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Rumsfeld allowed harsh interrogations in Iraq, memo says

WASHINGTON—Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld authorized harsh interrogation methods on Iraqi prisoners that went "beyond the bounds of standard FBI practice," the FBI's top official in Iraq said in a memo released Monday.

The May 22 memo, written more than a month after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal erupted in Iraq, shows the FBI struggling to define which interrogation techniques were permissible and which were abusive.

The two-page e-mail, which was sent to the FBI's top counterterrorism officials, was one of 21 documents released after a federal judge ordered the disclosure in a Freedom of Information lawsuit brought by the ACLU and four other groups.

Other memos detail concerns about what one FBI agent called "torture techniques" used in Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. Navy base in Cuba where about 550 terror suspects are held.

There was no immediate Defense Department reaction to the memos, which were released as Rumsfeld is under fire for his response to a soldier's question about armored vehicles in Iraq and for using a machine to sign condolence letters to the families of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It couldn't be determined Monday whether the harsh methods of questioning those held in Iraq are currently permissible or whether those practices have been curtailed.

The memo about interrogations in Iraq shows the FBI trying to distance itself from such techniques as sleep deprivation, use of military dogs, "environmental manipulation" such as the use of loud music and "sensory deprivation through the use of hoods, etc."

"We have also instructed our personnel not to participate in interrogations by military personnel which might include techniques authorized by executive order but beyond the bounds of FBI practices," the top FBI official in Iraq reported to bureau officials in Washington. The FBI official wasn't named in the memo.

The memo includes several references to an "executive order" signed by President Bush, but two government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said that was an error and that the reference was to Defense Department directives.

White House officials also said the memo's reference to an executive order from the president was a mistake.

"No such executive order exists or has ever existed," said Frederick Jones, a spokesman for the National Security Council.

The Abu Ghraib scandal, exposed in graphic photos, showed the abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners, including the use of hooding and intimidation by dogs.

Defense Department officials launched prosecutions in the Abu Ghraib case, began several investigations and pledged to use harsh measures only in rare cases under close supervision.

The FBI launched its own investigations of many abuse complaints in Iraq. A June 25 memo from an FBI agent to Director Robert Mueller, which was also released Monday, said individuals "were engaged in a cover-up of abuses." The individuals' names were blacked out.

The agent included a report from an unnamed witness of "numerous physical abuse incidents of Iraqi civilians" including "strangulation, beatings, placement of lit cigarettes into the detainees' ear openings and unauthorized interrogations."

Since the scandal broke in April, White House and Justice Department officials said they would produce new legal guidelines for interrogation techniques from Afghanistan to Iraq to Guantanamo.

But that hasn't happened, and Justice Department officials say the guidelines have been delayed.

Scott Silliman, a former top Air Force lawyer, said many military officers have complained that "higher ups" wanted interrogations to yield results quickly as the insurgency grew in Iraq, but the rules weren't clear.

Whether the techniques outlined in the memo constitute "inhumane treatment" under the Geneva Conventions depends on the duration, said Silliman, who now heads the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University.

"Forcing someone to kneel three hours is one thing; forcing someone to kneel for three days or go without sleep four or five days crosses the line," he said.

The absence of clear guidelines also has caused confusion, the May FBI memo said, "between conduct that is clearly abusive and conduct that, while seemingly harsh, is permissible."

The harsh techniques outlined in the FBI memo, including use of dogs and sensory deprivation, were authorized by Rumsfeld for Guantanamo in late 2002 in an effort to get more information from detainees.

But the techniques were rescinded in early 2003, in part because of opposition from military lawyers who said they went too far.

In a series of memos dating back to 2002, top administration officials argued that Bush could ignore some anti-torture laws in the interrogation of terror suspects.

After those memos were made public, Bush disavowed any use of torture and his White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, said the memos reflected internal debates and weren't U.S. policy.

After U.S. forces invaded Iraq in March 2003, U.S officials said all prisoners would be treated as prisoners of war with full protections under the Geneva Conventions. In recent months, suspected insurgents have been described as "security detainees" and in most cases turned over to Iraqi forces.

The administration has maintained that detainees held in Afghanistan and Guantanamo are enemy combatants affiliated with the Taliban and al-Qaida and don't deserve Geneva protections. But officials say the detainees should be treated humanely.


(Knight Ridder correspondent Ron Hutcheson contributed to this report.)


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