After reports emerged in 2002 of abuses in military detention facilities, human rights groups repeatedly pressed the White House and the Pentagon to issue a presidential-level statement renouncing the cruel and unusual treatment of prisoners and detainees. Administration officials initially balked, issuing letters from low-level officials that drew the line at condemning torture.
Finally, after intense internal debate, the White House released on June 26, 2003, a statement by President Bush that not only condemned torture but also said the United States would "prevent other cruel and unusual punishment." The administration, however, never followed up with a plan to enforce the statement. The Pentagon, in fact, approved interrogation procedures that human rights groups say directly contradict the statement issued in Bush's name.
The handling of the 2003 torture statement spotlights what until recently had been the Bush administration's reluctance to forcefully reject the kind of abusive tactics that have been at the heart of the scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, according to human rights groups, congressional officials and former administration officials.
Despite pressure from human rights groups and European allies, the administration has been unwilling to tie the hands of the CIA and the military in interrogating detainees, a key tool in its effort to break al Qaeda and quell the insurgency in Iraq, these officials said. While willing to acknowledge the relevance of the Geneva Conventions to traditional wars between nations, the administration showed little interest in weakening tactics that officials saw as necessary for dealing with dangerous thugs.
Those familiar with the internal debate say it was unclear whether senior officials were driven by a disdain for international law or a fear that such a statement might someday come back to haunt the administration. For months, a former U.S. official said, the administration had "stiffed" human rights groups. "There was always great reluctance from the Pentagon and the White House counsel's offices, from people who were opposed to issuing a statement," the official said.
Human rights advocates say the failure to enforce a strong anti-torture position suggests that the White House and Pentagon officials were not serious about dealing with allegations of prisoner abuse in the first place.
"Personally, I feel burned," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. "I feel they were being disingenuous. They put out a statement that gave us everything we wanted. But it was not translated into changes in interrogation policy, and the United States is paying a tragic price for that."
Administration officials reject that conclusion, though officials at the Pentagon and the White House declined to discuss how or why the presidential statement was drafted. "Our policy is to comply with all U.S. laws, including the Constitution, federal statutes and U.S. treaty obligations with respect to all detainees," said Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
At issue are U.S. interrogation tactics, which gained attention after the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan led to the arrest of thousands of suspected al Qaeda and Taliban fighters -- and the first reports of abuses, according to human rights groups. The same tactics, from forced nudity and painful stress positions to prolonged sleeplessness, are today the focus of investigations into the treatment of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib.
With hundreds of foreign citizens held at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- and repeated assertions by administration officials that the rules of the Geneva Conventions may have outlived their usefulness -- the administration's position on torture had already received worldwide scrutiny. Human rights officials pressed the administration to issue a declaration renouncing torture, as well as "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment, in accordance with treaties the United States had signed earlier and the Constitution's Fifth, Eighth and 14th Amendments.
The groups wrote President Bush to appeal for "unequivocal statements" renouncing torture and promising the prosecution of any U.S. official found to use or condone torture. Top officials of the groups met with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz in January 2003 to ask that clear guidelines be issued to U.S. troops that torture would not be tolerated, according to Human Rights Watch.
For his meetings with Pentagon and National Security Council officials, Malinowski brought a two-inch mound of news clippings from around the world on alleged abuse at detention centers in Afghanistan and Guantanamo to illustrate that U.S. credibility as a champion of law and order was under threat. The reports included boasts by U.S. interrogators about tactics bordering on torture.
"We begged them to say that the military and intelligence officials [engaged in these practices] weren't speaking for the president or the administration, and that policy forbad torture and cruel and degrading treatment," Malinowski said.
During a February 2003 meeting, William J. Haynes II, the Pentagon's general counsel, scolded the human rights officials, saying the United States does not torture and accusing the groups of cheapening the notion of torture, recalled Holly J. Burkhalter, U.S. policy director of Physicians for Human Rights.
In April 2003, Haynes, who is currently up for a federal judgeship, sent a letter to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) saying that U.S. policy "condemns and prohibits torture." But the letter sidestepped the issue of illegal, inhuman and degrading treatment.
The same month, the Pentagon quietly approved about 20 interrogation techniques for use at Guantanamo Bay that included what human rights groups charge are outlawed stress-and-duress tactics.
Unaware of that move, human rights groups persisted in their campaign to persuade the administration to take the extra step to formally reiterate longstanding U.S. commitments forswearing the same tactics. On June 2, Leahy wrote national security adviser Condoleezza Rice expressing concern that detainees in U.S. custody were being subjected to cruel and degrading treatment, including beatings and food deprivation. He, too, appealed for a public renunciation of such techniques.
A group of senior human rights officials then met with Rice and other White House officials on June 11 to emphasize their concerns. Rice reiterated that the United States does not condone torture, according to Alexandra Arriago, director of government relations at Amnesty International. But the human rights groups argued that a reference to cruel and unusual punishment was also important.
On June 25, Haynes responded to Leahy's letter to Rice. For the first time, he stated that U.S. policy is to "treat all detainees and conduct all interrogations, wherever they may occur," in a manner consistent with the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment. He specifically mentioned the Eighth Amendment -- which the Senate referenced when it ratified the treaty and which the groups noted had been cited by the Bush administration in a 2002 Supreme Court case in which the handcuffing of an Alabama prison inmate to a "hitching post" for seven hours in the sun had been deemed unconstitutional.
The next day, the U.N. International Day in support of torture victims, the White House issued the Bush statement.
John Yoo, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a Justice Department official in the first two years of the Bush administration, said Haynes's letter is not remarkable. "All the letter is doing is simply restating the conditions on the treaty placed by the Senate," he said. "If it's the law, it's the law."
At the time, the statement was heralded by the human rights community. But they then found they could pry little information out of the administration about how its statements were being implemented, even after they filed a Freedom of Information Act request.