By Joby Warrick and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 12, 2008
A bipartisan panel of senators has concluded that former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other top Bush administration officials bear direct responsibility for the harsh treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and that their decisions led to more serious abuses in Iraq and elsewhere.
In the most comprehensive critique by Congress of the military's interrogation practices, the Senate Armed Services Committee issued a report yesterday that accuses Rumsfeld and his deputies of being the authors and chief promoters of harsh interrogation policies that disgraced the nation and undermined U.S. security. The report, released by Sens. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), contends that Pentagon officials later tried to create a false impression that the policies were unrelated to acts of detainee abuse committed by members of the military.
"The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of 'a few bad apples' acting on their own," the report states. "The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees."
The report is the most direct refutation to date of the administration's rationale for using aggressive interrogation tactics -- that inflicting humiliation and pain on detainees was legal and effective, and helped protect the country. The 25-member panel, without one dissent among the 12 Republican members, declared the opposite to be true.
The administration's policies and the resulting controversies, the panel concluded, "damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority."
The panel drew from congressional testimony and official documents, many of which were previously released during a nearly two-year probe. While many of the underlying facts were known, the report represented the most significant attempt by Congress to assess one of the defining controversies of the Bush presidency.
"These policies are wrong and must never be repeated," McCain said in a statement.
Rumsfeld, who served as defense secretary from 2001 to 2006, rejected the report's conclusions and said it was the committee, particularly Levin, that had sullied the nation's image.
"It's regrettable that Senator Levin has decided to use the committee's time and taxpayer dollars to make unfounded allegations against those who have served our nation," said Keith Urbahn, an aide to Rumsfeld. He accused Levin of pursuing a politically motivated "false narrative" that is "unencumbered by the preponderance of the facts."
A Defense Department spokesman noted that the Pentagon cooperated extensively with the Senate investigation and has taken numerous steps in recent years to ensure the humane treatment of detainees. The steps included a revision of the Army's field manual that establishes the rules for interrogations.
"Any credible allegations of abuse by U.S. military personnel are taken seriously and looked into in painstaking detail," said the spokesman, Bryan Whitman. "If and when applicable, offenders have been punished."
The White House declined to comment.
The panel's investigation focused on the Defense Department's employment of controversial interrogation practices, including forced nudity, painful stress positions, sleep deprivation, extreme temperatures and the use of dogs. The practices, some of which had already been adopted by the CIA at its secret prisons, were adapted for interrogations at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and later migrated to U.S. detention camps in Afghanistan and Iraq, including the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.
The full report was unanimously approved by the committee late last month and sent to the Pentagon with no dissenting views, Levin said in an interview. Although much of the information has previously been made public, there are references to still-classified memos, including an Aug. 1, 2002, report to the CIA by then-Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee, who headed the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, evaluating the legality of specific interrogation techniques such as waterboarding.
Levin acknowledged that most of the senior officials named in the report have left government or soon will. "But I would hope that the new administration, as well as the Defense Department . . . would look for ways, where appropriate, to hold people accountable," he said.
Even if no legal action is taken, Levin said, "it's essential that we take on these kinds of challenges because what's at stake here is the reputation of our country."
White House officials have maintained that the measures were approved in response to demands from field officers who complained that traditional interrogation methods were not working on some of the more hardened captives.
But Senate investigators said the seeds of the policy originated in a Feb. 7, 2002, memo signed by President Bush declaring that the Geneva Conventions, which outline standards for the humane treatment of detainees, did not apply to captured al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. As early as that spring, top administration officials, including then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, participated in meetings where the use of coercive measures was discussed, the panel said, drawing on a statement by Rice released this year.
In July 2002, Rumsfeld's senior staff began compiling information about techniques used in military survival schools to simulate conditions that U.S. airmen might face if captured by an enemy that did not follow the Geneva Conventions. Those techniques -- borrowed from a training program known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, or SERE -- included waterboarding, or simulated drowning, and were loosely based on methods adopted by Chinese communists to coerce propaganda confessions from captured U.S. soldiers during the Korean War.
The SERE program became the template for interrogation methods that were ultimately approved by Rumsfeld himself. In the field, U.S. military interrogators used the techniques with little oversight and frequently abusive results, the panel found.
"It is particularly troubling that senior officials approved the use of interrogation techniques that were originally designed to simulate abusive tactics used by our enemies against our own soldiers," the report said, "and that were modeled, in part, on tactics used by the Communist Chinese to elicit false confessions from U.S. military personnel."
Human rights and constitutional law organizations have urged further action, ranging from an independent commission to prosecutions of those involved in authorizing the interrogations. Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has helped defend detainees at Guantanamo, said the committee report is valuable because "it's official, it's bipartisan."
"It's open and explicit, going right to Rumsfeld and having Rice involved," Ratner said. "It breaks new ground in saying that the SERE techniques basically don't work . . . that they're actually designed to elicit false confessions."