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Interrogation abuses were 'approved at highest levels'


London telegraph
By Julian Coman in Washington
(Filed: 13/06/2004)

New evidence that the physical abuse of detainees in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay was authorised at the top of the Bush administration will emerge in Washington this week, adding further to pressure on the White House.

The Telegraph understands that four confidential Red Cross documents implicating senior Pentagon civilians in the Abu Ghraib scandal have been passed to an American television network, which is preparing to make them public shortly.

According to lawyers familiar with the Red Cross reports, they will contradict previous testimony by senior Pentagon officials who have claimed that the abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison was an isolated incident.

"There are some extremely damaging documents around, which link senior figures to the abuses," said Scott Horton, the former chairman of the New York Bar Association, who has been advising Pentagon lawyers unhappy at the administration's approach. "The biggest bombs in this case have yet to be dropped."

A string of leaked government memos over the past few days has revealed that President George W Bush was advised by Justice Department officials and the White House lawyer, Alberto Gonzalez, that Geneva Conventions on torture did not apply to "unlawful combatants", captured during the war on terror.

Members of Congress are now demanding access to all White House memos on interrogation techniques, a request so far refused by the United States attorney-general, John Ashcroft.

As the growing scandal threatens to undermine President Bush's re-election campaign, senior aides have acknowledged for the first time that the abuse of detainees can no longer be presented as the isolated acts of a handful of soldiers at the Abu Ghraib.

"It's now clear to everyone that there was a debate in the administration about how far interrogators could go," said a legal adviser to the Pentagon. "And the answer they came up with was 'pretty far'. Now that it's in the open, the administration is having to change that answer somewhat."

In the latest revelation, yesterday's Washington Post published leaked documents revealing that Gen Ricardo Sanchez, the senior US officer in Iraq, approved the use of dogs, temperature extremes, reversed sleep patterns and sensory deprivation for prisoners whenever senior officials at the Abu Ghraib jail wished. A memo dated October 9, 2003 on "Interrogation Rules of Engagement", which each military intelligence officer was obliged to sign, set out in detail the wide range of pressure tactics they could use - including stress positions and solitary confinement for more than 30 days.

The White House has ordered a damage-limitation exercise to try to prevent the abuse row undermining President Bush's re-election campaign. Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defence, has ordered that all deaths of detainees held in US military custody are to be reported immediately to criminal investigators. Deaths in custody will also be reported to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Richard Myers, and to Mr Rumsfeld himself.

The Pentagon has also announced an investigation into the condition of inmates at Guantanamo Bay, where more than 600 prisoners suspected of links with al-Qaeda are being held. The inquiry will be led by Vice-Adml Albert Church, who has been ordered to investigate reports that extreme interrogation techniques "migrated" from Guantanamo to Iraq. "This is not going to be a whitewash," said the Pentagon adviser. "The administration is finally realising how damaging this scandal could become."

A new investigator has also been appointed to lead the inquiry into abuse at Abu Ghraib. Gen George Fay, a two-star general, will be replaced by a more senior officer. Gen Fay, according to US military convention, did not have the authority to question his superiors. His replacement indicates that the Abu Ghraib inquiry will now go far beyond the activities of the seven military police personnel accused of mistreating Iraqi detainees.

Legal and constitutional experts have expressed astonishment at the judgments made by administration lawyers on interrogation techniques. In one memo, written in January 2002, Mr Gonzalez told President Bush that the nature of the war on terror "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions".

Scott Silliman, a former US air force lawyer and the director of the Centre for Law Ethics and National Security at Duke University, said: "What you have is a culture of avoidance of law rather than compliance with it."

A separate memo, written by Pentagon lawyers in March 2003, stated that "the infliction of pain or suffering per se, whether it is physical or mental is insufficient to amount to torture. [The pain] must be of such a high level of intensity that it is difficult for the subject to endure".

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