Senior Defense Department Officials' Failure to Provide Clear Interrogation Policy Resulted in Abuses, Documents Show

July 10, 2006 12:00 am

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NEW YORK — Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act show that military commanders in Afghanistan requested in January 2003 that the Defense Department clarify which interrogation methods could be used against prisoners held by U.S. forces, but that senior Defense Department officials ignored the request. The ACLU released some of the government documents last week and, after review, released the remainder today.

“It is the Defense Department’s responsibility to ensure that prisoners are treated humanely, as the Geneva Conventions require,” said Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU attorney. “But as these documents show, the Defense Department allowed abusive interrogation practices to flourish.”

The documents, which include the report of Vice Admiral Albert T. Church, who was tapped to conduct a comprehensive review of Defense Department interrogation operations, reveal new details in how several systemic failures in the chain of command manifested themselves, including:

Improvised Interrogation and “Silence as Consent”

According to the Church report, military commanders in Afghanistan sought clarification from United States Central Command (Centcom) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, describing interrogation techniques then being employed and recommending that the techniques be approved as official policy in Afghanistan.

Some of the techniques in the request had been approved by the Secretary of Defense exclusively for use at Guantánamo; some had since been rescinded altogether. When senior officials failed to respond as to whether those techniques were appropriate, the ground command in Afghanistan subsequently adopted their own techniques as policy on the theory that “silence is consent.”

Unclear Guidelines As to What Constitutes “Sleep Deprivation”

According to a report by Brigadier General Richard Formica, as late as May 2004 Coalition Joint Task Force-7 was operating under a set of rules that had been approved by Gen. Sanchez in September of 2003, but rescinded a month later. The September order included approval of the use of military dogs, stress positions, sleep adjustment and environmental manipulation. All of these techniques were rescinded in an October memo.

The new documents reveal that an officer on the ground tried to confirm the policy in February 2004, asking of the September Sanchez memo “Can you verify that this is a valid, signed policy? If not, can you send me (or steer me toward) the current policy?” The officer received a reply that consisted of a copy of the signed September memo and no mention of the October memo. It wasn’t until May 21, 2004 that, after some media attention, “anyone in [the unit] became aware that the 14 Sep 03 policy had been superceded.” Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld later approved “sleep adjustment” but not “sleep deprivation,” which was defined as “keeping detainee awake for more than 16 hours or allowing a detainee to rest briefly and then repeatedly awakening him, not to exceed four days in succession.”

  • One commander at Guantánamo came up with his own definition of sleep deprivation – “I define ‘sleep deprivation’ as keeping a detainee awake continuously for five or six day’s [sic] straight.”
  • Based on the advice of military lawyers and an United States Army Ranger course in which soldiers were subjected to days that lasted for 20 hours, a unit devised its own policy on how long detainees could be interrogated. “If it was okay to subject our soldiers to twenty-hour days, then in our mind’s [sic] it was okay to subject the terrorists to twenty-hour interrogations.”
  • In at least one instance, a detainee was interrogated for 20 hours every day for almost two months.

Lack of Guidelines and Enforcement

Evidence in the Church Report also suggests that in developing techniques, interrogators interpreted the rules extremely broadly. In particular, Alpha Company, 519th MI Battalion developed a variety of techniques that went well beyond those authorized. Some of these techniques, including stress positions, were similar to those authorized by the Secretary of Defense in December 2002 for use at Guantánamo. Loopholes in the language and lack of oversight allowed these practices to continue.

  • In an investigation in which Marines were ordered by a superior officer to strip detainees and take their money, an investigator stated that, “the alleged conduct is a pattern of abuse of detainees in direct contravention to the Marine policy of ‘No Better Friend, no worse enemy,’ as well as the law of war. A Senior Naval Officer’s conduct of publicly humiliating these Iraqis clearly jeopardized the Battalion’s mission and the Battalion’s standing with the public….these acts could have been a “tipping point” resulting in hostility against coalition forces.”
  • A detainee named Awayed Wanas Jabar died in U.S. custody in Iraq after having his legs tied to the bars of a window and a strap of engineer tape tied tightly around his midsection. A preliminary inquiry stated that, “His position resembled that of a person who had been crucified.” According to one Marine, the detainee seemed “exhausted, with his entire bodyweight appearing to be supported by the strap around his midsection.” Jabar remained in that position for at least an hour and a half and died approximately 15 minutes after the tape was cut. Because no autopsy was conducted, an investigation was unable to conclude if the cause of death was asphyxia.

The Church Report also identified several cases in which medical personnel failed to act after witnessing behavior that should have led them to suspect detainee abuse. The report found two cases where military physicians in Bagram reported no evidence of trauma when subsequent autopsies found severe soft tissue injuries. In one instance in Iraq, military physicians documented concerns about possible detainee abuse in a memorandum dated six months after the detainee’s death.

“These documents further confirm that systemic command failures led to the widespread abuse of detainees held in U.S. custody abroad,” said ACLU staff attorney Amrit Singh. “Only an independent investigation into detainee abuse can be trusted to hold relevant officials accountable for such failures.”

The full Church Report, along with other documents released to the ACLU, is available online at:

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