WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld last year personally approved a series of aggressive interrogation techniques for suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda detainees to extract information about the Sept. 11 attacks and help prevent future ones, Pentagon officials said Thursday.
Rumsfeld approved in April 2003 a request five months earlier by Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, who had arrived at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in November 2002 to oversee prisoners. Miller sought permission to use a broad range of extraordinary "nondoctrinal" questioning techniques on an Al Qaeda detainee, a general with the Pentagon's Judge Advocate General's office said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The defense officials did not detail the procedures Miller had sought to use, or identify the detainee, but they said the prisoner was believed to have valuable information about future attacks by Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. Pentagon lawyers and interrogators clashed over the proposed procedures, which some of the lawyers said would violate international law.
The account confirmed portions of media reports on the development of post-Sept. 11 interrogation practices. But it was the first official acknowledgment that Rumsfeld had been personally involved in the development of interrogation policies for war detainees.
Miller was sent to Iraq to oversee prison operations after physical abuse and sexual humiliation of detainees were uncovered at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. Miller also issued a report last year recommending improvements at the prison, including more effective interrogation.
The abuse scandal touched off congressional hearings that have widened from an investigation into the conduct of seven military police officers at a single cellblock to an inquiry into the Pentagon's detention policy and interrogation practices. Human rights groups have accused the United States of violating terms of the Geneva Convention.
The methods Miller sought to use at Guantanamo were harsher than those used in standard military doctrine, and some drew objections from military lawyers in the Judge Advocate General's office, the JAG official said. Intelligence and other Pentagon officials, however, said they felt an immediate need for better information.
"There became some urgency because we had an individual that had some information that people at Guantanamo believed was important not just to 9/11, but to future events," a senior Pentagon lawyer said.
The Pentagon general counsel's office gathered a group of military and civilian lawyers, intelligence officials, officers from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, regional commanders and Pentagon policymakers for a summit on the plan for more permissive interrogations.
The effort to define how far interrogators can go in pressuring detainees for information without violating international law exposed the rift between interrogators and JAG lawyers, who considered some of the techniques Miller proposed to be illegal.
"You had intelligence officials that might have been pulling in a direction that was different from the lawyers," Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said. "It's a competitive process."
Military lawyers successfully argued for the removal of some practices from the list, although some of those had already been used on detainees, officials said. Countering the earlier news reports, the JAG officer said that "substantially less" than 72 techniques had been proposed. He did not say how many were actually on the proposed list or on the list finally approved.
Rumsfeld trimmed the list of requested interrogation techniques by about one-third, and he insisted that he personally approve a "handful" of techniques, the senior Pentagon lawyer and the JAG official said. Rumsfeld approved the revised proposal in April 2003.
"The final report did not raise any legal objections," the JAG official said. "We were comfortable with the direction that was provided."
Officials provided few details of the case that had prompted Rumsfeld's review and have declined to say which interrogation tactics drew criticism from military lawyers and whether the techniques yielded any useful information. The officials stressed that while prisoners at Guantanamo are considered "enemy combatants" rather than prisoners of war, those held in Iraq are considered POWs. The Pentagon insists that the Iraqi detainees are covered by the Geneva Convention while the Guantanamo prisoners are not, although U.S. officials insist that they observe the spirit of international law.
Rumsfeld did not personally approve the interrogation procedures for prisoners in Iraq, Di Rita said.
One of the seven military police officers at Abu Ghraib has pleaded guilty at his court-martial; the rest face similar proceedings. Seven other officers have been recommended for reprimands. Top military officials said more charges could be lodged.
The cases at Abu Ghraib are among 35 Pentagon investigations into alleged abuse at U.S. military prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan and 42 additional inquiries into alleged abuses outside prisons. At least 25 deaths have resulted, including three homicides, according to the Pentagon.The general who preceded Miller as commander of the Guantanamo Bay prison told Associated Press that during his tour there in 2002, he was under constant pressure to bend his "by-the-book" rules for handling the more than 600 detainees there. Brig. Gen. Rick Baccus said military intelligence officials during that time sought rules that allowed "putting the detainees in isolation, or in different locations."
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times