Rejection Of Prison Abuse Was Sought
Administration Was Reluctant, Groups Say
By Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 16, 2004; Page A28
After reports emerged in 2002 of abuses in military detention facilities, human rights groups repeatedly pressed the White House and the Pentagon to issue a presidential-level statement renouncing the cruel and unusual treatment of prisoners and detainees. Administration officials initially balked, issuing letters from low-level officials that drew the line at condemning torture.
Finally, after intense internal debate, the White House released on June 26, 2003, a statement by President Bush that not only condemned torture but also said the United States would "prevent other cruel and unusual punishment." The administration, however, never followed up with a plan to enforce the statement. The Pentagon, in fact, approved interrogation procedures that human rights groups say directly contradict the statement issued in Bush's name.
The handling of the 2003 torture statement spotlights what until recently had been the Bush administration's reluctance to forcefully reject the kind of abusive tactics that have been at the heart of the scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, according to human rights groups, congressional officials and former administration officials.
Despite pressure from human rights groups and European allies, the administration has been unwilling to tie the hands of the CIA and the military in interrogating detainees, a key tool in its effort to break al Qaeda and quell the insurgency in Iraq, these officials said. While willing to acknowledge the relevance of the Geneva Conventions to traditional wars between nations, the administration showed little interest in weakening tactics that officials saw as necessary for dealing with dangerous thugs.
Those familiar with the internal debate say it was unclear whether senior officials were driven by a disdain for international law or a fear that such a statement might someday come back to haunt the administration. For months, a former U.S. official said, the administration had "stiffed" human rights groups. "There was always great reluctance from the Pentagon and the White House counsel's offices, from people who were opposed to issuing a statement," the official said.
Human rights advocates say the failure to enforce a strong anti-torture position suggests that the White House and Pentagon officials were not serious about dealing with allegations of prisoner abuse in the first place.
"Personally, I feel burned," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. "I feel they were being disingenuous. They put out a statement that gave us everything we wanted. But it was not translated into changes in interrogation policy, and the United States is paying a tragic price for that."
Administration officials reject that conclusion, though officials at the Pentagon and the White House declined to discuss how or why the presidential statement was drafted. "Our policy is to comply with all U.S. laws, including the Constitution, federal statutes and U.S. treaty obligations with respect to all detainees," said Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
At issue are U.S. interrogation tactics, which gained attention after the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan led to the arrest of thousands of suspected al Qaeda and Taliban fighters -- and the first reports of abuses, according to human rights groups. The same tactics, from forced nudity and painful stress positions to prolonged sleeplessness, are today the focus of investigations into the treatment of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib.
With hundreds of foreign citizens held at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- and repeated assertions by administration officials that the rules of the Geneva Conventions may have outlived their usefulness -- the administration's position on torture had already received worldwide scrutiny. Human rights officials pressed the administration to issue a declaration renouncing torture, as well as "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment, in accordance with treaties the United States had signed earlier and the Constitution's Fifth, Eighth and 14th Amendments.
The groups wrote President Bush to appeal for "unequivocal statements" renouncing torture and promising the prosecution of any U.S. official found to use or condone torture. Top officials of the groups met with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz in January 2003 to ask that clear guidelines be issued to U.S. troops that torture would not be tolerated, according to Human Rights Watch.
For his meetings with Pentagon and National Security Council officials, Malinowski brought a two-inch mound of news clippings from around the world on alleged abuse at detention centers in Afghanistan and Guantanamo to illustrate that U.S. credibility as a champion of law and order was under threat. The reports included boasts by U.S. interrogators about tactics bordering on torture.
"We begged them to say that the military and intelligence officials [engaged in these practices] weren't speaking for the president or the administration, and that policy forbad torture and cruel and degrading treatment," Malinowski said.
During a February 2003 meeting, William J. Haynes II, the Pentagon's general counsel, scolded the human rights officials, saying the United States does not torture and accusing the groups of cheapening the notion of torture, recalled Holly J. Burkhalter, U.S. policy director of Physicians for Human Rights.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company