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Files Show Bush Team Torn Over POW Rules

June 23, 2004|Richard A. Serrano and Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — A year into the war on terrorism, with little useful information coming from prisoners at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld allowed interrogators to toughen their tactics and use "mild, noninjurious physical conduct" to pry loose more crucial intelligence, the Bush administration disclosed Tuesday.

But the practice of permitting interrogators to grab and push prisoners was allowed for just six weeks before Rumsfeld rescinded it in January 2003, when he ordered military officials to formally seek his approval before getting tough with detainees, newly released records showed.

"In all interrogations," Rumsfeld warned his military subordinates, "you should continue the humane treatment of detainees, regardless of the type of interrogation technique employed."

The new details about interrogation techniques were contained in several hundred pages of documents released by the White House and the departments of Defense and Justice. They portray a Bush administration struggling to set down specific rules governing interrogation methods, from the early days of the war on terrorism to the start of the war in Iraq.

Portions of the documents have been previously disclosed, often in piecemeal fashion. One memo caused an outcry recently because it asserted, among other things, that federal laws against torture might not apply in the war on terrorism.

Justice Department officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the memo written by then-Assistant Atty. Gen. Jay S. Bybee contained overly broad and irrelevant advice and that a new version would focus more narrowly on proper interrogation techniques.

White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales said Tuesday that some harsh interrogation tactics were raised as possibilities by Justice Department lawyers who were merely "exploring the boundaries as an abstract matter" of what might be permissible.

He said many of the proposals were never seen, much less approved, by senior administration officials. Gonzales said the documents also were never seen by individual soldiers and "do not reflect the policies that the president ultimately adopted."

At no time, according to the documents, did the administration approve anything approaching what was done to inmates at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad. Photographs show captives there being abused and sexually humiliated.

The memos shed light on the secrecy-shrouded prison at Guantanamo Bay, home to some 600 Taliban captives from Afghanistan and Al Qaeda members from Central Asia.

The internal documents, coming amid pretrial hearings in the Abu Ghraib case, were released by an administration hoping to quell persistent criticism that top officials had created an environment that fostered the prisoner abuse.

At the White House, President Bush said Tuesday that he had never permitted any mistreatment of prisoners.

"Let me make very clear the position of my government and our country," Bush said. "We do not condone torture. I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being."

Bush's comments seemed directed not only at administration critics but also at defense attorneys for six Army prison guards facing courts-martial in the Abu Ghraib scandal. A seventh guard has pleaded guilty.

The lawyers have been fashioning a defense that suggests their clients were given wide latitude in the way they treated inmates.

That strategy was given a boost Monday when a military judge in Baghdad cleared them to interview top U.S. military commanders to see if higher-ups encouraged the abuse.

Critics said the newly released documents did not give the public a full picture of how the administration decided what was the right treatment for enemy captives or how the policies were carried out.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called the document release a "self-serving selection" and said "much more remains held back and hidden away from public view."

Harvey Volzer, a Washington lawyer who represents accused Army Spc. Megan Ambuhl in the Abu Ghraib case, said: "We have not seen anywhere close to the total relevant documents."

He said the evidence would show that the mistreatment documented at Abu Ghraib occurred only because guards were encouraged to do it.

"Isn't it amazing that hooding, nudity and physical contact short of death and organ failure all are mentioned as techniques, and yet the administration would have us believe that they were not employed when Bush was getting no results from interrogations?" Volzer asked.

The earliest documents cover the period soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon and the start of the war in Afghanistan -- when Guantanamo Bay became the central point for enemies captured in the field.

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