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Harsh Tactics Readied Before Their Approval

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By Joby Warrick and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Intelligence and military officials under the Bush administration began preparing to conduct harsh interrogations long before they were granted legal approval to use such methods -- and weeks before the CIA captured its first high-ranking terrorism suspect, Senate investigators have concluded.

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Previously secret memos and interviews show CIA and Pentagon officials exploring ways to break Taliban and al-Qaeda detainees in early 2002, up to eight months before Justice Department lawyers approved the use of waterboarding and nine other harsh methods, investigators found.

The findings are contained in a Senate Armed Services Committee report scheduled for release today that also documents multiple warnings -- from legal and trained interrogation experts -- that the techniques could backfire and might violate U.S. and international law.

One Army lieutenant colonel who reviewed the program warned in 2002 that coercion "usually decreases the reliability of the information because the person will say whatever he believes will stop the pain," according to the Senate report. A second official, briefed on plans to use aggressive techniques on detainees, was quoted the same year as asking: "Wouldn't that be illegal?"

Once they were accepted, the methods became the basis for harsh interrogations not only in CIA secret prisons, but also in Defense Department internment camps at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Afghanistan and Iraq, the report said.

Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the committee, said the new findings show a direct link between the early policy decisions and the highly publicized abuses of detainees at prisons such as Abu Ghraib in Iraq.

"Senior officials sought out information on, were aware of training in, and authorized the use of abusive interrogation techniques," Levin said. "Those senior officials bear significant responsibility for creating the legal and operational framework for the abuses."

The new findings are expected to add further pressure on the White House to authorize an independent investigation of the Bush-era interrogation policies. President Obama for the first time yesterday refused to rule out the possibility of a probe to determine whether government lawyers acted illegally in approving interrogation practices. Obama said Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. should determine whether they broke the law.

The report, which runs 261 pages and contains nearly 1,800 footnotes, sheds new light on the adaptation of techniques from a U.S. military program known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE), used to train American service personnel to resist interrogations if captured by an enemy that does not honor the Geneva Conventions' ban on torture.

The military's Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) has been reported to have reverse-engineered these methods to break al-Qaeda prisoners. The techniques, including waterboarding, or simulated drowning, were drawn from the methods used by Chinese Communists to coerce confessions from U.S. soldiers during the Korean War -- a lineage that one instructor appeared to readily acknowledge.

"We can provide the ability to exploit personnel based on how our enemies have done this type of thing over the last five decades," Joseph Witsch wrote in a July 2002 memo.

The report shows Pentagon officials reaching out to the military agency for advice on interrogations as early as December 2001 and finding some specialists eager to help. By late 2001, counterterrorism officials were becoming frustrated by the paucity of useful leads coming from interrogations -- a meager showing that was linked, according to one Army major, to interrogators' insistence on "establishing a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq," the report said.


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