Monday, February 20, 2006

Report: Pentagon ignored repeated warnings on torture and abuse

By Tom Regan | csmonitor.com

Two years before the Abu Ghraib scandal became public, the Navy's general counsel warned the Pentagon that ignoring international agreements on torture and the treatment of detainees would invite abuse by US forces.

The Associated Press reports that Alberto Mora summarized his longstanding concerns in a secret memo to senior Pentagon officials dated July 7, 2004, writing that "legal theories granting the president the right to authorize abuse in spite of the Geneva Conventions were unlawful, dangerous and erroneous."

The 22-page memo was obtained by The New Yorker magazine for its Feb. 27 issue. A spokeswoman for the Department of Defense said she had not read the issue.

Mora said Navy intelligence officers reported in 2002 that military-intelligence interrogators at the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were engaging in escalating levels of physical and psychological abuse rumored to have been authorized at a high level in Washington.

"I was appalled by the whole thing," Mora told the magazine. "It was clearly abusive and it was clearly contrary to everything we were ever taught about American values."

When the news first broke about Abu Ghraib, Mr. Mora told The New Yorker that he felt "stunned" and "dismayed" that what he had warned against had broken out in a different location. Mora's memo also shows "a different narrative" from the one put forward by the Bush administration.

Top Administration officials have stressed that the interrogation policy was reviewed and sanctioned by government lawyers; last November, President Bush said, “Any activity we conduct is within the law. We do not torture.” Mora’s memo, however, shows that almost from the start of the Administration’s war on terror the White House, the Justice Department, and the Department of Defense, intent upon having greater flexibility, charted a legally questionable course despite sustained objections from some of its own lawyers.

Mora's concerns were first reported in June 2005 by ABC News. At that time notes from meetings showed that Mora, a lifelong Republican who was a Bush political appointee and a strong supporter of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Mora was in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001), had warned his superiors that they might be breaking the law.

During a January 2003 meeting involving top Pentagon lawyer William Haynes and other officials, the memo shows that Mora warned that "use of coercive techniques … has military, legal, and political implication … has international implication … and exposes us to liability and criminal prosecution." Mora's deep concerns about interrogations at Guantanamo have been known, but not his warning that top officials could go to prison.

In another meeting held March 8, 2003, the group of top Pentagon lawyers concluded – according to the memo – "we need a presidential letter approving the use of the controversial interrogation to cover those who may be called upon to use them." No such letter was issued.

The New York Times details Mora's fight to change the interrogation techniques that had been approved by Mr. Rumsfeld. He was able to change the first set of "coercive techniques that Mr. Rumsfeld approved for interrogators at Guantánamo Bay on Dec. 2, 2002," but only after he threatened to issue a formal memorandum on his opposition to the methods. But he was unable to affect the second set of techniques approved by Rumsfeld.

In a break from standard practice, former Pentagon lawyers said, the final draft of the report on interrogation techniques was not circulated to most of the lawyers, including Mr. Mora, who had contributed to it. Several of them said they learned that a final version had been issued only after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke.

Mora retired on Dec. 31 after four years as the Navy's general counsel. He is currently a general counsel for Wal-Mart.

On Friday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld again rejected calls from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and other international leaders to close the Guantánamo Bay prison. He also denied accusations of torture and abuse.

"He's just flat wrong. We shouldn't close Guantanamo," Rumsfeld said of Annan. "We have several hundred terrorists, bad people, people who if they went back out on the field would try to kill Americans. ... To close that place and pretend that really there's no problem just isn't realistic."

Rumsfeld was speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, a day after a report by five United Nations special envoys called for closing the prison at the US naval base in Cuba. The report accused the United States of violating bans on torture and arbitrary detention and the right to a fair trial.

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