Divisions over detention reform

Memo's destruction shows rift among officials

October 01, 2006|By Tim Golden | Tim Golden,New York Times News Service

In June 2005, two senior national security officials in the Bush administration came together to propose a sweeping new approach to the growing problems the United States was facing with the detention, interrogation and prosecution of terrorism suspects.

In a nine-page memorandum, the two officials, Gordon R. England, the acting deputy secretary of defense, and Philip D. Zelikow, the counselor of the State Department, urged the administration to seek congressional approval for its detention policies.

They called for a return to the minimum standards of treatment in the Geneva Conventions and for eventually closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The time had come, they said, for suspects in the Sept. 11 plot to be taken out of their secret prison cells and tried before military tribunals.

The recommendations of the paper, which has not previously been disclosed, included several of the major policy shifts that President Bush laid out in a White House address Sept. 6, said five officials who have read the document. But the memorandum's fate underscores the deep, long-running conflicts over detention policy that continued to divide the administration even as it pushed new legislation through Congress last week on the handling of terrorism suspects.

When the paper first circulated in the upper reaches of the administration, two of those officials said, it so angered Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that his aides gathered up copies of the document and had at least some of them shredded.

"It was not in step with the secretary of defense or the president," said one Defense Department official, who, like many others, would discuss the internal deliberations only on the condition of anonymity. "It was clear that Rumsfeld was very unhappy."

The internal debate over detention issues that began within weeks of the Sept. 11 attacks has come to light before. But interviews show that the struggle, pitting top officials against one another, intensified behind the scenes over the past year as criticism of the administration's approach grew in the United States and abroad. Crucial elements of that approach were struck down by the Supreme Court on June 29, forcing a resolution of disputes that had gone on for months.

On one side of the fight were officials, often led by Vice President Dick Cheney, who said the terrorism threat required that the president have wide power to decide who could be held and how they should be treated. On the other side were officials, primarily in the State Department and the Pentagon, who portrayed their disagreement as pragmatic. They said the administration had claimed more authority than it needed, drawing widespread criticism and challenges in the courts.

Those officials initially hailed the president's Sept. 6 announcement. Bush publicly discussed the CIA's secret detention program for the first time, saying he had ordered that its remaining 14 prisoners be sent to Guantanamo and tried before military tribunals. The same day, Pentagon officials presented new directives that effectively renounced military use of highly coercive interrogation methods.

But even as the White House negotiated with Congress in recent weeks, administration forces led by the vice president's office reasserted themselves. Officials said Cheney's staff and its government allies played crucial roles in guiding the negotiations, while their adversaries in the administration scrambled to keep up with details of the bargaining.

In the end, the White House pressed Republican senators to accept a broad definition of "unlawful enemy combatants" whom the government can hold indefinitely, to maintain some of the president's control over CIA interrogation methods and to allow the government to present some evidence in military tribunals that is based on hearsay or has been coerced from witnesses.

"Basically, they were left to get back whatever they could from Congress," one senior administration official said, referring to compromises that officials led by Cheney made before the president's announcement. "And they did."

The administration did concede to Senate Republicans on some rules for military commissions, as the tribunals are called. It also backed off its effort to limit its obligations under the Geneva Conventions, but fought to ensure that government personnel would be immunized from prosecution for any treatment of detainees before the end of 2005 that was cruel, inhuman or degrading.

Still, several officials said privately that the detainee legislation might fail to meet a primary goal of those inside the administration who had advocated change: quelling domestic and international criticism and moving past the federal lawsuits that have tied up parts of the detention apparatus since 2002.

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