Evidence of prisoner abuse and possible war crimes at Guantánamo Bay reached the highest levels of the Bush administration as early as autumn 2002, but Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, chose to do nothing about it, according to a new investigation published exclusively in the Guardian today.
The investigation, by the veteran journalist Seymour Hersh, quotes one former marine at the camp recalling sessions in which guards would “fuck with [detainees] as much as we could” by inflicting pain on them.
The Bush administration repeatedly assured critics that inmates were granted recreation periods, but one Pentagon adviser told Hersh how, for some prisoners, they consisted of being left in straitjackets in intense sunlight with hoods over their heads.
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Hersh provides details of how President George Bush signed off on the establishment of a secret unit that was given advance approval to kill or capture and interrogate “high-value” suspects – considered by many to be in defiance of international law – an officially “unacknowledged” programme that was eventually transferred wholesale from Guantánamo to the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Hersh, who broke the story of the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam war, makes his revelations in a new book, Chain of Command, which leaves senior figures in the Bush administration far more seriously implicated in the torture scandal than had been previously apparent.
A CIA analyst visited Guantánamo in summer 2002 and returned “convinced that we were committing war crimes” and that “more than half the people there didn’t belong there. He found people lying in their own faeces,” a CIA source told Hersh.
The analyst submitted a report to General John Gordon, an aide to Condoleezza Rice, Mr Bush’s national security adviser.
Gen Gordon was troubled, and, one former administration official told Hersh “that if the actions at Guantánamo ever became public, it’d be damaging to the president”.
Ms Rice saw the document by autumn of the same year, and called a high-level meeting at which she asked Mr Rumsfeld, to deal with the problem.
But after he vowed to act, “the Pentagon went into a full-court stall”, a former White House official is quoted as saying. “Why didn’t Condi do more? She made the same mistake I made. She got the secretary of defence to say he’s going to take care of it.”
The investigation further suggests that CIA and FBI staff had already witnessed incidents at Guantánamo just as extreme as those that would subsequently be alleged by freed inmates.
A senior intelligence official told Hersh: “I was told [by FBI agents] that the military guards were slapping prisoners, stripping them, pouring cold water over them and making them stand until they got hypothermia.”
The secret “special access programme” facilitating much of the mistreatment of prisoners, widely held to have contravened the Geneva convention, was established following a direct order from the president.
Hersh reports that a secret document signed by Mr Bush in February 2002 stated: “I determine that none of the provisions of Geneva apply to our conflict with al-Qaida in Afghanistan or elsewhere throughout the world.”
Hersh’s book reports that an army officer communicated concerns over abuses at Abu Ghraib both to General John Abizaid, the US central command (Centcom) chief at the time, and his deputy, General Lance Smith.
The officer told Hersh: “I said there are systematic abuses going on in the prisons. Abizaid didn’t say a thing. He looked at me – beyond me, as if to say, ‘Move on. I don’t want to touch this.'” Centcom has disputed the allegation.
In an interview with the Guardian, Hersh provided evidence that the administration sought to evade the issue: he said codenames of some programmes were changed within hours of his original story appearing, presumably to maintain their secrecy.
In a statement, the Pentagon said Hersh’s investigation “apparently contains many of the numerous unsubstantiated allegations and inaccuracies which he has made in the past based upon unnamed sources … Thus far … investigations have determined that no responsible official of the Department of Defence approved any programme that could conceivably have authorised or condoned the abuses seen at Abu Ghraib. If any of Mr Hersh’s anonymous sources wish to come forward and offer evidence to the contrary, the department welcomes them to do so.”
Pressure has been building on the Pentagon over its detention policies after it emerged at a Congressional hearing last week that the administration is being accused of concealing up to 100 “ghost detainees” from the Red Cross, which must be granted access to prisoners of war and other detainees under the Geneva convention.
Mr Rumsfeld told reporters on Friday he had approved the use of harsh interrogation measures, but that they had only been meant for Guantánamo. He said the measures ought to be contrasted with those of terrorists. “Does it rank up there with chopping someone’s head off on television?” he asked. “It doesn’t.”