msnbc.com news services
updated 5/21/2004 2:20:39 PM ET 2004-05-21T18:20:39

Senior military lawyers in Washington objected to the use of techniques that were harsher than permitted under standard military doctrine in the first year of interrogations at the U.S.-run prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the Defense Department has revealed.

As their protests “became more apparent” in late 2002, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ended the use of such tactics pending the outcome of a comprehensive review that stretched from mid-January 2003 to mid-April, a senior civilian lawyer for the Defense Department told reporters Thursday.

The lawyer, who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity because details are classified secret, said Rumsfeld approved new guidelines in April 2003 that won the military lawyers’ blessing.

Those guidelines are different — allowing harsher methods — from the approaches used in Iraq because the Bush administration deems all prisoners in Iraq to be covered by prisoner protections of the Geneva Conventions, whereas those at Guantanamo Bay are not, the lawyer said.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said Friday that his government was pressing the Defense Department to respond to allegations that two Australian terror suspects, David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib, were abused while in U.S. detention in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. The two men have been held without charge for more than two years at Guantanamo Bay.

Intelligence vs. ‘need to do it right’
Lawrence Di Rita, Rumsfeld’s chief spokesman, confirmed the basic timeline of the Guantanamo Bay interrogation policy but said he could not reveal specifics about the techniques used there.

“It’s highly sensitive information,” he said. “Everybody [was] mindful of the uniqueness — it was new, it was complicated, and it was balancing the need for intelligence versus the need to do it right.

“It was a hard darn problem because we did have known al-Qaida [members] down there and known al-Qaida who were believed to have information involving attacks on the United States,” he added.

Di Rita described the interrogation tactics used at Guantanamo Bay earlier in 2002 as “non-doctrinal.” This means they were not in accordance with the military doctrine written to apply to interrogations of prisoners of war, not terrorists.

The military lawyers believed that some of those techniques went too far, other officials said. They also questioned the policy of not applying the Geneva Conventions at Guantanamo.

Di Rita said the guidelines Rumsfeld approved for Guantanamo Bay in April 2003 were secret and would not be made public. But another U.S. official told Reuters that “a couple of dozen more aggressive” interrogation methods if higher officials give their approval.

The official said those methods probably included some of the techniques that have now been placed off limits for use in Iraq, including sensory and sleep deprivation, “dietary manipulation,” the presence of guard dogs and body “stress positions.”

U.S. defends Guantanamo procedures
Recently, questions about limits on interrogation techniques and detention methods have focused mainly on U.S.-run prisons in Iraq, following revelations about abusive methods used against Iraqis. Investigators also are checking U.S. interrogation practices in Afghanistan, but the Defense Department has not acknowledged serious shortcomings at Guantanamo Bay.

In fact, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, a former commander of the Guantanamo Bay prison complex who has been put in charge of facilities in Iraq, told a Senate committee Wednesday that there “was no systemic abuse at Guantanamo at any time.”

Slideshow: Inside Guantanamo

Di Rita stressed that military commanders at Guantanamo Bay faced a difficult situation because the people held there — most of them Taliban and al-Qaida fighters captured during the war in Afghanistan in 2001 — were considered terrorists and could have time-sensitive information.

“You had intelligence officials that were tugging in a direction that might have been different from lawyers, and that’s fair,” Di Rita said. “This is a process that involves, by definition, some tension.”

Specific prisoner triggered changes
Adding urgency was the suspicion by U.S. intelligence officials that one prisoner at Guantanamo — whom Di Rita did not identify — had information about a planned future attack on the United States. The New York Times identified the prisoner Friday as Mohamed al-Qahtani, who U.S. officials believe may have planned to be the 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Interrogators at Guantanamo Bay wanted to use harsher methods against the prisoner in late 2002. Military lawyers objected to at least some of those proposed methods. “As that anxiety became more apparent,” Rumsfeld ordered the Defense Department’s top civilian lawyer, Jim Haynes, to create an internal working group to examine the issues more fully, a senior defense lawyer said.

Officials would not say whether the prisoner ultimately provided information used to pre-empt an attack on the United States. The senior official said “no extraordinary” interrogation techniques were used.

The Pentagon has not been entirely clear in public statements about events related to interrogation policies and practices at Guantanamo Bay, Di Rita said, because it has not fully recreated a timeline that reaches back to January 2002, when interrogations started at Guantanamo Bay.

Rumsfeld has ordered defense officials to systematically review how detainee and interrogation guidelines evolved, he added.

Red Cross staff to visit Guantanamo
The International Committee of the Red Cross will return to Guantanamo Bay for another inspection at the end of the month, a spokesman, Florian Westphal, said Friday.

The team of delegates and interpreters is expected to spend several weeks at the prison checking on conditions and holding private interviews with detainees, he said, adding that the Red Cross would not reveal the exact dates of the visit.

Red Cross delegates last visited Guantanamo in February and March. After the visit, the Swiss-run agency gave U.S. authorities a report on the treatment of prisoners there. It has declined to make any details of the report public, in line with its usual practice.

Confidentiality is necessary because “we want to ensure continued access. It is essential for us to be able to do our job,” Westphal said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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