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White House declassifies memos on using torture in war on terror

WASHINGTON—Stung by the perception that the Bush administration may have endorsed torture as an interrogation technique, White House officials declassified documents Tuesday that show President Bush ordered in early 2002 that al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners be treated "humanely" even though he said they weren't protected by the Geneva Conventions.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department disavowed its controversial advice to Bush that suggested terrorists could be tortured if necessary. It said its lawyers were "scrubbing" all of its legal guidance on interrogation methods.

And the Department of Defense revealed that Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld initially approved interrogation techniques that included exploiting detainees' phobias, such as the fear of dogs, but replaced them with less aggressive ones in April 2003.

Tuesday's developments come as the administration is under increasing pressure to explain how abuses occurred in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and in Afghanistan, even as the president insists he never condoned torture or abuse.

But the unusual release of sensitive communications from the White House, the Defense Department and the Justice Department didn't quell growing partisan rancor on Capitol Hill.

Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats who last week tried to subpoena 23 documents from the White House and Justice Department were quick to point out that 21 were missing from the more than 250 pages released Tuesday.

The documents also didn't include anything about interrogation policies in Iraq or at Abu Ghraib, and outlined administration policy only with respect to detainees captured in Afghanistan and those held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.

The White House released "a small subset of the documents that offers glimpses into the genesis of this scandal," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. "All should have been provided earlier to Congress, and much more remains held back and hidden away from public view."

Still, administration officials insisted Tuesday that Bush's order, in early 2002, was the foundation for all of its interrogation policies in the war on terror. They stressed that his approach was restrained in the face of a threat that poses unusual challenges.

"This is a different kind of enemy that targets innocent civilians, hides in shadows and doesn't cherish life," said White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. "The president said he will protect U.S. citizens, but he also said he will do it consistent with our values."

Bush's memo embraced the Justice Department's opinion that al-Qaida and Taliban fighters aren't legally entitled to Geneva protections, but he ordered that they be treated in accordance with international law anyway.

Bush said Tuesday that "the values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being."

The memos released Tuesday outline a robust debate among lawyers and policymakers dating to the early days of the Afghanistan war over how to deal with hundreds of prisoners who weren't fighters for a recognized army or country.

The Justice Department explored many legal options, and the Defense Department has at times embraced rigorous interrogation techniques and other times backed away from them. The Justice Department, in particular, is distancing itself from an August 2002 memo that appeared to justify the use of torture in the war on terrorism and said it was launching a complete review of its legal guidance on interrogation techniques.

A senior Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, called the 50-page August memo "overbroad and irrelevant."

Signed by former Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee, the memo said the president's wartime power as commander in chief superseded international treaties and U.S. laws banning torture. Bybee is now a federal judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Justice Department official said the memo was "fascinating, I'm sure, to legal professors," but its broad academic arguments were subject to misinterpretation.

The memo, which first leaked in the Washington Post, has been the subject of widespread condemnation from critics who say it condoned the use of torture.

Lawyers in the department's Office of Legal Counsel had been asked to come up with guidelines that were more tailored to the questions of what was permissible when interrogating terrorists.

"Nobody ever asked us overrule the torture statute," the official said.

"We're scrubbing the whole thing."

Pentagon memos released Tuesday show that, in fall 2002, interrogators at Guantanamo Bay sought approval to use techniques that might have been prohibited by the Geneva conventions. In particular, they believed a detainee named Mohamed al Qatani had information about future attacks in the United States and had been trained by al-Qaida to resist traditional interrogation.

In December 2002, Rumsfeld approved a set of more rigorous techniques that included "using detainees' individual phobias (such as fear of dogs) to induce stress."

Techniques that Army officials proposed, but that Rumsfeld rejected, included the use of death threats to detainees or their families and the use of a wet towel or dripping water "to induce the misperception of suffocation."

Rumsfeld, however, rescinded the approved list the following month.

A senior defense official said on condition of anonymity that Rumsfeld acted after some interrogators complained about some of the permitted techniques. He approved a revised set of less aggressive procedures in April 2003.

While the revised list was being developed, Rumsfeld ordered in a Jan. 15 memo that "all interrogations ... should continue the humane treatment of detainees, regardless of the type of interrogation technique employed."

Rumsfeld approved the first set of techniques nearly a year after interrogators began questioning hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaida detainees captured in the October 2001 U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan.

Military officials at Guantanamo complained in October 2002 that interrogators were having difficulty obtaining information from some detainees believed to possess "information essential to national security."

"Because detainees have been able to communicate among themselves and debrief each other about their respective interrogations, their interrogation resistance strategies have become more sophisticated," said an Oct. 11, 2002, memo from Lt. Col. Diane E. Beaver, an Army lawyer at Guantanamo.

She wrote that the problem was "compounded" by the failure of Rumsfeld's office to provide "specific guidelines" for interrogating detainees and "many interrogators have felt in the past that they could not do anything that could be considered controversial."

The commander of the Guantanamo detention center forwarded a proposed set of more rigorous interrogation techniques to Army Gen. James Hill, the head of U.S. Southern Command, who sent it on to Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Elise Ackerman of the San Jose Mercury News and Sumana Chatterjee contributed to this report.)


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.