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Torture Policy

From The Washington Post, 17 and 21 June 2004

SLOWLY, AND IN spite of systematic stonewalling by the Bush administration, it is becoming clearer why a group of military guards at Abu Ghraib prison tortured Iraqis in the ways depicted in those infamous photographs. President Bush and his spokesmen shamefully cling to the myth that the guards were rogues acting on their own. Yet over the past month we have learned that much of what the guards did -- from threatening prisoners with dogs, to stripping them naked, to forcing them to wear women's underwear -- had been practiced at U.S. military prisons elsewhere in the world. Moreover, most of these techniques were sanctioned by senior U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the Iraqi theater command under Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez. Many were imported to Iraq by another senior officer, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller.

In December 2002, Mr. Rumsfeld approved a series of harsh questioning methods for use at the Guantanamo Bay base. According to the Wall Street Journal, these included the removal of clothing, the use of "stress positions," hooding, "fear of dogs," and "mild non-injurious physical contact." Even before that, the Journal reported, interrogators at Guantanamo forced prisoners to wear women's underwear on their heads. A year later, when some of the same treatment was publicized through the Abu Ghraib photographs, Mr. Rumsfeld described it as "grievous and brutal abuse and cruelty."

Administration officials have said that tougher techniques are available at Guantanamo, where the Geneva Conventions are considered inapplicable, than in Iraq, where they unquestionably apply. Yet through much of the past year, the opposite appears to have been the case. After strenuous protests from legal professionals inside the military, Mr. Rumsfeld ordered a review of interrogation techniques in early 2003 that led, in April that year, to the dropping of a number of methods at Guantanamo that he had earlier approved, including the use of dogs, stress positions and nudity.

Later, several of the techniques that were banned in Guantanamo were adopted in Iraq. In late August and September 2003 Gen. Miller visited Abu Ghraib with the mandate to improve interrogations. Senior officers have testified to Congress that he brought "harsh" techniques from Guantanamo. Gen. Sanchez's command then issued a policy that included the use of stress positions and dogs, along with at least five of seven exceptional techniques approved by Mr. Rumsfeld in the revised Guantanamo policy. After further objections from uniformed lawyers, Gen. Sanchez modified the policy in mid-October, but interrogators and guards at Abu Ghraib went on using the earlier rules. They were committing crimes, but they were not improvising: Most of what they did originally had been sanctioned by both the defense secretary and U.S. Central Command.

It's not clear why interrogation techniques judged improper or illegal by a Pentagon legal team were subsequently adopted in Iraq. Nor is it clear what those standards are today, either in Iraq or elsewhere -- breaking with decades of previous practice, the Bush administration has classified them. Congressional leaders who have vowed to get to the bottom of the prisoner abuse scandal still have much to learn; they will not succeed unless the scale and pace of their investigations are stepped up.

The Senate, however, has an opportunity today to directly address the mess the administration has made of interrogation policy and of America's global standing. An amendment to the defense authorization bill, sponsored by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), would reaffirm the commitment of the United States not to engage in torture, and it would require the defense secretary to provide Congress with guidelines ensuring compliance with this standard. Sadly, the Bush administration's policy decisions have cast doubt on whether this country accepts this fundamental principle of human rights. Congress should insist that it does.

Torture Policy (cont'd)(21 June 2004)

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE Donald H. Rumsfeld expressed dismay on Thursday about editorials in which "the implication is that the United States government has, in one way or another, ordered, authorized, permitted, tolerated torture." Such reports, he said, raised questions among U.S. troops in Iraq, reduced the willingness of people in Iraq and Afghanistan to cooperate with the United States, and could be used by others as an excuse to torture U.S. soldiers or civilians. This was wrong, he said, because "I have not seen anything that suggests that a senior civilian or military official of the United States of America . . . could be characterized as ordering or authorizing or permitting torture or acts that are inconsistent with our international treaty obligations or our laws or our values as a country."

Since Mr. Rumsfeld referred directly to The Post, we believe we owe him a response. We agree that the country is at war and that we all must weigh our words accordingly. We also agree that the consequences of the revelations of prisoner abuse are grave. As supporters of the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have been particularly concerned about the ways that the scandal -- and the administration's continuing failure to come to terms with it -- could undermine the chances for success. We also have warned about the uses that might be made of it by captors of Americans. What strikes us as extraordinary is that Mr. Rumsfeld would suggest that this damage would be caused by newspaper editorials rather than by his own actions and decisions and those of other senior administration officials.

What might lead us to describe Mr. Rumsfeld or some other "senior civilian or military official" as "ordering or authorizing or permitting" torture or violation of international treaties and U.S. law? We could start with Mr. Rumsfeld's own admission during the same news conference that he had personally approved the detention of several prisoners in Iraq without registering them with the International Committee of the Red Cross. This creation of "ghost prisoners" was described by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, who investigated abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, as "deceptive, contrary to Army doctrine and in violation of international law." Failure to promptly register detainees with the Red Cross is an unambiguous breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention; Mr. Rumsfeld said that he approved such action on several occasions, at the request of another senior official, CIA Director George J. Tenet.

Did senior officials order torture? We know of two relevant cases so far. One was Mr. Rumsfeld's December 2002 authorization of the use of techniques including hooding, nudity, stress positions, "fear of dogs" and physical contact with prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay base. A second was the distribution in September 2003 by the office of the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, of an interrogation policy that included these techniques as well as others, among them sleep and dietary manipulation. In both cases lawyers inside the military objected that the policies would lead to violations of international law, including the convention banning torture. Both were eventually modified, but not before they were used for the handling of prisoners. In the case of the Abu Ghraib prison, the policy apparently remained in effect for months.

Did senior officials "permit" torture? A Pentagon-led task force concluded in March 2003, with the support of the Justice Department, that the president was authorized to order torture as part of his war-making powers and that those who followed his orders could be immunized from punishment. Dictators who wish to justify torture, and those who would mistreat Americans, have no need to read our editorials: They can download from the Internet the 50-page legal brief issued by Mr. Rumsfeld's chief counsel.

The damage caused by the prisoner abuse cases is already enormous, and it is not over. We believe there is a way to mitigate and eventually overcome the debacle, but it is not by asking newspapers to go mute. What is needed is a full and independent investigation of the matter, including the decisions made by Mr. Rumsfeld and other senior officials, and a forthright and unambiguous commitment by President Bush to strictly observe U.S. and international law in the future. That pledge should be accompanied by a return to the public disclosure of U.S. interrogation policies. If U.S. soldiers, Iraqi citizens and foreign leaders can see for themselves that American doctrine excludes illegal abuse, then the dangers Mr. Rumsfeld cited will be greatly lessened.