The latest official reports on the prisoner abuse scandal contain a classic Washington contradiction. Their headlines proclaim that no official policy mandated or allowed the torture of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that no officials above the rank of colonel deserve prosecution or formal punishment. But buried in their hundreds of pages of detail, for anyone who cares to read them, is a clear and meticulous account of how decisions made by President Bush, his top political aides and senior military commanders led directly to those searing images of naked prisoners being menaced with guard dogs.
An abbreviated tour of that buried narrative could begin on Page 33 of the report by the panel led by James R. Schlesinger. There it details how President Bush, on the advice of his White House counsel and attorney general, decided in February 2002 that the Geneva Conventions would not apply to captured members of al Qaeda and Afghanistan's Taliban. This, despite the objections of the State Department and "many service lawyers," who worried that the decision "would undermine the United States military culture, which is based on a strict adherence to the law of war."
In October 2002, Schlesinger recounts, authorities at the Guantanamo Bay prison "requested approval of strengthened counter-interrogation techniques," and in December, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld authorized a number of harsh methods. He was challenged by the military lawyers whom he had failed to consult, and the policy was revised in April 2003.
Already, however, the techniques first authorized by Rumsfeld were circulating around the world. According to the report of Army Maj. Gen. George R. Fay, "the techniques employed in [Guantanamo] included the use of stress positions, isolation for up to thirty days, removal of clothing and the use of detainees' phobias (such as the use of dogs)," all of which had been approved by Rumsfeld. "From December 2002, interrogators in Afghanistan were removing clothing, isolating people for long periods of time, using stress positions, exploiting fear of dogs and implementing sleep and light deprivation."
How did these abusive practices spread to Iraq, where they were clearly illegal under the Geneva Conventions? "Interrogators in Iraq," Fay writes, "already familiar with the practice of some of these new ideas, implemented them even prior to any policy guidance" from Iraq commanders. But there was "policy guidance," too. In August 2003, Schlesinger says, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, then the commander at Guantanamo Bay, arrived in Iraq; "he brought the Secretary of Defense's April 16, 2003, policy guidelines for Guantanamo with him and gave this policy to" Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the top commander in Iraq.
On Sept. 14, as Schlesinger recounts it, "Sanchez signed a memorandum authorizing a dozen interrogation techniques beyond" the standard Army practice under the Geneva Conventions, including "five beyond those approved for Guantanamo." He did so, Schlesinger says, "using reasoning from the President's Memorandum of February 7, 2002," which he believed justified "additional, tougher measures." The methods he approved included several of those on which Rumsfeld had signed off 10 months earlier and which subsequently had appeared in Afghanistan: stress positions, fear of dogs, and sleep and light deprivation.
Sanchez's policy was revised a month later, but interrogators at Abu Ghraib, Fay reports, had begun using it immediately. Consequently, some guards and interrogators who used dogs to frighten prisoners, deprived them of clothing or subjected them to extreme isolation had every reason to believe their acts were authorized. As Lt. Gen. Anthony R. Jones delicately put it in his report, "Some of these incidents involved conduct which, in retrospect, violated international law. However, at the time some of the soldiers or contractors committed the acts, they may have honestly believed the techniques were condoned."
The causal chain is all there: from Bush's February 2002 decision to Rumsfeld's December 2002 authorization of nudity, stress positions and dogs; to the adoption of those methods in Afghanistan and their sanction in Iraq by a commander looking back to Bush's decision; and finally, to their use on detainees by soldiers who reasonably believed they were executing official policy.
So why do the reports' authors deny the role of policy, or its makers? Partly because of the Army's inbred inability to indict its own; partly because of the desire of Rumsfeld's old colleagues, such as Schlesinger, to protect him. But there's another motive, too: a lingering will to defend and preserve the groundbreaking decisions -- those that set aside the Geneva Conventions and allowed harsh interrogation techniques. Schlesinger argues they are needed for the war on terrorism; he and senior Army commanders say they are worried about a "chilling effect" on interrogations and a slackening in intelligence collection.
The buried message of their reports, though, is that the new system is unworkable. Once the rules are bent for one class of prisoner, or one detention facility, or one agency, exceptional practices cannot be easily returned to their bottle -- and the chaos of Abu Ghraib is a predictable result. Just as the Army professionals foresaw, Bush's 2002 decision undermined "U.S. military culture" and its "strict adherence to the law of war." That is the headline the investigators ducked.