President George W. Bush’s comment to ABC News – that he approved discussions that his top aides held about harsh interrogation techniques – adds credence to claims from senior FBI agents in Iraq in 2004 that Bush had signed an Executive Order approving the use of military dogs, sleep deprivation and other tactics to intimidate Iraqi detainees.
When the American Civil Liberties Union released the FBI e-mail in December 2004 – after obtaining it through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit – the White House emphatically denied that any such presidential Executive Order existed, calling the unnamed FBI official who wrote the e-mail “mistaken.”
President Bush and his representatives also have denied repeatedly that the administration condones “torture,” although senior administration officials have acknowledged subjecting “high-value” terror suspects to aggressive interrogation techniques, including the “waterboarding” – or simulated drowning – of three al-Qaeda detainees.
But the emerging public evidence suggests that Bush’s denials about “torture” amount to a semantic argument, with the administration applying a narrow definition that contradicts widely accepted standards contained in international law, including Geneva and other human rights conventions.
The FBI e-mail – dated May 22, 2004 – followed disclosures about abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison and sought guidance on whether FBI agents in Iraq were obligated to report the U.S. military’s harsh interrogation of inmates when that treatment violated FBI standards but fit within the guidelines of a presidential Executive Order.
According to the e-mail, Bush’s Executive Order authorized interrogators to use military dogs, “stress positions,” sleep “management,” loud music and “sensory deprivation through the use of hoods, etc.” to extract information from detainees in Iraq.
The FBI e-mail was put into a new light by news reports last week that senior White House officials – including Vice President Dick Cheney and then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice – did meet secretly to discuss specific interrogation methods that could be used against detainees.
“The most senior Bush administration officials repeatedly discussed and approved specific details of exactly how high-value al-Qaeda suspects would be interrogated by the CIA,” ABC News reported, citing unnamed sources.
“The high-level discussions about these ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ were so detailed, these sources said, some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed – down to the number of times CIA agents could use a specific tactic.
“These top advisers signed off on how the CIA would interrogate top al-Qaeda suspects – whether they would be slapped, pushed, deprived of sleep or subjected to simulated drowning, called waterboarding, sources told ABC News.”
On Friday, President Bush confirmed the report, stating matter-of-factly: “I'm aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved."
The May 2004 FBI e-mail stated that the FBI interrogation team in Iraq understood that despite revisions in the Executive Order that occurred after the furor over the Abu Ghraib abuses, the presidential sanctioning of harsh interrogation tactics had not been rescinded.
"I have been told that all interrogation techniques previously authorized by the Executive Order are still on the table but that certain techniques can only be used if very high-level authority is granted,” the author of the FBI e-mail said.
“We have also instructed our personnel not to participate in interrogations by military personnel which might include techniques authorized by Executive Order but beyond the bounds of FBI practices.''
One month after the e-mail was sent to FBI counterterrorism officials in Washington, then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales held a news conference in an attempt to contain the fallout from the Abu Ghraib scandal.
Gonzales told reporters that the abuses, which included sexual humiliation of Iraqi men, were isolated to some rogue U.S. soldiers who acted on their own and not as result of orders being handed down from high-level officials inside the Bush administration.
“The President has not directed the use of specific interrogation techniques,” Gonzales said on June 22, 2004. “There has been no presidential determination necessity or self-defense that would allow conduct that constitutes torture.
“There has been no presidential determination that circumstances warrant the use of torture to protect the mass security of the United States.”
Prior to the news conference, the White House selectively declassified and released documents to reporters, including one dated Feb. 7, 2002, and signed by President Bush, that cited the Geneva Convention’s rules about humane treatment of prisoners during conflicts.