Senate report says Rumsfeld to blame for detainee abuse

Miller and Barnes are writers in our Washington bureau.

A bipartisan Senate report released Thursday concludes that decisions made by former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld were a “direct cause” of widespread detainee abuses, and that other Bush administration officials were to blame for creating a legal and moral climate that contributed to inhumane treatment.

The report, endorsed by Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the most forceful denunciation to date of the role that Rumsfeld and other top officials played in the prisoner abuse scandals of the last five years.

The document also challenges assertions by senior Bush administration officials that the most egregious cases of prisoner mistreatment were isolated incidents of appalling conduct by U.S. troops.


“The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own,” the report says.

Instead, the document says, a series of high-level decisions in the Bush administration “conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody.”

The document aims its harshest criticism at Rumsfeld’s decision in December 2002 to authorize the use of aggressive interrogation techniques at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Although the order was rescinded six weeks later, the report describes it as “a direct cause for detainee abuse” at Guantanamo Bay, and concludes that it “influenced and contributed to the use of abusive techniques, including military working dogs, forced nudity and stress positions, in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

The report also criticizes President Bush, although less harshly. In particular, it cites a presidential memorandum signed Feb. 7, 2002, that denied detainees captured in Afghanistan the protections of the Geneva Conventions, which ban abusive treatment of prisoners of war.

Bush’s decision to bypass an international law that had been observed by American troops for decades sent a message that “impacted the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody,” the report says.


That message was bolstered by a series of memos from the Justice Department, the report says, that “distorted the meaning and intent of anti-torture laws” and “rationalized the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody.”

The Senate report represents the culmination of an 18-month investigation by the committee’s staff. It is the latest, and in many respects the most comprehensive, in a series of government investigations started after photographs surfaced in April 2004 of prisoners at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq being stripped of their clothes, piled in pyramids and strapped to what appeared to be electrical wires.

Those abuses “cannot be chalked up to the actions of ‘a few bad apples,’ ” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, referring to a line used by former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz in an attempt to downplay the scandal.

Levin said it was “both unconscionable and false” for Rumsfeld and others to blame troops and escape accountability. Even so, the report does not call for further investigation or punishment.

The findings were approved last month by the 17 committee members in attendance, indicating the report had the support of at least four of the panel’s Republicans. Committee officials did not identify which senators on the 25- person panel were not present for the vote.

Among the panel’s members are several GOP senators who have criticized the administration’s conduct on detainee matters, including John McCain of Arizona, John W. Warner of Virginia, Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.


Levin said the committee had reviewed thousands of documents and conducted interviews with more than 70 people, and received written responses from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The investigation did not focus on the CIA’s treatment of detainees, or the agency’s operation of a network of secret prisons.

But the inquiry turned up new information showing that the Defense Department had consulted with the CIA on interrogation matters, and that White House officials had reviewed CIA methods earlier and in more detail than previously acknowledged.

Most of the findings had been disclosed in the panel’s interim reports or in other investigations. But the report released Thursday traces the origins of aggressive interrogation techniques to U.S. military survival training programs. It follows the use of coercive methods as they migrated from Guantanamo Bay to Afghanistan, then to Iraq and Abu Ghraib.

The techniques -- based on practices detailed in military courses on survival, evasion, resistance and escape, known as SERE -- included stress positions, the removal of clothing and the exploitation of phobias, including fear of dogs.

One month after Rumsfeld issued his order approving such methods at Guantanamo, they were part of a presentation witnessed by Army Capt. Carolyn Wood at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, the report says. Wood has been criticized by human rights groups for her role in U.S. interrogation techniques, and was singled out in one investigation as failing to properly oversee interrogators.


The committee said the Afghanistan techniques eventually became standard procedure for all U.S. forces in Iraq. And by summer 2003, Wood, then serving in Iraq, proposed that the practices become the interrogation policy at Abu Ghraib.

After Wood proposed extending the use of the techniques and pressure mounted to acquire intelligence about the insurgency, the top commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, authorized interrogators on Sept. 14, 2003, to use stress positions, “sleep management” and dogs when questioning detainees.

A month later, he rescinded permission to use the techniques.

“The new policy, however, contained ambiguities with respect to certain techniques, such as the use of dogs in interrogations, and led to confusion about which techniques were permitted,” the Senate report says.




A trail of inquiries

Since the earliest allegations of detainee abuse at Iraq’s

Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, there have been more than a dozen government investigations into prisoner mistreatment in Iraq and Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay. Here are summaries of the major reports:

Taguba report, March 2004. An investigation of the 800th Military Police Brigade by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba. The findings broke open the Abu Ghraib scandal.


Mikolashek report, July 2004. Lt. Gen. Paul T. Mikolashek, the Army inspector general, failed to find systemic causes for abuses at Abu Ghraib.

Schlesinger report, August 2004. An independent panel led by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger described the migration of harsh techniques from Afghanistan to Iraq.

Fay-Jones report, August 2004. Army Lt. Gen. Anthony Jones and Army Maj. Gen. George Fay, investigating intelligence activities at Abu Ghraib, said dozens of military personnel and contractors were responsible for abuses.

Church report, February 2005. Vice Adm. Albert T. Church, the Navy’s inspector general, found 71 cases of abuse resulting in six deaths, but did not identify systemic problems.

Green report, April 2005.

Lt. Gen. Stanley E. Green,

the Army inspector general, cleared Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez and his staff in the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal.

Schmidt report, July 2005. Air Force Lt. Gen. Randall M. Schmidt looked into FBI allegations of abuse at Guantanamo. He said policies were violated but the treatment was not inhumane.


Justice Department inspector general’s report, May 2008. Found that complaints by FBI agents about interrogation techniques at Guantanamo were brought to the attention of White House officials but ignored.

Senate Armed Services Committee report, December 2008. Investigated the origins of detainee abuse. Found that actions of former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld were a direct cause of the abuses.

Source: Research by Julian E. Barnes of the Washington bureau