By Carrie Johnson and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Complaints by FBI agents about abusive interrogation tactics at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other U.S. military sites reached the National Security Council but prompted no effort to curb questioning that the agents considered ineffective and possibly illegal, according to an internal audit released yesterday.
Reports that Guantanamo detainees were being subjected to extreme temperatures, religious abuses and nude interrogation were conveyed at White House meetings of senior officials in 2003, yet these questionable tactics remained in use, a lengthy report by the Justice Department's inspector general concluded.
In one instance, colleagues of then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft reported that he personally aired concerns about Defense Department strategy toward a particular detainee with Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, while other Justice managers shared similar fears with the council's legal adviser in November 2003, the report said.
Ashcroft declined to be interviewed by investigators, so it remains uncertain how aggressively he pressed the issue, according to the report. Other senior Justice officials told investigators that no changes were made in interrogations at Guantanamo Bay even after these and other complaints filtered up to the National Security Council.
Nearly half of the 450 FBI agents who worked at Guantanamo reported that they had observed or heard about military interrogators using a variety of harsh interrogation techniques on detainees, with the most common being sleep deprivation and short-shackling -- or locking a detainee's hands and feet together to prevent comfortable sitting or standing -- for long periods of time.
Military officials at Guantanamo Bay used some aggressive techniques before they were approved, possibly in violation of Defense Department policy and U.S. law, the report said. They also continued to use "stress positions" and other such techniques well after they were prohibited by Defense Department policy in January 2003, the report said.
The 370-page report draws heavily on e-mail messages and contemporaneous memos to provide the clearest and most definitive account to date of the key tactics used by the government against suspected terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It describes, for example, a "frequent flyer program" meant to lessen resistance by extensively disrupting sleep, use of strobe lights in conjunction with loud rock music, twisting of thumbs backward, and exposure of detainees to extreme temperatures, threatening dogs, pornography and sexual taunting.
Detainees in Iraq had water poured down their throats while they were cuffed and kneeling, the FBI agents told investigators.
"Some have suggested that the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody was simply the result of a few bad apples acting on their own," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said in a statement. "The report released today by the Department of Justice Inspector General is proof that that is simply not true. The IG found that scores of FBI agents observed the use of harsh interrogation techniques in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay."
The report also highlights intensifying friction between FBI agents and their military counterparts over these strategies, some of which were eventually repudiated by the Bush administration.
After hundreds of interviews and reviews of more than 500,000 documents, investigators working for Inspector General Glenn A. Fine also said they found an interrogation process awash with confusion and conflicting sets of rules. Fine generally praised the FBI's actions but faulted the bureau for waiting until abuses at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison became public in early 2004 to develop a policy obliging its agents to report similar abuses by other government employees.
Even then, the bureau's guidelines remained a source of uncertainty for many agents in the field, the report said.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III decreed in 2002 that the bureau would not engage in such practices, favoring techniques that built rapport and gleaned more useful information about potential threats, the inspector general report said. But the Defense Department adopted a different view, which prevailed. Eventually FBI agents started conducting interviews on their own rather than participating in sessions with CIA and military counterparts.
One unnamed FBI agent tried to build rapport with injured al-Qaeda commander Abu Zubaida after his capture, "to the point of cleaning him up after bowel movements," the report said. The agent later referred to the CIA's much harsher treatment of Abu Zubaida, also known as Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, as "borderline torture."
Unnamed FBI and Justice officials, however, floated a proposal in late 2002 that recommended that another detainee, alleged al-Qaeda member Mohammed al-Qahtani, be interrogated using similar protocols. Mueller and the chief of the Justice Department's criminal division told investigators they did not see the draft or take part in a specific discussion of the plan, which was never implemented.
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said yesterday that "there is nothing new here. . . . The department has been operating for a number of years now with new and improved guidance with respect to detention operations and interrogation procedures."
Sean McCormack, a spokesman for Secretary of State Rice, said the assertions in the report were "pretty vague."
The report's release rekindled interest among Democrats on Capitol Hill for obtaining access to documents and testimony underlying the problematic interrogation practices. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) called the ineffective action by senior government officials in the face of complaints "very disturbing" and said he would ask Ashcroft and others to testify in upcoming hearings.
The CIA, for its part, objected to the report's characterization of the agency's methods. "Interrogation methods that the CIA has used in its terrorist detention program were examined and found lawful, by the Department of Justice itself," agency spokesman Mark Mansfield said.
The report complains that investigators were improperly blocked by the CIA from questioning Abu Zubaida about his treatment, partly because its officials worried that he might lie. But "the CIA was not convinced when the request was made that [investigators] had an immediate need" to interview the alleged terrorist, Mansfield said.
Staff researcher Julie Tate and staff writers Dan Eggen and Joby Warrick contributed to this report.