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This article, by Jason Leopold, was posted to the Public Record, March 27, 2009
While Congress has focused primarily on the country’s economic turmoil and the lavish bonuses paid to Wall Street executives, a Senate Armed Services Committee report currently in the process of being declassified will force lawmakers to shift gears.
The Armed Services Committee will release--possibly as early as next week—its voluminous report on the treatment of alleged terrorist detainees held in U.S. custody and the brutal interrogation techniques they were subjected to, according to Defense Department and intelligence sources who described the report as the most detailed account to date of the roles senior Bush administration and Defense Department officials played in implementing a policy of torture at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and other detention centers.
The full declassified version of the report is 200 pages, contains 2,000 footnotes, and will reveal a plethora of new information about the genesis of the Bush administration's interrogation policies. The investigation relied upon the testimony of 70 people, generated 38,000 pages of documents, and took 18 months to complete. The declassified version of his report will include a full account of the roles military psychologists played in assisting the Bush administration implement a policy of torture.
The committee released a 19-page summary of its investigation last year and voted last November to accept the full classified version of the report's findings. According to the executive summary, “efforts by administration officials to place responsibility for detainee abuses mostly on lower ranking military personnel as both inaccurate and misleading.”
The release of the full declassified version of the Armed Service's Committee report will also put additional pressure on the Obama administration to immediately launch a full-scale investigation into the Bush administration’s interrogation program. Last week, the ACLU called on Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to probe Bush administration officials who signed off on and approved the torture of prisoners.
But at his first prime-time news conference in February, Obama said in response to questions about the Bush administration's interrogation practices that no one is above the law but that he favored looking forward, not backward.
“What I have said is that my administration is going to operate in a way that leaves no doubt that we do not torture that we abide by the Geneva Conventions and that we observe our traditions of rule of law and due process as we are vigorously going after terrorists that can do us harm,” Obama said.
"My view is also that nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing then people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen. But generally speaking I am more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.”
Levin has asked Holder to appoint someone to further probe his report’s findings and make a recommendation to Holder on how to proceed. The attorney general hasn't yet responded. Matthew Miller, a Justice Department spokesman, said Friday he was working on obtaining a response to Levin's recommendation to Holder but Miller was unable to provide The Public Record with a response by the time this story was published. We will, however, update this report with Miller's response when we receive it.
In January, at a progressive media summit, Levin said, “There needs to be, I believe, an accounting of torture in this country.”
“I suggested to Eric Holder, who will be the next Attorney General despite the delay that took place today, that he select some people or hire an outside person who's got real credibility, perhaps a retired federal judge, to take all the available information, and there’s reams of it,” Levin said Jan. 21. “Look, the Vice President, the former Vice President of the United States, acknowledged that they engaged in torture. He says that waterboarding’s not torture, he’s wrong. Waterboarding is torture, period.
“And this administration and Eric Holder has said so. It’s torture and there’s other forms that they engaged in, so what needs to be done, I believe, in addition to finishing the investigation, is for the Attorney General, the new Attorney General, to identify some people in his office to take the existing documentation. The acknowledgment, folks, this is not a very difficult — this is almost like a case in court with an agreed upon statement of facts, that the previous administration acknowledges that they engaged in waterboarding, period. . .”
The Armed Serivces Committee investigation has already concluded that “members of [Bush’s] Cabinet and other senior officials participated in meetings inside the White House in 2002 and 2003 where specific interrogation techniques were discussed. National Security Council Principals reviewed the CIA’s interrogation program during that period.”
But the declassified committee report contains detailed information about those secret meetings. John Yoo, a deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, participated in several of these meetings prior to writing a legal opinion authorizing interrogators to subject detainees to waterboarding and other brutal techniques.
Last year, in response to questions by Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Condoleezza Rice, who was National Security Adviser when interrogation methods were discussed, said that beginning as early as the summer of 2002 Yoo provided legal advice at “several” meetings that she attended and that the Department of Justice’s advice on the interrogation program “was being coordinated by Counsel to the President Alberto Gonzales.”
Yoo met with Gonzales and David Addington, counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney, to discuss the subjects he intended to address in the August 2002 torture memos, according to a declassified summary of the Armed Services Committee report.
Those meetings and the legal opinions that followed have also been scrutinized in a separate report by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), which spent four years reviewing the legal work of Yoo and other attorneys at the OLC. The OPR report, which is still classified, zeroed in on the meetings Yoo participated in and concluded that Yoo had breached “professional standards” by acting as an advocate for White House policy, according to Justice Department officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the report is still classified. SERE Techniques
The declassified report will include a full accounting of how the military’s Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) training program, which was meant to prepare U.S. soldiers for abuse they might suffer if captured by an outlaw regime, was reverse engineered and used against detainees during interrogations. SERE training techniques include stress positions, forced nudity, use of fear, sleep deprivation and, until recently, the Navy SERE school used the waterboard.
Already, the committee has revealed that discussion surrounding the use of SERE techniques on detainees began in the spring of 2002 and inquiries about the use of SERE methods were made in December 2001, well before the issuance of a legal opinion authorizing the use of harsh interrogation methods.
“Resistance training (the “R” in SERE) was a subject of discussion,” Levin said in a statement last December accompanying an executive summary of his committee’s report. “We discovered that in July 2002, at the request of [Department of Defense] General Counsel Jim Haynes’s office, the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) - the DoD agency that oversees SERE training - provided Haynes’s office a list of techniques used in SERE school and an assessment of the psychological effect of using those techniques on students.
“In December 2002, Secretary of Defense [Donald] Rumsfeld authorized some of those same techniques for use against detainees at [Guantanamo]. We discovered that, in January 2003, SERE instructors traveled to [Guantanamo] and trained interrogators to hit detainees and put them in stress positions. And the investigation revealed that instructors from JPRA’s SERE school participated in at least one abusive interrogation and were present for others during a visit to Iraq in September 2003.
“Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques for use at Guantanamo Bay was a direct cause of detainee abuse there,” the Armed Services Committee report concluded.” Secretary Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 approval of Mr. Haynes’s recommendation that most of the techniques contained in [Guantanamo’s] October 11, 2002 request be authorized, influenced and contributed to the use of abusive techniques, including military working dogs, forced nudity, and stress positions, in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
The investigation found that the CIA’s interrogation program “included at least one SERE training technique, waterboarding.”
“Senior Administration lawyers, including Alberto Gonzales, Counsel to the President, and David Addington, Counsel to the Vice President, were consulted on the development of legal analysis of CIA interrogation techniques,” a declassified summary of the report said. “Legal opinions subsequently issued by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) interpreted legal obligations under U.S. anti-torture laws and determined the legality of CIA interrogation techniques.
“Those OLC opinions distorted the meaning and intent of anti-torture laws, rationalized the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody and influenced Department of Defense determinations as to what interrogation techniques were legal for use during interrogations conducted by U.S. military personnel.”
Last June, Levin said he sent Jay Bybee, the former assistant attorney general at OLC who signed the infamous Aug. 1, 2002 torture memo, a list of questions about the implementation of SERE methods.
“In his response to my questions, Jay Bybee said that, in July 2002 – just before those two OLC opinions were issued and about the same time Jim Haynes’s office requested a list of SERE training techniques and information on the psychological effects of SERE (including waterboarding), the CIA provided OLC with an assessment of the psychological effects of SERE resistance training,” Levin said last December. “Jay Bybee wrote me that the assessment provided by the CIA was used to “inform” the August 1, 2002 OLC legal opinion that has yet to be made public. (CIA officials, including George Tenet and acting General Counsel John Rizzo declined to answer questions relating to both that assessment and the CIA’s interrogation program.)
“Judge Bybee’s answers provide insight into how senior officials in the United States government sought information on aggressive techniques used in SERE training, twisted the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees.”
Bybee’s legal work in this area was also harshly criticized by OPR, according to sources familiar with the contents of the watchdog's report. Bybee is now a judge on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
The investigation Levin's committee conducted concluded that a Feb. 7, 2002, action memorandum signed by George W. Bush that excluded “war on terror” suspects from Geneva Convention protections was responsible for the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
“Following the President’s determination, techniques such as waterboarding, nudity, and stress positions, used in SERE training to simulate tactics used by enemies that refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions, were authorized for use in interrogations of detainees in U.S. custody,” the committee’s report concluded.
“The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of ‘a few bad apples’ acting on their own. The fact is 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.”
Rumsfeld and Chertoff
Rice told Levin in written responses to his committee’s queries last September that the CIA’s interrogation program was reviewed by National Security Council principals and that Rumsfeld participated in that review.
Rice said that when the CIA sought approval of the interrogation program she asked Tenet to brief the principals and asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to “personally advise NSC Principals whether the program was lawful.”
John Bellinger, Rice’s Legal Advisor, told Levin that he asked CIA lawyers to seek legal advice not only from the OLC, but also from the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice, headed at the time by Michael Chertoff.
Chertoff reportedly advised the CIA General Counsel Scott Muller and his deputy, John Rizzo, that the August 1, 2002, legal opinion protected CIA interrogators from prosecution if they used waterboarding or other harsh tactics.
In February 2005, during his Senate confirmation hearing to become Homeland Security secretary, Chertoff said he provided the CIA broad guidance in response to its questions about interrogation methods, but never addressed the legality of specific techniques.
Abu Zubaydah’s Torture
The declassified report will also for the first time include a full account about the fierce objections the FBI had toward the CIA’s interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, an alleged “high-value” al-Qaeda detainee, and an in-depth accounting of the meetings and discussions that led to his torture..
According to documents Levin’s committee obtained from the Department of Justice, Daniel Levin, the former head of the agency’s Office of Legal Counsel, indicated that in 2002 "in the context of the Zubaydah interrogation, he attended a meeting at the National Security Council (NSC) at which CIA techniques were discussed.
Daniel “Levin stated that a DOJ Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) attorney gave advice at the meeting about the legality of CIA interrogation techniques. Levin stated that in connection with this meeting, or immediately after it, FBI Director Mueller decided that FBI agents would not participate in interrogations involving techniques the FBI did not normally use in the United States, even though OLC had determined such techniques were legal," according to questions directed to Rice by Sen. Levin.
Daniel Levin was forced to resign in 2004 when Alberto Gonzales became Attorney General because he objected to waterboarding.
The CIA videotaped Zubaydah’s interrogations and the tapes were destroyed. Two weeks ago, author Mark Danner disclosed a report prepared by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), concluding that the abuse of 14 “high-value” detainees, including Zubaydah, “constituted torture.”
“In addition, many other elements of the ill treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” according to the ICRC report. Since the ICRC’s responsibilities involve ensuring compliance with the Geneva Conventions and supervising the treatment of prisoners of war, the organization’s findings carry legal weight.
The ICRC report also found that there was a consistency in many details from the detainees who were interviewed separately and that the first “high-value” detainee to be captured, Abu Zubaydah, appeared to have been used as something of a test case by his interrogators. Zubaydah was one of the prisoners whose interrogations were videotaped by the CIA.
In her responses to Sen. Levin’s questions regarding Zubaydah’s interrogation, Rice said she had “general recollection that FBI had decided not to participate in the CIA interrogations but I do not recall any specific discussions about withdrawing FBI personnel from the Abu Zubaydah interrogation.”
In the book The One Percent Doctrine, author Ron Suskind said Zubaydah was not the “high-value detainee” the CIA had claimed. Rather, Zubaydah was a minor player in the al-Qaeda organization, handling travel for associates and their families, Suskind wrote.
However, “Bush was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth,” Suskind wrote. Bush asked one CIA briefer, “Do some of these harsh methods really work?”
Zubaydah was strapped to a waterboard and, fearing imminent death, he spoke about a wide range of plots against a number of U.S. targets, such as shopping malls, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. Yet, Suskind wrote, the information Zubaydah provided under duress was not credible.
According to Suskind, Zubaydah’s captors soon discovered that their prisoner was mentally ill and knew nothing about terrorist operations or impending plots. That realization was “echoed at the top of CIA and was, of course, briefed to the President and Vice President,” Suskind wrote.
Still, in public statements, President Bush portrayed Zubaydah as “one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States” and added: “So, the CIA used an alternative set of procedures” to get Zubaydah to talk.
The President did not want to “lose face” because he had stated his importance publicly, Suskind wrote.
The final conclusion of Levin’s investigation was that the “abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own.”
“Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at [Guantanamo],” a declassified summary of his report said. “Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.”