Bush Reserved Torture Exceptions

President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld over Abu Ghraib prison.
AP / CBS
The Bush administration didn't ease its hard-line tactics for interrogating terror suspects until after concerns were raised repeatedly by State Department and military officials worried about violating international and U.S. law, memos released by the White House show.

In an order less than four months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President Bush said the Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners did not apply to al Qaeda and Taliban suspects such as those imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Bush's order in February 2002 followed the advice of Justice Department lawyers who argued the conventions couldn't apply to an international terrorist group or militia members who did not follow the laws of war themselves.

On the losing side of the argument: Secretary of State Colin Powell, who vigorously opposed carving out exceptions to the Geneva Conventions.

Doing so, Powell wrote to the top White House lawyer in January 2002, "will reverse over a century of U.S. policy and practice in supporting the Geneva conventions and undermine the protections of the law of war for our troops, both in this specific conflict and in general."

Bush ordered that all prisoners be treated humanely and, "to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity," in line with the "principles" of the Geneva Conventions. But at the same time he reserved the right to suspend the conventions "in this or future conflicts."

By the fall of 2002, military officers were seeking guidance on the president's order. Gen. James T. Hill, head of U.S. Southern Command, passed up the chain of command a list of dozens of interrogation techniques the military suggested for use at Guantanamo Bay.

"Despite our best efforts, some detainees have tenaciously resisted our current interrogation methods," Hill wrote to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers on Oct. 25, 2002.

However, he questioned the legality of some of the harshest interrogation techniques that were being proposed. "I am particularly troubled by the use of implied or expressed threats of death of the detainee or his family," he wrote.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld approved some of the techniques on Dec. 2, 2002, but not death threats or another suggested method: putting wet towels over a prisoner's face and dripping water on those towels "to induce the misperception of suffocation."

Rumsfeld did approve several techniques that are otherwise forbidden by U.S. military doctrine. Those used at Guantanamo included interrogating prisoners for up to 20 hours at a time and forcing prisoners to have their heads and beards shaved.

Rumsfeld's Nov. 27, 2002, memo approved several methods which apparently would violate Geneva Convention rules, including:

  • Putting detainees in "stress positions," such as standing, for up to four hours.
  • Removing prisoners' clothes.
  • Intimidating detainees with dogs.
  • Interrogating prisoners for 20 hours at a time.
  • Forcing prisoners to wear hoods during interrogations and transportation.
  • Shaving detainees' heads and beards.
  • Using "mild, non-injurious physical contact," such as poking.
Despite a report Monday by CBS News, one technique Rumsfeld did not approve involved pouring water over a prisoner to create the sensation of drowning.

The techniques Rumsfeld approved in November 2002 triggered objections from interrogators and military lawyers, reports CBS News Correspondent David Martin.

Six weeks after giving the go-ahead, Rumsfeld abruptly canceled his approval. A Pentagon statement said he had "learned of concerns" about them.

Rumsfeld formed a panel of top Defense Department officials to develop guidance on what interrogation techniques should be allowed.

That panel concluded that international and U.S. laws against torture didn't apply to the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and it offered several defenses that interrogators could use if they were ever charged with crimes. The report also outlined several drawbacks to the harsher approaches, such as denting the military's image and causing bad publicity.

"Should information regarding the use of more aggressive interrogation techniques than have been used traditionally by U.S. forces become public, it is likely to be exaggerated or distorted in the U.S. and international media accounts, and may produce an adverse effect on support for the war on terrorism," the panel wrote in its April 2003 report.

Rumsfeld ended up approving only some of the panel's recommended interrogation techniques, choosing not to authorize actions such as sleep deprivation and keeping a prisoner naked.

Rumsfeld issued a new set of approved interrogation methods later that month. He allowed methods like "significantly increasing the fear level in a detainee" and "convincing the detainee that individuals from a country other than the United States are interrogating him." But he said all techniques must be "applied in a humane and lawful manner."

Mr. Bush and Rumsfeld have said the Geneva Conventions apply to all prisoners in Iraq.

But Rumsfeld acknowledged last week that he ordered a suspected terrorist to be secretly held in Iraq without notifying the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Rumsfeld said he approved an unspecified number of other, similar secret detentions.