Rumsfeld said to OK coercive methods

Magazine reports officials approved Iraq application of al-Qaida interrogations

May 16, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and one of his top aides authorized the expansion of a secret program that permitted harsh interrogations of detained members of al-Qaida to be used against prisoners in Iraq, including detainees at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, according to an article in The New Yorker magazine.

The article, by Seymour M. Hersh, reports that Rumsfeld and Stephen Cambone, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, approved the use of the tougher interrogation techniques in Iraq in 2003, in an effort to extract better information from Iraqi prisoners to counter the growing insurgency threat in the country.

Across the Bush administration yesterday, officials disputed several critical details in Hersh's article. They said there was no high-level decision or command, that they were aware of, to use highly coercive interrogation techniques on Iraqi prisoners.

Rumsfeld, who has apologized for the prison abuses, has said they were committed by low-level military forces without the approval of senior commanders.

A central unresolved question of the prison abuse is whether the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners was ordered by senior military or civilian officials.

Administration officials pointed yesterday to testimony before Congress in which administration officials acknowledged that the Geneva Conventions applied to detainees in Iraq and therefore did not permit the use of coercive tactics.

But some officials, speaking on background, acknowledged that as the insurgency worsened in Iraq last summer, there was rising concern about how to gather better intelligence about future attacks.

At the Pentagon, the chief spokesman, Lawrence Di Rita, vigorously denied the allegations that Cambone directed a covert program to encourage the coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners to improve intelligence gathering.

"It's pure, unadulterated fantasy," Di Rita said in a phone interview. "We don't discuss covert programs, but nothing in any covert program would have led anyone to sanction activity like what was seen on those videos."

"No responsible official in this department, including Secretary Rumsfeld, would or could have been involved in sanctioning the physical coercion or sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners," Di Rita said.

Di Rita said Cambone was not involved in setting detainee policy in Iraq.

The article, in the May 24 edition of The New Yorker, said that the expansion of the "special access program" allowed authorities in charge of Abu Ghraib to engage in degrading and humiliating practices.

The article said, "According to interviews with several past and present American intelligence officials, the Pentagon's operation, known inside the intelligence community by several code words, including Copper Green, encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in an effort to generate more intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq."

In addition, the article said that Rumsfeld's decision in the matter had, in effect, shifted the blame for the abuses from himself to low-level military guards.

Some elements of The New Yorker story have been previously reported, including the development by the CIA of a special interrogation program for prisoners captured in Afghanistan. That program, authorized by government legal opinions, included the use of coercive methods.

Hersh writes that Cambone carried out Rumsfeld's directive to use the coercive interrogation methods.

The article said that by the summer of 2003, U.S. military and intelligence agencies were growing fearful about the strength of the insurgency in Iraq and were frustrated at the poor intelligence they were getting from detainees.

Some of the officials identified by Hersh in the article have testified publicly about their actions in the prison abuse issue. Cambone testified for several hours before the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 11 and was questioned extensively about what interrogation methods were approved for prisoners in Iraq and whether they complied with the Geneva rules.

Asked by Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, "What is the status" of detainees in the prison, he answered flatly, "They are there under either Article 3 or Article 4 of the Geneva Conventions." Those two articles pertain to prisoners of war or other prisoners, respectively.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, asked him whether military intelligence, CIA and private contractors "all have identical rules and regulations in terms of interrogating the detainees or prisoners of war or combatants? Or is there any distinction between the three?"

"I can speak for the DOD, contractor and military personnel, and those rules are the same," said Cambone, leaving out the question of what rules apply to the CIA.

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