WASHINGTON — After American Taliban recruit John Walker Lindh was captured in Afghanistan, the office of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld instructed military intelligence officers to "take the gloves off" in interrogating him.
The instructions from Rumsfeld's legal counsel in late 2001, contained in previously undisclosed government documents, are the earliest known evidence that the Bush administration was willing to test the limits of how far it could go legally to extract information from suspected terrorists.
The Pentagon and Congress are now investigating the mistreatment of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in late 2003 and trying to determine whether higher-ups in the military chain of command had created a climate that fostered prisoner abuse.
What happened to Lindh, who was stripped and humiliated by his captors, foreshadowed the type of abuse documented in photographs of American soldiers tormenting Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
At the time, just weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. was desperate to find terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. After Lindh asked for a lawyer rather than talk to interrogators, he was not granted one nor was he advised of his Miranda rights against self-incrimination. Instead, the Pentagon ordered intelligence officers to get tough with him.
The documents, read to The Times by two sources critical of how the government handled the Lindh case, show that after an Army intelligence officer began to question Lindh, a Navy admiral told the intelligence officer that "the secretary of Defense's counsel has authorized him to 'take the gloves off' and ask whatever he wanted."
Lindh was being questioned while he was propped up naked and tied to a stretcher in interrogation sessions that went on for days, according to court papers.
In the early stages, his responses were cabled to Washington hourly, the new documents show.
A Defense Department spokesperson said Tuesday evening that the Pentagon "refused to speculate on the exact intent of the statement" from Rumsfeld's office to the military authorities interrogating Lindh.
"Department officials stress that all interrogation policies and procedures demand humane treatment of personnel in their custody," the spokesperson said. "The department is committed to searching further to ascertain the original source of the comment brought to their attention by The Times."
Lindh, who pleaded guilty in return for a 20-year federal prison sentence for aiding the Taliban, was a young Northern California Islamic convert who joined the Taliban army before Sept. 11, attended a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and was captured soon after U.S. troops invaded the country.
While Lindh was being interrogated in Afghanistan and later aboard a ship, senior Bush administration officials were strategizing on how to handle other prisoners being rounded up in Afghanistan, with an eye toward flexibility in interrogating them.
In a series of memos from late 2001 to early 2002, top legal officials in the administration identified the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as a safe haven offshore that would shield the secret interrogation process from intervention by the U.S. judicial system.
The memos show that top government lawyers believed the administration was not bound by the Geneva Convention governing treatment of prisoners because "Al Qaeda is merely a violent political movement or organization and not a nation-state" that had signed the international treaty.
However, the memos also show that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell warned the White House that a tougher approach toward interrogation "will reverse over a century of U.S. policy and practices in supporting Geneva Conventions and undermine the protections of the law of war for our troops, both in this specific conflict and in general."
The tenor of these administration memos on the handling of prisoners in the earliest stages of the U.S.-declared war on terrorism was similar to a legal "working paper" by administration lawyers in March 2003. It concluded that the president had the authority to allow any interrogation tactics that he thought would protect the American public, including torture, according to government documents. The Pentagon this week said that the paper was part of an internal administration debate and was not a policy that was carried out.
In the Iraq war that began in March 2003, administration officials said that the military would abide by the Geneva Convention. But in January of this year, a dismayed U.S. military guard turned over photographs depicting physical abuse and humiliation of inmates at Abu Ghraib.
Six Army prison guards are awaiting courts-martial in the Abu Ghraib scandal. A seventh has pleaded guilty.