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.