Report on Detainees Raises New Questions for Obama

Posted April 22, 2009 at 11:55am

A Senate Armed Services Committee report on the treatment of detainees in the George W. Bush-era war on terror raises new questions for the Obama administration about who should be immune from prosecution on potential torture charges.The report released Tuesday night details how the Department of Defense began laying the groundwork for using harsh terrorist interrogation techniques as early as December 2001 and began training interrogators in the spring of 2002 — several months before the Justice Department began providing legal cover for the CIA to use such methods.President Barack Obama has said repeatedly that interrogators who followed Justice’s advice should not be prosecuted.The report, which represents a more detailed, declassified version of the Senate panel’s report last year into the DOD’s treatment of detainees after 9/11, shows for the first time how pervasive the interrogation tactics were and how deeply involved then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice were in authorizing the interrogation methods. Many of the tactics the Defense Department and the CIA employed against suspected terrorists and other detainees are regarded as torture in international legal circles.Though President Bush did not declare the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of detainees inapplicable in the conflict with al-Qaida and in Afghanistan until February of 2002, the DOD’s general counsel sought advice in December 2001 on detainee “exploitation— from officers leading a program intended to help U.S. soldiers withstand torturous conditions, according to the report. The Joint Personnel Recovery Agency oversees a military training program known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape that subjects U.S. personnel to extreme physical and psychological interrogation tactics in order to increase their resistance to those methods if captured.By April 2002, a senior psychologist with the SERE program had drafted a training plan for interrogators at the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and in Afghanistan. But even in the draft plan, the psychologist, Bruce Jessen, acknowledged at one point that “the only restricting factor— to his recommendations for interrogation “should be the Torture Convention.—The first Justice Department memo from its Office of Legal Counsel —which has been cited as the legal authority for using harsh interrogation methods — was not produced until August 2002.However, senior Bush administration officials were actively pursuing how to develop the legal justifications in the spring of 2002, particularly once the U.S. government had top al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah in custody. At one point that spring, a National Security Counsel legal adviser asked the CIA to get legal advice from both Justice’s OLC as well as its Criminal Division. And Rice at one point asked then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to “personally— review the proposed CIA interrogation program.Before the CIA took over Zubaydah’s case, the initial questioning of Zubaydah was done by the FBI. One FBI special agent later told the Justice Department’s inspector general that he tried to raise objections to the CIA’s techniques and that he told the CIA their methods were “borderline torture,— the report says.Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said in a statement that the report “represents a condemnation of both the Bush administration’s interrogation policies and of senior administration officials who attempted to shift the blame for abuse … to low ranking soldiers.— The report details the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, as well as at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and in Afghanistan.Levin said senior officials, including Rumsfeld and other top DOD appointees, “bear significant responsibility for creating the legal and operational framework for the abuses.—Most troubling to Levin is the revelation that the DOD “distorted— the SERE program. The report states that SERE instructors were used as interrogators despite their lack of expertise in intelligence-gathering.Levin also highlighted that one SERE psychologist warned that using harsh techniques would not even produce good intelligence.“Bottom line: the likelihood that the use of physical pressures will increase the delivery of accurate information from a detainee is very low,— the psychologist is quoted as writing as early as October 2002. “The likelihood that the use of physical pressures will increase the level of resistance in a detainee is very high.—The techniques approved by DOD and outlined in the report include the use of stress positions, forced nudity, dogs, sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation.The Armed Services report was released Tuesday night in the midst of a debate over whether any Bush administration officials should be prosecuted for authoring a series of memos that sanctioned harsh interrogation techniques against terrorism detainees.President Barack Obama decided last week to release those memos, and initially indicated he did not support prosecuting anyone for potential criminal acts related to the use of extreme interrogation methods. Obama dialed that position back on Tuesday, however, saying the people who gave the legal advice could be in jeopardy, but he reiterated his belief that CIA interrogators should not be held culpable for following DOJ’s guidance on what was permissible.