A Senate investigation has concluded that top Pentagon officials began assembling lists of harsh interrogation techniques in the summer of 2002 for use on detainees at Guantanamo Bay and that those officials later cited memos from field commanders to suggest that the proposals originated far down the chain of command, according to congressional sources briefed on the findings.
The sources said that memos and other evidence obtained during the inquiry show that officials in the office of then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld started to research the use of waterboarding, stress positions, sensory deprivation and other practices in July 2002, months before memos from commanders at the detention facility in Cuba requested permission to use those measures on suspected terrorists.
The reported evidence -- some of which is expected to be made public at a Senate hearing today -- also shows that military lawyers raised strong concerns about the legality of the practices as early as November 2002, a month before Rumsfeld approved them. The findings contradict previous accounts by top Bush administration appointees, setting the stage for new clashes between the White House and Congress over the origins of interrogation methods that many lawmakers regard as torture and possibly illegal.
"Some have suggested that detainee abuses committed by U.S. personnel at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and at Guantanamo were the result of a 'few bad apples' acting on their own. It would be a lot easier to accept if that were true," Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote in a statement for delivery at a committee hearing this morning. "Senior officials in the United States government sought out information on aggressive techniques, twisted the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees."
The new evidence challenges previous statements by William J. "Jim" Haynes II, who served as Defense Department general counsel under Rumsfeld and is among the witnesses scheduled to testify at today's hearing. Haynes, who resigned in February, suggested to a Senate panel in 2006 that the request for tougher interrogation methods originated in October 2002, when Guantanamo Bay commanders began asking for help in ratcheting up the pressure on suspected terrorists who had stopped cooperating. A memo from the prison's top military lawyer that same month had suggested specific techniques and declared them legal.
Haynes suggested that the requests had created a dilemma for the Pentagon's top civilian leaders. "Many people struggled over that question," he told the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2006. "I struggled over that question."
But memos and e-mails obtained by investigators reveal that in July 2002, Haynes and other Pentagon officials were soliciting ideas for harsh interrogations from military experts in survival training, according to two congressional officials familiar with the committee's investigation. By late July, a list was compiled that included many of the techniques that would later be formally approved for use at Guantanamo Bay, including stress positions, sleep deprivation and the hooding of detainees during questioning. The techniques were later used at the Abu Ghraib detention facility in Iraq.
Nearly all the ideas were derived from U.S. military programs known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, or SERE, the congressional officials said. In training, some military pilots and Special Forces troops are subjected to harsh treatment to simulate conditions they might face if captured by enemy troops. One of the techniques suggested was waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning that was used by CIA interrogators but was never approved for use by the military.
In his prepared statement, Levin said the evidence collected in the committee's 18-month investigation highlights a "particularly disturbing part of the story: how the techniques -- used to teach American soldiers to resist abusive interrogations by enemies that refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions -- were turned on their head and sanctioned by senior leaders for their use offensively against detainees."
The Senate committee's investigation began in January 2007 and involved Republican and Democratic staff members. The final report is expected by the end of the year.
Haynes and other senior administration officials also visited Guantanamo Bay in September 2002 to "talk about techniques," said one congressional official. Also on the trip was David S. Addington, chief of staff to Vice President Cheney.
The Guantanamo Bay visit and the effort to compile interrogation tactics appear to show that Pentagon officials were moving toward a formal policy on interrogation before military commanders at the detention camp requested special measures, the officials said. However, top military officers objected to the proposals in a series of memos in November 2002, much earlier than previously reported, congressional investigators said. In early 2003, Rumsfeld formally authorized the techniques for use at Guantanamo Bay.
Attempts to reach Haynes and Rumsfeld were unsuccessful. A Pentagon official declined to comment on the Senate panel's conclusions, but defended the interrogation program as effective and humane. Navy Cmdr. J.D. Gordon, a spokesman, said the program yielded insights into al-Qaeda's organizational structure, training and strategy. "The United States operates safe, humane and professional detention facilities for enemy combatants," he said. "Our policy is, and always has been, to treat detainees humanely."
Gordon also noted that, in 13 major reviews of detention operations, Pentagon investigators have "not found any policy that ever condoned or tolerated abuse of detainees."
The Senate committee's findings echo earlier claims by many congressional Democrats, human rights groups and other administration critics who have maintained that responsibility for the controversial interrogation practices lies at the highest levels of the administration.
"It is increasingly clear that the decision to abandon the rule of law and order torture and abuse was made at the very top," said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office. "We look forward to the full investigative report from the Armed Services Committee and call on Congress to hold accountable any and all public officials involved in ordering illegal torture."
A group of 56 Congressional Democrats last week asked the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to investigate whether any Bush administration officials may have broken laws in approving the use of harsh interrogation techniques for suspected terrorists.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
© 2008 The Washington Post