Rules of the System
Tuesday, May 11, 2004; Page A18
ON JUNE 27 President Bush pledged in a speech that the United States would not use torture on detainees in the war on terrorism. The same day, the Defense Department's general counsel released a letter specifying that "all interrogations, wherever they may occur," would not violate prohibitions in the U.S. Constitution against cruel and unusual punishment. It turns out those assurances were false. Two months earlier, The Post reported Sunday, the Pentagon had approved interrogation techniques for detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison that allowed the disruption of sleep patterns and exposure to heat, cold and "sensory assault." Officials told reporter Dana Priest that similar procedures had been approved for "high value" detainees in Iraq. Such abuse is impermissible under the Constitution; as recently as 2002 the Supreme Court ruled that similar treatment of an Alabama prisoner was an "obvious" violation of the Eighth Amendment. Such practices also violate the Geneva Conventions, which the Bush administration says it is following in Iraq and applying to other detainees elsewhere.
The crimes at the Abu Ghraib prison grew out of this improper system of interrogation. It is a regimen the administration has never fully disclosed, and about which it has misled Congress and the public through statements such as those of last June. Despite the incalculable damage caused by Abu Ghraib, the Bush administration persists in defending the system and in justifying its continued use, both at Guantanamo Bay and in Iraq. At congressional hearings last week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and senior military commanders repeatedly tried to distinguish what they characterized as isolated acts by a handful of individuals at Abu Ghraib from the general procedures under which physical and mental harassment is used to soften up prisoners and under which prison guards are ordered to "set the conditions" for intelligence interrogators. They pretended there was no connection between the two.
Yet a growing body of evidence shows that the connection is integral. The commander who oversaw the implementation of the interrogation procedures at Guantanamo Bay, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, visited Abu Ghraib in September and recommended that at least one part of what he calls the Guantanamo Bay "model" be applied there: the subordination of prison guards to the intelligence interrogators trying to extract information. There is considerable evidence that Abu Ghraib prison guards abused prisoners on the instruction of interrogators. The abuses they committed were, to a certain extent, an extreme and undisciplined version of practices that the Pentagon has officially condoned. Mr. Miller is now in charge of Abu Ghraib; he recently acknowledged that techniques such as hooding, sleep deprivation and other "very aggressive" techniques had been used there. He did not say the practices would be stopped -- only that they would need specific approval in the future.
Administration officials have justified the use of aggressive tactics in interrogations by saying that they are used on al Qaeda terrorists and others who can be legitimately deemed "unlawful combatants" under the Geneva Conventions and that they are needed to extract intelligence essential to preventing terrorist attacks. It may or may not be true that such techniques, when practiced under close supervision by highly trained interrogators, are effective. The administration has offered no evidence that they are, and many outside experts believe otherwise.
But the administration hasn't limited its system to Guantanamo Bay or to senior al Qaeda detainees. It has applied the practices loosely across a network of detention centers in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and it has trusted its implementation to civilian contractors and reservists. The result has been outrages that have done far more damage to the United States than any intelligence collection could justify.
Mr. Bush traveled across the Potomac yesterday to congratulate Mr. Rumsfeld for the "superb job" he is doing as defense secretary. The president again characterized the abuses as the aberrations of a "small number" of servicemen and women. These are not the right responses to one of this nation's worst disgraces. Instead, the administration should reform the system so that it meets the guarantees that Mr. Bush falsely offered last June.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Getting Out of a Quagmire (The Washington Post, May 11, 2004)
Can the Iraqis Do the Job? (The Washington Post, May 11, 2004)
The Accountability Act (The Washington Post, May 11, 2004)
Finding a Way in Iraq (The Washington Post, May 9, 2004)
An Inadequate Response (The Washington Post, May 8, 2004)
Mr. Rumsfeld's Responsibility (The Washington Post, May 6, 2004)