Roots of Abu Ghraib

Bush and his closest advisors knew about the prisoner abuse at Guantanamo but chose to do nothing, Seymour Hersh says in his new book, "Chain of Command."

Published September 13, 2004 1:32PM (EDT)

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 Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld chose to do nothing about it, according to a new investigation published exclusively in the Guardian today. The investigation, by 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 advisor told Hersh how, for some prisoners, they consisted of being left in straitjackets in intense sunlight with hoods over their heads.

Hersh provides details of how President 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" program that was eventually transferred wholesale from Guantánamo to the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Hersh, who broke the story of the My Lai massacre during 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 feces," a CIA source told Hersh.

The analyst submitted a report to Gen. John Gordon, an aide to Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security advisor. Gen. Gordon was troubled and felt, one former administration official told Hersh, "that if the actions at Guantánamo ever became public, it'd be damaging to the president." Rice saw the document by autumn of the same year, and called a high-level meeting at which she asked 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 defense 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 program" that facilitated much of the mistreatment of prisoners -- widely held to have contravened the Geneva Convention -- was established after a direct order from the President Bush. Hersh reports that a secret document signed by 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 Gen. John Abizaid, the U.S. Central Command (Centcom) chief at the time, and his deputy, Gen. 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 disputes the claim.

In an interview with the Guardian, Hersh provided evidence that the administration sought to evade the issue; he said code names of some programs 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 Defense approved any program that could conceivably have authorized 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 from the Red Cross up to 100 "ghost detainees." Rumsfeld told reporters Sept. 10 that 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."

By Oliver Burkeman

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