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Ground commanders' questions about detainee treatment went unanswered

RAW STORY
Published: Monday July 10, 2006

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Newly-released documents reveal that requests by military commanders in Afghanistan for the Defense Department to clarify which interrogation methods could and could not be used against prisoners were ignored by the highest levels of the military, RAW STORY has learned.

The documents, obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under a Freedom of Information Act request, contain a report by Vice Admiral Albert T. Church, who was tapped to conduct a comprehensive review of Defense Department interrogation operations.

According to the Church report, military commanders in Afghanistan sought clarification from United States Central Command (Centcom) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in January of 2003. They described interrogation techniques being employed, and recommended that the techniques be approved as official policy in Afghanistan.

Unanswered questions

Some of the techniques described had already been approved by the Secretary of Defense exclusively for use at Guantánamo. Some had since been rescinded. When senior officials failed to respond as to whether those techniques were appropriate, the ground command in Afghanistan subsequently adopted their own techniques as policy, acting on the theory that "silence is consent."

According to a report by Brigadier General Richard Formica, as late as May 2004 Coalition Joint Task Force-7 was operating under a set of rules that had been approved by Gen. Sanchez in September of 2003, but rescinded a month later. The September order included approval of the use of military dogs, stress positions, sleep adjustment and environmental manipulation. All of these techniques were rescinded in an October memo.

The new documents reveal that an officer on the ground tried to confirm the policy in February 2004, asking of the September Sanchez memo "Can you verify that this is a valid, signed policy? If not, can you send me (or steer me toward) the current policy?"

The officer received a reply that consisted of a copy of the signed September memo and no mention of the October memo. It wasn't until May 21, 2004 that, after some media attention, "anyone in [the unit] became aware that the 14 Sep 03 policy had been superceded."

Defining abuse

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld later approved "sleep adjustment" but not "sleep deprivation," which was defined as "keeping detainee awake for more than 16 hours or allowing a detainee to rest briefly and then repeatedly awakening him, not to exceed four days in succession."

Still, without clear guidelines, military leaders on the ground took it upon themselves to invent their own guidelines and definitions for "sleep deprivation."

One commander at Guantánamo came up with his own definition of sleep deprivation - "I define 'sleep deprivation' as keeping a detainee awake continuously for five or six day's [sic] straight."

Based on the advice of military lawyers and an United States Army Ranger course in which soldiers were subjected to days that lasted for 20 hours, a unit devised its own policy on how long detainees could be interrogated. "If it was okay to subject our soldiers to twenty-hour days, then in our mind's [sic] it was okay to subject the terrorists to twenty-hour interrogations."

In at least one instance, a detainee was interrogated for 20 hours every day for almost two months.

New methods, fatal consequences

Evidence in the Church Report also suggests that in developing techniques, interrogators interpreted the rules extremely broadly. In particular, Alpha Company, 519th MI Battalion developed a variety of techniques that went well beyond those authorized. Some of these techniques, including stress positions, were similar to those authorized by the Secretary of Defense in December 2002 for use at Guantánamo.

In an investigation in which Marines were ordered by a superior officer to strip detainees and take their money, an investigator stated that, "the alleged conduct is a pattern of abuse of detainees in direct contravention to the Marine policy of 'No Better Friend, no worse enemy,' as well as the law of war. A Senior Naval Officer's conduct of publicly humiliating these Iraqis clearly jeopardized the Battalion's mission and the Battalion's standing with the public....these acts could have been a "tipping point" resulting in hostility against coalition forces."

A detainee named Awayed Wanas Jabar died in U.S. custody in Iraq after having his legs tied to the bars of a window and a strap of engineer tape tied tightly around his midsection. A preliminary inquiry stated that, "His position resembled that of a person who had been crucified."

According to one Marine, the detainee seemed "exhausted, with his entire bodyweight appearing to be supported by the strap around his midsection." Jabar remained in that position for at least an hour and a half and died approximately 15 minutes after the tape was cut.

Because no autopsy was conducted, an investigation was unable to conclude if the cause of death was asphyxia.

The Church Report also identified several cases in which medical personnel failed to act after witnessing behavior that should have led them to suspect detainee abuse.

The report found two cases where military physicians in Bagram reported no evidence of trauma when subsequent autopsies found severe soft tissue injuries. In one instance in Iraq, military physicians documented concerns about possible detainee abuse in a memorandum dated six months after the detainee's death.

'International law violated'

"It is the Defense Department's responsibility to ensure that prisoners are treated humanely, as the Geneva Conventions require," said Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU attorney. "But as these documents show, the Defense Department allowed abusive interrogation practices to flourish."

"These documents further confirm that systemic command failures led to the widespread abuse of detainees held in U.S. custody abroad," added ACLU staff attorney Amrit Singh.

The ACLU is calling for an independent investigation into alleged detainee abuse.


 

 
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