President Bush decided shortly after the September 11 attacks that terrorism detainees would be treated in accord with the Geneva Conventions, despite legal advice that this was not required, to adhere to “our values as a nation,” according to a memo he wrote himself.
The White House yesterday released a 2-inch-high stack of memos that outline the administration’s thoughts on dealing with an enemy that declares no country its home, wears no uniforms, and concentrates its attacks on civilians.
After months of deliberations, the administration decided to adhere strictly to the Geneva Conventions, despite their being optional in this case.
In a memo titled “Humane Treatment of al-Qaida and Taliban Detainees,” Mr. Bush says he accepts “the legal conclusion of the attorney general and the Department of Justice that I have the authority under the Constitution to suspend Geneva as between the United States and Afghanistan, but I decline to exercise that authority at this time.”
“Of course our values as a nation … call for us to treat detainees humanely, including those who are not legally entitled to such treatment,” he concluded in the Feb. 7, 2002, memo.
The administration, however, permitted interrogation techniques for detainees at Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that go beyond what is outlined as permissible in the Army Field Manual, but do not cross the line into torture.
“Let me make very clear the position of my government and our country. We do not condone torture,” Mr. Bush said yesterday before the memos were released. “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.”
The White House released the documents reluctantly, fearing that public disclosure of interrogation guidelines would make it easier for terrorism suspects to resist the techniques used to gain valuable intelligence.
But in the end — and especially in light of the abuses by U.S. troops at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison — it was deemed more important to knock down the belief of many in the world that the U.S. government practices torture.
“It was harmful to this country in terms of the notion that we may be engaged in torture,” said White House Counsel Al Gonzales.
The documents, and the briefing by senior administration officials after the release of the memos, shed little light on what happened in Abu Ghraib, but focuses more on how the rules of engagement were established for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
Included is a 50-page memo issued by the Justice Department on Aug. 1, 2002, that concluded that international conventions prohibit “only the most extreme acts” of torture.
Shortly after the White House released the documents, a senior Justice Department official told the Associated Press that his office is disavowing that 50-page memo and writing a new set of legal recommendations because the earlier memo had overly broad and irrelevant advice.
Mr. Gonzales suggested that revision matters little, because although many opinions about the use of torture were circulated, “the president put a policy in place more narrowly defined than directed by lawyers.”
“We are trying to defend the United States against an enemy we have never seen before,” Mr. Gonzales said. “As these documents show, [Mr. Bush] would do so in a way consistent with our values.”
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was not impressed with the administration’s unprecedented public disclosure of sensitive internal policy deliberations.
“Now, responding to public pressure, the White House has released a small subset of the documents that offers glimpses into the genesis of this scandal,” said Mr. Leahy, who contends that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were directed by high-level administration officials, or even Mr. Bush himself.
“Though this is a self-serving selection, at least it is a beginning,” Mr. Leahy said. “We will keep the pressure on until we get honesty and answers.”
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, decried the “politicization” of the war on terror by Democrats.
“All Americans, including President Bush, [Defense] Secretary [Donald H.] Rumsfeld, and Attorney General [John] Ashcroft, all condemn torture, and all are committed to fighting and winning the war against terrorism in full compliance with U.S. and international law,” Mr. Cornyn said.
“Partisan suggestions to the contrary are not only false — they dangerously undermine troop morale, put our troops at risk, and impede our efforts to win the global war against terrorism,” he said.
The memos showed that the Pentagon considered using four “aggressive tactics” to get information out of detainees that could save American lives:
Convincing a detainee that severe pain or death were imminent for him or his family.
Exposure to cold weather or water.
Use of a wet towel or dripping water to induce a perception of suffocating.
Mild, noninjurious physical contact, such as grabbing the arm, poking in the chest, or light shoving.
Only the last of the tactics was approved by Mr. Rumsfeld, and, after its use for a few weeks, he decided to end it, said a senior administration official.
Daniel J. Dell’Orto, the principal deputy general counsel for the Defense Department, said six new interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay — none of which violated the president’s directive banning torture — helped break down Mohamed al-Kahtani, who was captured in Afghanistan fighting for the Taliban against U.S. forces.
Al-Kahtani at first told his captors that he was in the country to capture falcons for his business. After displaying no knowledge of falcons, he was interrogated further, Mr. Dell’Orto said.
Ultimately, al-Kahtani revealed that he had met with Osama bin Laden, “dirty bomb” suspect Jose Padilla, British “shoe bomber” Richard C. Reid, and was recruited to assist September 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta.
“The detainees at Gitmo have vowed to fight us to their death or ours,” Mr. Dell’Orto said, pointing out that “these are not like regular [prisoners of war] who are sent back to their farms.”
Although expanded interrogation techniques are allowed at Guantanamo, the treatment of prisoners in Iraq is “all Geneva, all the time,” Mr. Dell’Orto said.
At the press briefing after the release of the documents, William Haynes, the top civilian lawyer at the Pentagon, was asked whether the disclosure of U.S. interrogation techniques — marked “secret” until yesterday — hurts the war on terror.
“To disclose in such a public way exactly what we do, it hinders us in some way,” Mr. Haynes said. “The decision was made, and sometimes you make hard decisions.”
However, he said, the leak of some of the documents that entertained the idea of torturing terrorists — without mentioning that it wasn’t condoned — and the publication of photos of abuse at Abu Ghraib seemed to encourage terrorists to butcher the civilians they captured.
“Under the circumstances,” Mr. Haynes said, “this was the right thing to do.”
Charles Hurt contributed to this report.