrogations, “Alexander” said he learned that the images from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib were actually getting American soldiers killed by drawing angry young Arabs into the Iraq War.
“Torture and abuse cost American lives,” the interrogator wrote. “I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq.
“It's no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001.
"How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me -- unless you don't count American soldiers as Americans.”
Nevertheless, in a series of “exit interviews,” Vice President Dick Cheney – and to a lesser degree President Bush – defended their actions that included sanctioning brutal methods of interrogation.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Cheney Defends Waterboarding Order.”]
That argument continues to this day with Bush’s defenders continuing to insist that the harsh methods were successful.
In an interview with Fox News on Monday, Cheney complained that the Obama administration had released the Justice Department memos on interrogations, “but they didn't put out the memos that showed the success of the effort."
Cheney then said, "I've now formally asked the CIA to take steps to declassify those memos so we can lay them out there and the American people have a chance to see what we obtained and what we learned and how good the intelligence was."
Full disclosure also might include how the CIA practices influenced interrogators in Iraq to apply similar methods on suspected Iraqi insurgents, a reality that not only damaged America’s image around the world but may have contributed to the deaths of many U.S. soldiers.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on April 21, 2009.