Defense Department and other government officials yesterday denied that high-ranking Pentagon officials approved a special classified interrogation unit in Iraq or authorized the use of physical coercion and sexual humiliation of prisoners, as asserted by the New Yorker magazine.
In the report, which was posted on the Internet over the weekend, author Seymour M. Hersh alleges that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other top Pentagon officials specifically called for tougher and possibly illegal tactics in Iraqi prisons to get detainees to talk about the insurgency. The report also describes a covert group of operatives who would arrest, detain and interrogate Iraqis out of the bounds of the normal prison system.
In a statement released yesterday, Pentagon officials harshly criticized the report, calling it "outlandish, conspiratorial, and filled with error and anonymous conjecture." The Pentagon would not, however, say flatly whether or not the program exists.
"It is our position, and has been from the very beginning, that we don't address these things because the one time you don't say something, that's the one time you're essentially confirming it," said Lawrence DiRita, a Defense Department spokesman.
Hersh quotes unnamed former intelligence officials describing an under-the-radar "special-access program" that called for harsher interrogation tactics. He alleges that the members of the 372nd Military Police Company now charged with prison abuses became scapegoats for the program.
"The cover story was that some kids got out of control," Hersh wrote, quoting an unnamed official.
DiRita said yesterday in a statement that the soldiers accused of abuse were not taking part in a coordinated intelligence gathering effort. Echoing what top military officials have been saying in the weeks since the scandal broke, DiRita said the abuse was not ordered by the Pentagon.
"The abuse evidenced in the videos and photos, and any similar abuse that may come to light in any of the ongoing half dozen investigations into this matter, has no basis in any sanctioned program, training manual, instruction, or order in the Department of Defense," DiRita said. "No responsible official of the Department of Defense approved any program that could conceivably have been intended to result in such abuses as witnessed in the recent photos and videos."
In interviews, soldiers who worked at Abu Ghraib prison and their attorneys have said the alleged abuses grew out of direction from military intelligence officials and CIA operatives who were working to interrogate prisoners. One of the MPs who has been charged said military intelligence officers, civilian contractors and CIA officials would bring prisoners -- already hooded and cuffed -- to a wing at Abu Ghraib, with instructions to the MPs "to make it hell so they would talk."
Officials also gathered intelligence at the U.S. military's high-value detention center in Baghdad, where top former officials in Saddam Hussein's government and those deemed to have potentially important information about weapons, the insurgency and other matters were questioned. Intelligence operations there took place in a series of trailers in a secure compound, and some of those prisoners were taken to Abu Ghraib after initial questioning, officers who worked there said.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told ABC's "This Week" that he has seen no evidence that low-level prison guards who abused prisoners were acting on orders from superiors, but internal investigations should answer that question.
"But, even so, young soldiers know that they have a responsibility to take care of people who are entrusted to them, such as prisoners," he said. "And there is no excuse for this kind of action."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," said it was not plausible that soldiers would abuse prisoners without being instructed to do so.
"There's really questions about this 'shift in responsibility,' where military intelligence people were given authority over the guards," McCain said. "There are so many questions that need to be answered."
Meanwhile, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a spokesman in Iraq for Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, said yesterday that Sanchez never received or approved an interrogation plan described in an article in The Washington Post. The article described a plan for interrogating a Syrian jihadist using a method called "fear up harsh," which required instilling fear and provoking disorientation. It said the plan was sent to Sanchez and originated with the senior intelligence officer at Abu Ghraib, Col. Thomas Pappas.
Kimmitt's brief statement did not explain his remark that Sanchez did not receive the Nov. 30 memo about the interrogation plan. According to government sources, it was addressed to him, and also transmitted to Col. Marc Warren, a lawyer advising Sanchez, and Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast, Sanchez's senior intelligence adviser.
Correspondent Sewell Chan in Baghdad and staff writers Christopher Lee, Dana Priest and R. Jeffrey Smith in Washington contributed to this report.