Torture begins at the top

A recently disclosed FBI memo indicates that "marching orders" to abandon traditional interrogation methods came from Defense Secretary Rumsfeld himself.

Published December 17, 2004 9:43PM (EST)

Renewed exposure of prisoner abuse, torture and even murder by American military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan is widening already deep divisions between the Pentagon and the intelligence community -- and creating an untenable situation for Donald Rumsfeld, the beleaguered secretary of defense. A recently disclosed FBI memo indicates that "marching orders" to abandon traditional interrogation methods came from the defense secretary himself.

In recent days, a coalition of human rights groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights has brought new cases of abuse to public attention. Using the Freedom of Information Act, they have pried thousands of pages of previously secret documents from the Defense Department and other agencies.

Even after the shock of Abu Ghraib, these substantiated stories of cruelty, sadism and lawlessness are stunning. Files from the Navy's Criminal Investigative Service describe how U.S. Marines ordered four Iraqi teenagers to kneel while a gun was "discharged to conduct a mock execution"; how they inflicted severe burns on a detainee's hands with flaming alcohol; and how they tortured another detainee with an electric transformer, making him "dance." In June, a Navy investigator revealed in an e-mail that his caseload of "high visibility" cases of abuse was "exploding." As a result of such offenses, at least two Marines were convicted and sent to prison.

If justice has been done in a few cases, the ACLU documents show that abuses were more common -- and more extreme -- than the Bush administration had previously conceded. More important, however, the documents show that the impetus for abuse came from above, not below. The use of coercive and violent methods spread from Guantánamo Bay, where alleged Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners are incarcerated, to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The documents also show that officers from the CIA, the FBI and the Defense Intelligence Agency lodged "heated" objections to the abusive methods of interrogation used by the military, denouncing them in previously secret memoranda as not only unethical but useless and destructive.

In the files released by the government, FBI officials with special expertise in counterterrorism and interrogation techniques recorded their ongoing debate with Army officers about the harsh, coercive techniques authorized by the Pentagon. They were as concerned about the efficacy of those methods -- which they believe often produce poor intelligence -- as with possible violations of law and regulations. But the commanders overseeing the military interrogations simply dismissed the sharp warnings of the law enforcement and intelligence officers.

The abuses continued, in some cases even after the initial furor over Abu Ghraib. What's more, an internal FBI memo indicates that the directive to discard traditional restraints came from the very highest civilian official in the Pentagon: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

That revealing memo is dated May 10, 2004, a time when the Abu Ghraib revelations were humiliating the United States before the entire world. An e-mail, it is addressed to FBI counterterrorism officer Thomas J. Harrington from an agent whose name is redacted (along with much else), and its subject is captioned "Instructions to GTMO [Guantánamo] Interrogators." The memo's obvious purpose is to set down, for the record, the FBI's opposition to the Pentagon's use of coercive and abusive methods when questioning the Guantánamo detainees. It describes the FBI's fundamental disagreement over interrogation tactics with Gen. Geoffrey Miller and Gen. Michael Dunlavey, then the military commanders at Guantánamo Bay.

"I will have to do some digging into old files," the unnamed author begins. "We did advise each supervisor that went to GTMO to stay in line with Bureau policy and not deviate from that ... I went to GTMO ... We had also met with Generals Dunlevy & Miller explaining our position (Law Enforcement Techniques) vs. DoD [Department of Defense]. Both agreed the Bureau has their way of doing business and DoD has their marching orders from the SecDef [Secretary of Defense]. Although the two techniques [of interrogation] differed drastically, both Generals believed they had a job to accomplish."

The e-mail goes on to recall how, during the questioning of one prisoner, the Pentagon interrogators wanted to "pursue expeditiously their methods" to "get more out of him ... We were given a so-called deadline to use our traditional methods."

Scott Horton, a New York lawyer and president of the International League for Human Rights, has spent months investigating the role Bush administration officials played in the torture scandal. He says there is mounting evidence -- including the May 10 FBI e-mail -- that strongly suggests that Rumsfeld and his top intelligence aides were directly responsible for the wholesale abandonment of legal and ethical norms as well as international treaty obligations. Now that Republican senators and neoconservative ideologues are publicly turning their backs on the defense secretary, perhaps even he may someday be held accountable for this disgraceful stain on the honor of the U.S. armed forces.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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Abu Ghraib Donald Rumsfeld Fbi