WHEN THE WORLD first learned of the US military's abusive treatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Bush administration officials dismissed the incidents as the work of a few bad apples among the guards at the detention center. Only low-ranking enlisted personnel faced charges for the abuse. Last week, though, a bipartisan Senate report made clear that prisoner mistreatment in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay had its origins in the White House itself.
The report, by the Senate Armed Services Committee, concluded that "senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees." Committee investigators, who worked for nearly two years on the report, traced the abusive treatment to a memo signed by President Bush on Feb. 7, 2002. In it, Bush declared that the Geneva Conventions standards for humane treatment of prisoners did not apply to Taliban and Al Qaeda captives.
Interrogation practices used by the military and studied by the committee included forced nudity, painful stress positions, sleep deprivation, extreme temperatures, and the use of threatening dogs. US troops first used these techniques on detainees from the Afghan war at Guantanamo, but before long, according to the report, US interrogators were also using them in Iraq and Afghanistan. The report makes little mention of the Central Intelligence Agency, which has acknowledged that it used the near-drowning technique of water-boarding on three captured terrorism suspects.
While the Bush administration has said that it authorized aggressive interrogation methods only after field officers complained that conventional approaches were not working, the committee found that the impetus for harsher practices came from officials in Washington. As early as December 2001, in the early weeks of the war in Afghanistan, Defense Department officials looked to a decades-old military training program for information on these techniques. The program had been designed to prepare US personnel for the use of the interrogation methods in case they were captured by Cold War enemies.
The committee, led by Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan and Arizona Republican John McCain, finds that the interrogation practices "damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority." The military, which cooperated with the committee on the report, now limits interrogation methods to procedures in the Army field manual. The new administration should require the CIA to do the same.