U.S. Struggled Over How Far to Push Tactics
Thursday, June 24, 2004
Newly released documents and interviews portray the civilian leadership at the Pentagon as urgently concerned that al Qaeda and Taliban detainees might have information that could prevent terrorist attacks and as searching intently for effective and "exceptional" interrogation techniques that would pass legal muster.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his senior aides emerge as central players in the government's struggle over nearly three years to decide how far it could go to extract information from those captured in Afghanistan and Iraq and others imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The result, seen in the documents and in the officials' statements, is a trail of fitful ad hoc policymaking in which interrogation tactics were authorized for a time, then rescinded or modified after the Pentagon's lawyers or others raised legal, ethical or practical objections. Some practices authorized in the field were pulled back at the Pentagon level, and decisions on how to treat detainees were sometimes made case by case.
Rumsfeld, for example, approved in December 2002 a range of severe methods including the stripping of prisoners at Guantanamo, and using dogs to frighten them. He later rescinded those tactics and signed off on a shorter list of "exceptional techniques" suggested by a Pentagon working group in 2003, even though the panel pointed out that, historically, the U.S. military had rejected the use of force in interrogations. "Army interrogation experts view the use of force as an inferior technique that yields information of questionable quality," and distorts the behavior of those being questioned, the group report noted.
Although the White House this week repudiated a Justice Department opinion that torture might be legally defensible, Pentagon general counsel William J. Haynes II in 2003 forced the Pentagon working group to use it as its legal guidepost. He did so over objections from the top lawyers of every military service, who found the legal judgments to be extreme and wrong-headed, according to several military lawyers and memos outlining the debate that were summarized for The Washington Post.
In Iraq, where White House and Pentagon lawyers say all prisoners are protected by the Geneva Conventions, Rumsfeld agreed to hide an Iraqi captive from the International Committee of the Red Cross because, he said, CIA Director George J. Tenet asked him to. Legal experts call it a clear violation of the conventions. "A request was made to do that, and we did," Rumsfeld said last week, even as his deputy general counsel, Daniel J. Dell'Orto, acknowledged from the same podium that "we should have registered him much sooner than we did."
Rumsfeld played a direct role in setting policies for detainee treatment in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, according to a list of Defense Department memos related to Guantanamo Bay obtained by The Post. He signed seven orders from January 2002 to January 2003 establishing the interrogation center, placing the Army in charge, allowing access by the Red Cross and foreign intelligence officials, and even deciding how detainee mail would be handled.
Unlike the CIA, which vetted and won approval from the Justice Department and National Security Council for its aggressive interrogation tactics after Sept. 11, 2001, the Pentagon has worked largely on its own in promulgating new questioning methods.
The White House and Justice Department were "completely uninvolved with" reviewing the interrogation rules in Afghanistan and Iraq, said a senior administration official involved in the process.
The Pentagon's chief spokesman, Lawrence T. DiRita, portrayed Rumsfeld as largely responding to requests from commanders and interrogators in the field rather than pushing a certain interrogation policy. "These things tended to come up through legal channels," he said in an interview.
Part of the Pentagon leadership's drive for more leeway in interrogations can be traced to a historic change during Rumsfeld's tenure: the military's dramatically enhanced role in collecting and analyzing intelligence that can be used to thwart terrorist networks worldwide. To accomplish this, Rumsfeld has begun an unprecedented drive to build a Pentagon-based human intelligence apparatus that could one day rival the CIA's clandestine case officer program.
This intelligence-gathering mission trumps most other priorities, including the desire to bring alleged wrongdoers to trial for their role in terrorist plots.