A former military officer who served as chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell on Wednesday said Vice President Dick Cheney probably knew the U.S. military was using torture on Iraqi detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and at prisons in Iraq.Col. Lawrence B. Wilkerson's testimony before a House panel followed revelations this week that detainees were subjected to beatings and other aggressive interrogation techniques with the authorization of government attorneys.
"At what level did American leadership fail?" Col. Wilkerson said during a hearing before the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties. "I believe it failed at the highest levels of the Pentagon, in the Vice President's Office and perhaps even in the Oval Office."
Painful interrogation techniques were apparently authorized in a Feb. 7, 2002, order signed by President Bush that also said al Qaeda and Taliban detainees were not to be considered prisoners of war. The order was based on a legal memo from the White House counsel's office.
Prisoner-of-war status is supposed to protect captives from torture under the Geneva Conventions.
After they received the president's order, Pentagon officials compiled a list of interrogation techniques that later were used on detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison, Guantanamo and elsewhere, according to documents released by the Senate Armed Services Committee this week. The documents state that CIA agents contributed to the plan to use the aggressive interrogation techniques.
During an Oct. 2, 2002, meeting with military and intelligence officials at Guantanamo, the documents state that CIA counterterrorism lawyer Jonathan Fredman said torture "is basically subject to perception." He also reportedly said, "If the detainee dies, you're doing it wrong."
Col. Wilkerson said, "The president may have been ignorant of the worst parts of the failure."
Douglas Feith, one of the government attorneys suspected of contributing legal advice for the Defense Department's authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques, had notified the committee he would not appear at the hearing Wednesday.
Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, said Mr. Feith, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, would be compelled to testify later.
"Mr. Feith's unwillingness to attend voluntarily and provide the truth about this government's actions shows a fundamental disrespect for Congress and the American people," Mr. Nadler said.
He also said the military's use of so-called waterboarding, beatings and putting prisoners in painful "stress positions" appears to be "more widespread and the legal justifications more flimsy than have been initially reported. Evidence also appears to be mounting that officials at the highest levels of this administration may have been directly involved to a far greater extent and far earlier in the process than had been previously represented to Congress and to the American people."
Waterboarding refers to putting a cloth over a restrained person's mouth and nose, then pouring water over them to give them the sensation of drowning.
Daniel Levin, former acting assistant attorney general, testified that he contributed legal advice on torture to the Bush administration, but that he told high-level officials that it was unjustified under international law.
© 2008 The Washington Times