msnbc.com news services
updated 5/17/2004 6:01:07 PM ET 2004-05-17T22:01:07

The focus of the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal shifted Sunday with a report in Newsweek magazine on whether the Bush administration established a legal basis that opened the door for the mistreatment.

Newsweek reports that, as a way to prevent a repeat of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, “Bush, along with Defense Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft, signed off on a secret system of detention and interrogation that opened the door to such methods.”

Within months of the Sept. 11 attacks, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales reportedly wrote Bush a memo about the terrorism fight and prisoners’ rights under the Geneva Conventions.

“In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions,” Newsweek reports in its May 24 issue, quoting an excerpt from the Gonzales memo.

Video: “It was an approach that they adopted to sidestep the historical safeguards of the Geneva Conventions, which protect the rights of detainees and prisoners of war," Newsweek reports. “In doing so, they overrode the objections of Secretary of State Colin Powell and America's top military lawyers —and they left underlings to sweat the details of what actually happened to prisoners in these lawless places.”

And the Newsweek story reports that U.S. soldiers and CIA operatives “could be accused of war crimes. Among the possible charges: homicide involving deaths during interrogations.”

White House response
Asked on Sunday about the Gonzales memo, the White House said, “It is the policy of the United States to comply with all of our laws and our treaty obligations.”

“I wouldn’t comment on the specific memo without rereading it again,” Powell said. “But ... the Geneva Accord is an important standard in international law and we have to comply with it.”

Video: Iraq prison abuse Powell, interviewed from Jordan by NBC News, left open the possibility of problems up the line from the guards who engaged in abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, the focal point of the scandal. “I don’t see yet any indication that there was a command-climate problem higher up,” he said.

Powell also said Sunday that there were discussions at high levels inside the Bush administration last fall about information from the International Committee of the Red Cross alleging prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.

“We knew that the ICRC had concerns, and in accordance with the matter in which the ICRC does its work, it presented those concerns directly to the command in Baghdad,” Powell said on “Fox News Sunday.” “And I know that some corrective action was taken with respect to those concerns.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expressed concern over the shift in responsibility for the scandal at the prison, where military intelligence personnel were given authority over the military police. “We need to take this as far up as it goes,” McCain said.

Report: Rumsfeld OK’d interrogation plan
The Newsweek article surfaced over the weekend, in the midst of Pentagon denials of a report in The New Yorker magazine that 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 New Yorker story, written by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, said Rumsfeld decided to expand the program last year, broadening a Pentagon operation from the hunt for al-Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan to interrogation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. The New Yorker report was published on the magazine’s Web site. The story hits newsstands on Monday.

The Defense Department strongly denied the claims made in the report, which cited unnamed current and former intelligence officials. Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita issued a statement calling the claims “outlandish, conspiratorial, and filled with error and anonymous conjecture.”

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.

Rumsfeld, who has rejected calls by some Democrats and a number of major newspapers to resign, returned Friday from a surprise trip to Iraq and Abu Ghraib, calling the scandal a "body blow." Seven soldiers have been charged.

The abuse prompted worldwide outrage and has shaken U.S. global prestige as Bush seeks re-election in November. Bush has backed Rumsfeld and said the abuse was abhorrent but represented the wrongful actions of only a few soldiers.

The U.S. military has now prohibited several interrogation methods from being used in Iraq, including sleep and sensory deprivation and body "stress positions," defense officials said Friday.

‘Special access program’
The New Yorker said the interrogation plan was a highly classified "special access program," or SAP, that gave advance approval to kill, capture or interrogate so-called high-value targets in the battle against terrorism.

Video:

Such secret methods were used extensively in Afghanistan but more sparingly in Iraq -- only in the search for former President Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction.

As the Iraqi insurgency grew and more U.S. soldiers died, Rumsfeld and Defense Undersecretary for Intelligence Stephen Cambone expanded the scope to bring the interrogation tactics to Abu Ghraib, the article said.

The magazine, which based its article on interviews with several past and present American intelligence officials, reported the plan was approved and carried out last year after deadly bombings in August at the U.N. headquarters and Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad.

A former intelligence official quoted in the article said Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, approved the program but may not have known about the abuse.

Intelligence told to ‘do what you want’
The rules governing the secret operation were "grab whom you must. Do what you want," the unidentified former intelligence official told the New Yorker.

Rumsfeld left the details of the interrogations to Cambone, the article quoted a Pentagon consultant as saying.

"This is Cambone's deal, but Rumsfeld and Myers approved the program," said the Pentagon consultant in the article.

Defense Department officials deny that, saying prisoners always are treated under guidelines of the Geneva Conventions.

"No responsible official of the Department of Defense approved any program that could conceivably have been intended to result in such abuses as witnessed in the recent photos and videos," Di Rita said in his statement. "This story seems to reflect the fevered insights of those with little, if any, connection to the activities in the Department of Defense."

Di Rita also said Cambone has never had any responsibility for any detainee or interrogation programs.

U.S. admits possible violations
U.S. officials have admitted the abuse may have violated the Geneva Conventions, which governs treatment of prisoners of war.

The intelligence sources told The New Yorker that photos of the sexual abuse were used to intimidate prisoners into providing information on the insurgency. It was thought that some prisoners would do anything — including spying on their associates — to avoid dissemination of the shameful photos to family and friends.

The magazine said the CIA, which approved using high-pressure interrogation tactics against senior al-Qaida leaders after the 2001 attacks, balked at extending them to Iraq and refused to participate.

“They said, 'No way. We signed up for the core program in Afghanistan — pre-approved for operations against the high-value terrorist targets — and now you want to use it for cabdrivers, brothers-in-law, and people pulled off the streets,”’ an intelligence source said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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