NEW YORK — Secretary of State Colin Powell said Monday that the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal had had a “terrible impact” on America’s international image as the Bush administration fought back against reports that it encouraged the abuses by emphasizing a get-tough approach to interrogations.
In a commencement address at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., Powell said the furor over U.S. abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib detention facility was a recurring theme at an international economic conference he attended in Jordan over the weekend.
He said he told the foreign leaders: “Watch America. Watch how we deal with this. Watch how America will do the right thing.”
In the face of worldwide outrage at photographs and video clips depicting Iraqi prisoners’ being mistreated at Abu Ghraib, the State Department went ahead Monday and released its annual report on the Bush administration’s efforts to advance human rights and democracy in 101 countries, Iraq included.Video: Infighting at the top
The report had been scheduled for publication May 5, but it was postponed out of concern that anger over the prisoner scandal would eclipse any positive news.
In Iraq, the report said, the United States, working with other countries and international organizations, has sought “to address the effects of decades of political repression and human rights violations.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who released the report, said Monday that the Abu Ghraib incidents had not robbed the United States of its moral authority to expose excesses by undemocratic governments.
“Who would be better off if we self-consciously turned inward and ignored human rights abuses elsewhere — in places like Burma and Zimbabwe and Belarus?” Armitage asked.
U.S. denies damaging reports
The report, a companion to an earlier annual document criticizing other countries’ human rights abuses, was published the same day as the Bush administration fought accusations that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorized expansion of a secret program that encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners to obtain intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq.
The reports, in The New Yorker and Newsweek magazines, said Rumsfeld’s decision last year broadened a Defense Department operation from the hunt for al-Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan to interrogation of prisoners in Iraq.
Asked about The New Yorker’s assertion that a CIA official had confirmed Rumsfeld’s decision, Bill Harlow, a spokesman for the CIA, issued a strong denial Monday.
“The New Yorker story is fundamentally wrong. There was no DOD [Defense Department]/CIA program to abuse and humiliate Iraqi prisoners, despite what is alleged in the article,” Harlow said in a statement. “I am aware of no CIA official who would or possibly could have confirmed the details of the New Yorker's inaccurate account.”
The Defense Department also denounced the report. Spokesman Lawrence Di Rita issued a statement Sunday calling the claims “outlandish, conspiratorial, and filled with error and anonymous conjecture.”
Guantanamo-Abu Ghraib link?
The administration also denied Newsweek’s report that a memo by White House counsel Alberto Gonzales contributed to Rumsfeld’s decision.
The memo, which Newsweek said was issued over Powell’s strong objections in January 2002, urged President Bush to stick with his pronouncement that members of al-Qaida and the Taliban government who were taken captive in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were not entitled to the protection of the Geneva Conventions, the series of international treaties regulating the treatment of prisoners of war, Newsweek reported in its May 24 issue.
It said the exemption for those prisoners, most of whom have been held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, “substantially reduces the threat of domestic criminal prosecution under the War Crimes Act.” (Newsweek posted the memo in PDF format Monday on its Web site.)
Gonzales told NBC News on Monday night that there was no evidence linking his determination on al-Qaida detainees to the abuse in Iraq, where, he said, the Geneva Conventions protections are supposed to apply.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan concurred, telling reporters that the memo “related specifically to al-Qaida and the Taliban. It did not reference Iraq at all. We have made it clear that we are bound by the Geneva Conventions in Iraq.”
But defense sources said Monday that the memo was used to provide the legal justification for the Defense Department to adopt its new approach in interrogations of prisoners in Iraq.
Sources told NBC News that Rumsfeld never directly ordered tougher interrogations. But they said he frequently raised the issue with Gen. John Abizaid, the head of U.S. Central Command, and directed Undersecretary of Defense Stephen Cambone last August to determine whether the same aggressive techniques that produced some successes at Guantanamo Bay should also be used in Iraq.
A few weeks later, in September, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, issued new orders for more aggressive interrogations.
International law experts, including one who was a senior military lawyer at the time Gonzales wrote his memo, said Monday that the policy on detainees at Guantanamo Bay opened the door to the abuses that occurred in Iraq.
Retired Rear Adm. Donald Guter, the Navy’s judge advocate general from 2000 to 2002, said defense officials decided that the war on terrorism would be fought under their rules.
“I think there was a sense that this was a war that, whatever needed to be done, had to be done,” Guter told NBC News on Monday.
Robert Goldman, a professor of the law of armed conflict at American University in Washington and a former member of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, told NBC News that the ruling “set a tone of wanting effectively to skirt what our legal obligations were, by saying this is all brand new — the laws of war really don’t apply to this.”
Rumsfeld was scheduled to brief House members in a closed meeting Tuesday.
Four soldiers in court this week
U.S. interrogation techniques have come under scrutiny amid revelations that prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison were kept naked, stacked on top of one another, forced to engage in sex acts and photographed in humiliating poses.
The military said in a statement Monday that four of the seven U.S. soldiers accused in the scandal were scheduled to appear in court Wednesday in Baghdad.
Three — Staff Sgt. Ivan “Chip” Frederick, Sgt. Javal Davis and Cpl. Charles Graner — face multiple charges at general courts-martial. They will formally hear the charges and may enter pleas at arraignment hearings Wednesday. If convicted, they could be sentenced to several years in prison.
Later in the day, the fourth soldier, Spc. Jeremy C. Sivits, will appear before a special court-martial, which can impose a one-year sentence at most. Sivits, 24, of Hyndman, Pa., is expected to plead guilty to lesser charges and has been reported to be cooperating with military investigators.
In transcripts of his statements to investigators, which were provided to several newspapers last week, Sivits said his superiors were unaware of the abuse, which came to light after another guard tipped authorities in January. The six other soldiers have said they were acting on orders from their superiors or from military intelligence.
Sivits’ statements accused Graner, who faces seven charges, including maltreatment, cruelty and adultery, of being a ringleader of the abuse.
Frederick and Davis face five charges, four of them similar: maltreatment, conspiracy to maltreat, dereliction of duty and assault. Frederick is also charged with indecency and Davis with lying in an official statement.
NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski, David Gregory and Alicia Jennings, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.