U.S. general defends his adherence to Geneva Conventions in Iraq

WASHINGTON—The U.S. general who commanded coalition forces in Iraq at the time of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal said Friday that he drew the line on what was allowed by the Geneva Conventions when he briefed military interrogators at the prison in August 2003.

Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez said that a news release this week by the American Civil Liberties Union, which said that the general told interrogators they could "go to the outer limits" in getting information from Iraqi prisoners, got it wrong.

In an exclusive interview with Knight Ridder Newspapers, Sanchez said that the guidance he gave to the interrogators "was that we should be conducting our interrogations to the limits of our authority—I never used the term `to the outer limits'—and making sure that we never crossed beyond what was authorized by the Geneva Convention and the Laws of War."

Sanchez said he gave the guidance to the interrogators and Army military intelligence officials during his first visit to Abu Ghraib, the prison near Baghdad, in mid-August 2003. At that time, the prison population had grown to a point where "I realized we had a detainee and an interrogation problem that had not been faced by our military in over 50 years," he said.

He said he grilled the prison personnel on what training they'd received, how they were supervising interrogations, who was approving interrogation plans and what safeguards were in place to prevent any violation of the Geneva Conventions, which govern the treatment of war prisoners.

"It was my duty to ensure that we were using everything that was allowed by the Geneva Convention to get the intelligence needed to save my soldiers' lives on that battlefield," Sanchez added. "Every document and discussion that was held in Iraq about interrogations highlighted the fact that we were bound by the Conventions."

Sanchez said the ACLU "is a bunch of sensationalist liars, I mean lawyers, that will distort any and all information that they get to draw attention to their positions."

So how did it all go terribly wrong when he'd given orders to work within the limits of the Geneva Conventions? Sanchez blamed the military police brigade assigned to guard the prison.

"Other than the MP escort that was with us as we walked through the prison, there were no MPs when I talked to the interrogators" and military intelligence personnel. "The problem is a catastrophic failure in leadership within the MP brigade, beginning with the brigadier general," he said.

That was Army Reserve Brig. Gen. Janice L. Karpinski, the commander at Abu Ghraib, who was officially reprimanded for her failure to command her troops properly.

Sanchez's description of his instructions, however, leaves many unanswered questions about how harsher interrogation techniques migrated to Abu Ghraib from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, when the abuse was first discovered and why it wasn't ended and the perpetrators punished immediately.

It also remains unclear whether any higher-ranking military officers or civilian officials at the U.S. Central Command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Department of the Army, the office of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld or the White House may have given interrogators greater leeway than Sanchez did.

Sanchez told Knight Ridder that no one on his small staff was experienced in detention and strategic and operation intelligence gathering. He said that only some had field experience in tactical interrogation but no formal training.

"When I met the interrogators it immediately became crystal clear to me that they had not been trained properly, they had no mechanism for providing oversight of the interrogations . . . and they were desperate for higher headquarters guidance," Sanchez added.

That was when Sanchez said he gave them his guidance on going to the limit but no further and began the process of publishing the September and October 2003 Interrogation Rules of Engagement memos.

Sanchez, who transferred to duty in Germany as a corps commander in July 2004 after 14 months in command in Iraq, has seen the fallout from the prisoner abuse scandal halt a rapid rise in his career.

Although he's been exonerated in official investigations of the prison scandal by the Army and the Department of Defense, his nomination for a fourth star and command of the U.S. Southern Command in Miami was quietly withdrawn when it became apparent that hearings on Capitol Hill on his promotion would dissolve into a firestorm over Pentagon and White House interrogation policies. Sanchez is now expected to retire at the end of this summer and move to San Antonio in his native Texas.

He would have been only the second Hispanic to reach four-star rank in the Army. The first was retired Gen. Richard Cavazos, a south Texas native like Sanchez.