President George W. Bush�s comment to ABC News -- that he
approved discussions that his top aides held about harsh interrogation techniques
-- adds credence to claims from senior FBI agents in Iraq in 2004 that Bush had
signed an executive order approving the use of military dogs, sleep deprivation
and other tactics to intimidate Iraqi detainees.
When the American Civil Liberties Union released the FBI
e-mail in December 2004 -- after obtaining it through a Freedom of Information
Act lawsuit -- the White House emphatically denied that any such presidential
executive order existed, calling the unnamed FBI official who wrote the e-mail
President Bush and his representatives also have denied
repeatedly that the administration condones �torture,� although senior
administration officials have acknowledged subjecting �high-value� terror
suspects to aggressive interrogation techniques, including the �waterboarding�
-- or simulated drowning -- of three al-Qaeda detainees.
But the emerging public evidence suggests that Bush�s
denials about �torture� amount to a semantic argument, with the administration
applying a narrow definition that contradicts widely accepted standards
contained in international law, including Geneva and other human rights
e-mail -- dated May 22, 2004 -- followed disclosures about abuse of Iraqi
detainees at Abu Ghraib prison and sought guidance on whether FBI agents in
Iraq were obligated to report the U.S. military�s harsh interrogation of
inmates when that treatment violated FBI standards but fit within the
guidelines of a presidential executive order.
According to the e-mail, Bush�s executive order authorized
interrogators to use military dogs, �stress positions,� sleep �management,�
loud music and �sensory deprivation through the use of hoods, etc.� to extract
information from detainees in Iraq.
The FBI e-mail was put into a new light by news reports last
week that senior White House officials -- including Vice President Dick Cheney
and then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice -- did meet secretly to
discuss specific interrogation methods that could be used against detainees.
�The most senior Bush administration officials repeatedly
discussed and approved specific details of exactly how high-value al-Qaeda
suspects would be interrogated by the CIA,� ABC
News reported, citing unnamed sources.
�The high-level discussions about these �enhanced
interrogation techniques� were so detailed, these sources said, some of the
interrogation sessions were almost choreographed -- down to the number of times
CIA agents could use a specific tactic.
�These top advisers signed off on how the CIA would
interrogate top al-Qaeda suspects -- whether they would be slapped, pushed,
deprived of sleep or subjected to simulated drowning, called waterboarding,
sources told ABC News.�
Last Friday, President Bush confirmed the report, stating
matter-of-factly: �I'm aware our national security team met on this issue. And
The May 2004 FBI e-mail stated that the FBI interrogation
team in Iraq understood that despite revisions in the executive order that
occurred after the furor over the Abu Ghraib abuses, the presidential
sanctioning of harsh interrogation tactics had not been rescinded.
"I have been told that all interrogation techniques
previously authorized by the executive order are still on the table but that
certain techniques can only be used if very high-level authority is granted,�
the author of the FBI e-mail said.
�We have also instructed our personnel not to participate in
interrogations by military personnel which might include techniques authorized
by executive order but [are] beyond the bounds of FBI practices.''
One month after the e-mail was sent to FBI counterterrorism
officials in Washington, then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales held a news
conference in an attempt to contain the fallout from the Abu Ghraib scandal.
Gonzales told reporters that the abuses, which included
sexual humiliation of Iraqi men, were isolated to some rogue U.S. soldiers who
acted on their own and not as result of orders being handed down from
high-level officials inside the Bush administration.
�The president has not directed the use of specific
interrogation techniques,� Gonzales said on June 22, 2004. �There has been no
presidential determination necessity or self-defense that would allow conduct
that constitutes torture.
�There has been no presidential determination that
circumstances warrant the use of torture to protect the mass security of the
Prior to the news conference, the White House selectively
declassified and released documents to reporters, including one dated Feb. 7,
2002, and signed by President Bush, that cited the Geneva Convention�s rules
about humane treatment of prisoners during conflicts.
Describing the contents of the Feb. 7, 2002, memo, Gonzales
said, �This is the only formal, written directive from the president regarding
treatment of detainees. The president determined that Geneva does not apply
with respect to our conflict with al-Qaeda. Geneva applies with respect to our
conflict with the Taliban. Neither the Taliban or [sic] al Qaeda are entitled
to POW protections.�
Gonzales added: �But the president also determined -- and this
is quoting from the actual document, paragraph 3; this is very important -- he
said, �Of course, our values as a nation, values that we share with many
nations in the world, call for us to treat detainees humanely, including those
who are not legally entitled to such treatment. Our nation has been, and will
continue to be, a strong supporter of Geneva and its principles. As a matter of
policy, the Armed Forces are to treat detainees humanely, and to the extent
appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with
the principles of Geneva.��
But the FBI e-mail�s reference to an executive order
describing specific harsh interrogation techniques, allegedly approved by
President Bush, appeared to contradict Gonzales�s assertions.
The issue surrounding U.S. interrogation methods and whether
they amount to torture resurfaced two weeks ago when the Defense Department
released an 81-page document in response to the ACLU�s ongoing FOIA lawsuit.
John Yoo, then a deputy in the Justice Department�s Office
of Legal Counsel, drafted the document, dated March 14, 2003. It essentially
provided military interrogators with legal cover if they resorted to brutal and
violent methods to extract information from prisoners.
"If a government defendant were to harm an enemy
combatant during an interrogation in a manner that might arguably violate a
criminal prohibition, he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks
on the United States by the al-Qaeda terrorist network," Yoo wrote.
"In that case, we believe that he could argue that the
Executive Branch's constitutional authority to protect the nation from attack
justified his actions."
The legal opinion for military interrogators was virtually
identical to an earlier memo that Yoo had written in August 2002 for CIA
interrogators. Widely called the �Torture Memo,� it provided CIA interrogators
with the legal authority to use long outlawed tactics, such as waterboarding,
when interrogating so-called high-level terrorist suspects.
In declaring that the United States does not engage in
torture, Bush administration officials appear to be relying on a narrower U.S.
definition of torture than that is accepted under international law, such as
the 1984 Convention Against Torture that was signed by the Reagan
administration in 1988 and ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1994.
�The threshold for torture is lower under international law:
acts that do not amount to torture under U.S. law may do so under international
law,� wrote Philippe Sands, law professor at University College London, in a
column published in the Dec. 9, 2005, edition of The Financial Times.
�Waterboarding -- strapping a detainee to a board and
dunking him under water so he believes that he might drown -- plainly
constitutes torture under international law, even if it may not do so under
U.S. law. . . .
�When the U.S. joined the 1984 convention it entered an
�understanding� on the definition of torture, to the effect that the
international definition was to be read as being consistent with the U.S.
definition The administration relies on the �understanding.�
�So, when Ms. Rice says the U.S. does not do torture or
render people to countries that practice torture, she does not rely on the
international definition. That is wrong: the convention does not allow each
country to adopt its own definition, otherwise the convention's obligations
would become meaningless. That is why other governments believe the U.S.
�understanding� cannot affect U.S. obligations under the convention.�
At the June 22, 2004, news conference, Gonzales said the
White House defined torture as a �a specific intent to inflict severe physical
or mental harm or suffering. That's the definition that Congress has given us
and that's the definition that we use.�
However, on March 8, 2008, President Bush vetoed
congressional legislation that called for a specific ban on waterboarding and
other abusive interrogation techniques, including stripping prisoners naked,
subjecting them to extreme cold and staging mock executions.
"This is no time for Congress to abandon practices that
have a proven track record of keeping America safe," the president
said in a radio address explaining his veto.
"We created alternative procedures to question the most
dangerous al-Qaeda operatives, particularly those who might have knowledge of
attacks planned on our homeland." Bush said. "If we were to shut down
this program and restrict the CIA to methods in the [Army] field manual, we
could lose vital information from senior al-Qaeda terrorists, and that could
cost American lives."
reporter Jason Leopold is the author of News Junkie, a memoir Visit www.newsjunkiebook.com
for a preview.