updated 3/27/2009 6:41:13 PM ET 2009-03-27T22:41:13

A former State Department lawyer responsible for Guantanamo-related cases said Friday that the Bush administration overreacted after 9/11 and set up a system in which torture occurred.

Vijay Padmanabhan is at least the second former Bush administration official to publicly label “enhanced interrogation techniques” as torture. He said the administration was wrong in its entire approach when it sent detainees to the remote Navy base and declared it out of reach of any court.

“I think Guantanamo was one of the worst overreactions of the Bush administration,” Padmanabhan told The Associated Press. He said other overreactions included extraordinary renditions, waterboarding that occurred at secret CIA prisons and “other enhanced interrogation techniques that would constitute torture.”

“The idea that you’re going to be able to hold someone and detain someone where there is not an applicable legal regime governing their detention, rules, treatment, standards, etc. is, I think, foolish,” he said.

The criticisms from Padmanabhan, the department’s chief counsel on Guantanamo litigation, are among the harshest yet made by a former Bush administration insider.

President George W. Bush always denied the U.S. tortured anyone. The U.S. has acknowledged that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described plotter of Sept. 11, and a few other prisoners were waterboarded at secret CIA prisons before being taken to Guantanamo, but the Bush administration insisted that all interrogations were lawful.

Padmanabhan said he believes these tactics — which the International Committee of the Red Cross has also described as torture — were approved because the White House was shocked by the Sept. 11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, and wanted to prevent other horrors.

“These are not things that I think any American president would have authorized had they been in a calmer environment,” Padmanabhan told AP in a telephone interview.

Dissent about policy
The first Bush administration official to publicly describe these acts as torture, Susan. J. Crawford, is the military official in charge of trying Guantanamo Bay detainees. She said in January that the United States tortured a Saudi detainee in 2002, preventing her from bringing him to trial.

Padmanabhan said the Bush administration’s position invited a Supreme Court clash, which it lost when the justices ruled that Guantanamo detainees do have the right to contest their detention in U.S. courts.

Padmanabhan, who now teaches at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, said there was plenty of dissent when detention policy was being formulated. But he said attorney-client privilege prevents him from describing what positions he advocated at the State Department.

“I can’t reveal the specific advice I gave my clients,” he said. “There always were, in all of these issues, a good diversity of viewpoints and a robust discussion. Ultimately, decisions had to be taken.”

Many prisoners allegedly innocent
Mirroring comments made to the AP this month by Lawrence Wilkerson, another former State Department official, Padmanabhan said many of the men brought to Guantanamo were innocent.

“There were a lot of people in the early days who had no business being there that were subsequently sent home,” said Padmanabhan, who negotiated repatriations with detainees’ home countries.

A total of almost 800 men have been held at the military base in Cuba since the detention center opened in January 2002. The number has boiled down to 240, and there are proportionately fewer innocent men there now, Padmanabhan said, with most having “some connection to al-Qaida or the Taliban.”

He says it was misguided for the administration to insist that the detainees were not subject to the Geneva Conventions or U.S. or international law. The Bush administration argued that the detainees wore no uniforms, fought under no nation’s flag and violated the rules of war, and therefore deserved no Geneva Conventions protections.

In one of his first official acts, President Barack Obama said the detainees have rights under the Geneva conventions.

Padmanabhan is preparing to give a presentation on Wednesday on Guantanamo at his law school.

The State Department declined to comment on the substance of Padmanabhan’s comments. Instead, it noted the Bush administration’s repeated statements that it did not torture Guantanamo detainees, and reiterated Obama’s no-torture pledge.

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