WASHINGTON — In an extraordinary disclosure of classified material, the Bush administration released 258 pages of internal documents Tuesday that portray harsh interrogation techniques — including stripping terror suspects and threatening them with dogs — as a necessary response to threats from al-Qaida terrorists.
The release of lists of interrogation techniques and other documents previously kept secret even from U.S. allies was a bid by the administration to quiet harsh criticism over its handling of prisoners in the war on terror and the conflict in Iraq.
Though some of the memos argued that Bush had the right to approve torture, the administration said it had never done so, and pointed to techniques it said fell far short of torture. In a separate press briefing Tuesday, the Justice Department backed away from a memo written in 2002 that appeared to justify the use of torture in the war on terror. That memo argued that the president’s wartime powers superseded anti-torture laws and treaties.
Bush made his most explicit comments yet about the issue Tuesday: “We do not condone torture. I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture,” Bush said.
The documents reveal Bush, senior administration officials and hard-pressed commanders in the field grappling with the need to extract information about future terror attacks from suspects skilled at defeating many interrogation techniques. In a Feb. 7, 2002, finding, Bush said the Sept. 11 terror attacks require “new thinking in the law of war.”
Bush said al-Qaida members and their Taliban allies in Afghanistan were not covered by the protections of the Geneva Convention. But he ordered U.S. armed forces to treat them “humanely” anyway, and to observe Geneva Convention standards “to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity.”
Just such a necessity arose months later when the first anniversary of Sept. 11 brought new fears of terror attack. Intelligence officers at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, told their superiors that Mohamed al-Kahtani, believed to be the would-be 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 plot, was withholding information about new attacks, Daniel Dell’Orto, the Pentagon’s deputy general counsel told reporters at a White House briefing Tuesday.
The alert set in motion a review that culminated with a Nov. 27, 2002, “action memo” in which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved interrogation techniques that included “removal of clothing” and “inducing stress by use of detainee’s fears (e.g. dogs).”
Eventually, after military officers raised moral and legal concerns about the techniques and the Pentagon conducted an internal review, Rumsfeld issued revised rules for Guantanamo in April 2003 that omitted the stripping and use of dogs.