NBC News and news services
updated 6/24/2004 6:26:16 PM ET 2004-06-24T22:26:16

The Bush administration did not ease its hard-line tactics for interrogating terrorist suspects until after State Department and military officials repeatedly raised concerns that the tactics could violate international and U.S. law, memos released by the White House show.

In an order less than four months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President Bush said the Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners did not apply to al-Qaida and Taliban suspects, such as those imprisoned at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Bush’s order followed the advice of Justice Department lawyers who argued in a memo that the conventions could not apply to an international terrorist group or militia members who did not follow the laws of war themselves.

The Justice Department disavowed that memo and was rewriting its legal advice Wednesday. Justice Department officials said lawyers would take several weeks reviewing and revising several key 2002 documents, especially the key 50-page memo that critics have characterized as setting the legal tone for the mistreatment of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.

Documents showed that Secretary of State Colin Powell vigorously opposed carving out exceptions to the Geneva Conventions, the series of international treaties that governs the treatment of prisoners of war.

By ignoring the conventions, Powell wrote to White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez in January 2002, “will reverse over a century of U.S. policy and practice in supporting the Geneva conventions and undermine the protections of the law of war for our troops, both in this specific conflict and in general.”

Military quickly sought clarification
Bush ordered that all prisoners be treated humanely and, “to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity,” in line with the “principles” of the Geneva Conventions. But at the same time, he reserved the right to suspend the conventions “in this or future conflicts.”

By the fall of 2002, military officers were seeking guidance on the president’s order. Army Gen. James T. Hill, head of U.S. Southern Command, passed up the chain of command a list of dozens of interrogation techniques the military suggested for use at Guantanamo Bay.

Timeline: Iraq prisoner abuse

“Despite our best efforts, some detainees have tenaciously resisted our current interrogation methods,” Hill wrote to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, on Oct. 25, 2002.

However, he questioned the legality of some of the harshest interrogation techniques that were being proposed. “I am particularly troubled by the use of implied or expressed threats of death of the detainee or his family,” he wrote.

Rumsfeld broadened spectrum of techniques
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved some of the techniques on Dec. 2, 2002, but not death threats or another suggested method: putting wet towels over a prisoner’s face and dripping water on those towels “to induce the misperception of suffocation.”

Rumsfeld did approve several techniques that are otherwise forbidden by U.S. military doctrine. Those used at Guantanamo Bay included interrogating prisoners for up to 20 hours at a time and forcing prisoners to have their heads and beards shaved.

Six weeks after giving the go-ahead, Rumsfeld abruptly canceled his approval. A Defense Department statement said he had “learned of concerns” about them.

Rumsfeld formed a panel of top Defense Department officials to develop guidance on what interrogation techniques should be allowed.

That panel concluded that international and U.S. laws against torture did not apply to the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and it offered several defenses that interrogators could use if they were charged with crimes.

Rumsfeld ended up approving only some of the panel’s recommended interrogation techniques, choosing not to authorize actions like sleep deprivation and keeping a prisoner naked.

The report also outlined several drawbacks to the harsher approaches, such as denting the military’s image and causing bad publicity.

“Should information regarding the use of more aggressive interrogation techniques than have been used traditionally by U.S. forces become public, it is likely to be exaggerated or distorted in the U.S. and international media accounts, and may produce an adverse effect on support for the war on terrorism,” the panel wrote in its April 2003 report.

Congressional battle over memos
The memos were released Tuesday as part of the Bush administration’s campaign to counter suggestions that it had condoned torture.

Democrats sought more documents Wednesday, with some in the House calling for a special committee to investigate abuses at Abu Ghraib.

“We can’t get to the bottom of this unless there is a clear picture of what happened at the top,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

Senate Republicans tried to block the Democratic requests. Republicans, pushing to pass a $447 billion bill for defense programs, planned a procedural vote that could kill a Democratic amendment demanding that Attorney General John Ashcroft turn over more documents on the interrogation and treatment of prisoners. Ashcroft would not comment when asked about the memos at a news briefing Wednesday.

Because some Republicans in the Senate are also urging the White House to make a full disclosure of its policies on prisoners, party leaders hoped to avoid putting senators on record as directly opposing the amendment, while still defeating the Democrats.

“The Senate Republicans are trying to stonewall the release of Justice Department memoranda on the torture of prisoners," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

But Republicans in the House appeared more willing to join Democrats’ demands. The Appropriations Committee attached language to a $40 billion bill to fund the Justice Department demanding that a report, including all memos, be handed over within 30 days of the bill’s signing.

Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia, the Republican chairman of the Commerce-Justice-State subcommittee, backed the language and said he had written a letter to the Justice Department asking for an investigation.

“I am deeply concerned that this memorandum provides legal justification for the U.S. government to commit cruel, inhumane and degrading acts, including torture, on prisoners in U.S. custody," Wolf wrote in the letter, which was dated Monday.

NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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