In the late summer of 2002, a CIA analyst made a quiet visit to the detention centre at the US Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where an estimated 600 prisoners were being held, many, at first, in steel-mesh cages that provided little protection from the brutally hot sun. Most had been captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan during the campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida.
The Bush administration had determined, however, that they were not prisoners of war but “enemy combatants”, and that their stay at Guantánamo could be indefinite, as teams of CIA, FBI, and military interrogators sought to prise intelligence from them. In a series of secret memorandums written earlier in the year, lawyers for the White House, the Pentagon and the justice department had agreed that the prisoners had no rights under federal law or the Geneva convention. President Bush endorsed the finding, while declaring that the al-Qaida and Taliban detainees were nevertheless to be treated in a manner consistent with the principles of the Geneva convention – as long as such treatment was also “consistent with military necessity”.
But the interrogations at Guantánamo were a bust. Very little useful intelligence had been gathered, while prisoners from around the world continued to flow into the base, and the facility constantly expanded. The CIA analyst had been sent there to find out what was going wrong. He was fluent in Arabic and familiar with the Islamic world. He was held in high respect within the agency, and was capable of reporting directly, if he chose, to George Tenet, the CIA director. The analyst did more than just visit and inspect. He interviewed at least 30 prisoners to find out who they were and how they ended up in Guantánamo. Some of his findings, he later confided to a former CIA colleague, were devastating.
“He came back convinced that we were committing war crimes in Guantánamo,” the colleague told me. “Based on his sample, more than half the people there didn’t belong there. He found people lying in their own faeces,” including two captives, perhaps in their 80s, who were clearly suffering from dementia. “He thought what was going on was an outrage,” the CIA colleague added. There was no rational system for determining who was important.
Two former administration officials who read the analyst’s highly classified report told me that its message was grim. According to a former White House official, the analyst’s disturbing conclusion was that “if we captured some people who weren’t terrorists when we got them, they are now”.
That autumn, the document rattled aimlessly around the upper reaches of the Bush administration until it got into the hands of General John A Gordon, the deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism, who reported directly to Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser and the president’s confidante. Gordon, who had retired from the military as a four-star general in 2000 had served as a deputy director of the CIA for three years. He was deeply troubled and distressed by the report, and by its implications for the treatment, in retaliation, of captured American soldiers. Gordon, according to a former administration official, told colleagues that he thought “it was totally out of character with the American value system”, and “that if the actions at Guantánamo ever became public, it’d be damaging to the president”.
In the wake of the September 11 attacks, there had been much debate inside the administration about what was permissible in the treatment of prisoners and what was not. The most suggestive document, in terms of what was really going on inside military prisons and detention centres, was written in early August 2002 by Jay S Bybee, head of the justice department’s office of legal counsel. “Certain acts may be cruel, inhuman, or degrading, but still not produce pain and suffering of the requisite intensity to fall within [a legal] proscription against torture,” Bybee wrote to Alberto R Gonzales, the White House counsel. “We conclude that for an act to constitute torture, it must inflict pain that is difficult to endure. Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” (Bush later nominated Bybee to be a federal judge.)
“We face an enemy that targets innocent civilians,” Gonzales, in turn, would tell journalists two years later, at the height of the furore over the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. “We face an enemy that lies in the shadows, an enemy that doesn’t sign treaties.”
Gonzales added that Bush bore no responsibility for the wrongdoing. “The president has not authorised, ordered or directed in any way any activity that would transgress the standards of the torture conventions or the torture statute, or other applicable laws,” Gonzales said. In fact, a secret statement of the president’s views, which he signed on February 7, 2002 contained a loophole that applied worldwide: “I determine that none of the provisions of Geneva apply to our conflict with al-Qaida in Afghanistan or elsewhere throughout the world,” the president asserted.
John Gordon had to know what he was up against in seeking a high-level review of prison policies at Guantánamo, but he persevered. Finally, the former White House official recalled, “We got it up to Condi.”
As the CIA analyst’s report was making its way to Rice, in late 2002 there were a series of heated complaints about the interrogation tactics at Guantánamo from within the FBI, whose agents had been questioning detainees in Cuba since the prison opened. A few of the agents began telling their superiors what they had witnessed, which, they believed, had little to do with getting good information.
“I was told,” a senior intelligence official recalled, “that the military guards were slapping prisoners, stripping them, pouring cold water over them, and making them stand until they got hypothermia. The agents were outraged. It was wrong and also dysfunctional.” The agents put their specific complaints in writing, the official told me, and they were relayed, in emails and phone calls, to officials at the department of defence, including William J Haynes II, the general counsel of the Pentagon. As far as day-to-day life for prisoners at Guantánamo was concerned, nothing came of it.
The unifying issue for General Gordon and his supporters inside the administration was not the abuse of prisoners at Guantánamo, the former White House official told me: “It was about how many more people are being held there that shouldn’t be. Have we really got the right people?” The briefing for Condoleezza Rice about problems at Guantánamo took place in the autumn of 2002. It did not dwell on the question of torture or mistreatment. The main issue, the former White House official told me, was simply, “Are we getting any intelligence? What is the process for sorting these people?”
Rice agreed to call a high-level meeting in the White House situation room. Most significantly, she asked Secretary Rumsfeld to attend. Rumsfeld, who was by then publicly and privately encouraging his soldiers in the field to get tough with captured prisoners, duly showed up, but he had surprisingly little to say. One participant in the meeting recalled that at one point Rice asked Rumsfeld “what the issues were, and he said he hadn’t looked into it”. Rice urged Rumsfeld to do so, and added, “Let’s get the story right.” Rumsfeld seemed to be in agreement, and Gordon and his supporters left the meeting convinced, the former administration official told me, that the Pentagon was going to deal with the issue.
Nothing changed. “The Pentagon went into a full-court stall,” the former White House official recalled. “I trusted in the goodness of man and thought we got something to happen. I was naive enough to believe that when a cabinet member” – he was referring to Rumsfeld – “says he’s going to take action, he will.”
Over the next few months, as the White House began planning for the coming war in Iraq, there were many more discussions about the continuing problems at Guantánamo and the lack of useful intelligence. No one in the Bush administration would get far, however, if he was viewed as soft on suspected al-Qaida terrorism. “Why didn’t Condi do more?” the official asked. “She made the same mistake I made. She got the secretary of defence to say he’s going to take care of it.”
There was, obviously, a difference between the reality of prison life in Guantánamo and how it was depicted to the public in carefully stage-managed news conferences and statements released by the administration. American prison authorities have repeatedly assured the press and the public, for example, that the al-Qaida and Taliban detainees were provided with a minimum of three hours of recreation every week. For the tough cases, however, according to a Pentagon adviser familiar with detainee conditions in mid-2002, at recreation time some prisoners would be strapped into heavy jackets, similar to straitjackets, with their arms locked behind them and their legs straddled by straps. Goggles were placed over their eyes, and their heads were covered with a hood. The prisoner was then led at midday into what looked like a narrow fenced-in dog run – the adviser told me that there were photographs of the procedure – and given his hour of recreation. The restraints forced him to move, if he chose to move, on his knees, bent over at a 45-degree angle. Most prisoners just sat and suffered in the heat.
One of the marines assigned to guard duty at Guantánamo in 2003, who has since left the military, told me, after being promised anonymity, that he and his enlisted colleagues at the base were encouraged by their squad leaders to “give the prisoners a visit” once or twice a month, when there were no television crews, journalists, or other outside visitors at the prison.
“We tried to fuck with them as much as we could – inflict a little bit of pain. We couldn’t do much,” for fear of exposure, the former marine, who also served in Afghanistan, told me.
“There were always newspeople there,” he said. “That’s why you couldn’t send them back with a broken leg or so. And if somebody died, I’d get court-martialled.”
The roughing up of prisoners was sometimes spur-of-the-moment, the former marine said: “A squad leader would say, ‘Let’s go – all the cameras on lunch break.’” One pastime was to put hoods on the prisoners and “drive them around the camp in a Humvee, making turns so they didn’t know where they were. [...] I wasn’t trying to get information. I was just having a little fun – playing mind control.” When I asked a senior FBI official about the former marine’s account, he told me that agents assigned to interrogation duties at Guantánamo had described similar activities to their superiors.
In November 2002, army Major General Geoffrey Miller had relieved Generals Dunlavey and Baccus, unifying the command at Guantánamo. Baccus was seen by the Pentagon as soft – too worried about the prisoners’ well-being. In Senate hearings after Abu Ghraib, it became known that Miller was permitted to use legally questionable interrogation techniques at Guantánamo, which could include, with approval, sleep deprivation, exposure to extremes of cold and heat, and placing prisoners in “stress positions” for agonising lengths of time.
In May 2004, the New York Times reported that the FBI had instructed its agents to avoid being present at interrogation sessions with suspected al-Qaida members. The newspaper said the severe methods used to extract information would be prohibited in criminal cases, and therefore could compromise the agents in future legal proceedings against the suspects. “We don’t believe in coercion,” a senior FBI official subsequently told me. “Our goal is to get information and we try to gain the prisoners’ trust. We have strong feelings about it.” The FBI official added, “I thought Rumsfeld should have been fired long ago.”
“They did it the wrong way,” a Pentagon adviser on the war on terror told me, “and took a heavy-handed approach based on coercion, instead of persuasion – which actually has a much better track record. It’s about rage and the need to strike back. It’s evil, but it’s also stupid. It’s not torture but acts of kindness that lead to concessions. The persuasive approach takes longer but gets far better results.”
There was, we now know, a fantastical quality to the earnest discussions inside the White House in 2002 about the good and bad of the interrogation process at Guantánamo. Rice and Rumsfeld knew what many others involved in the prisoner discussions did not – that sometime in late 2001 or early 2002, the president had signed a top-secret finding, as required by law, authorising the defence department to set up a specially recruited clandestine team of special forces operatives and others who would defy diplomatic niceties and international law and snatch – or assassinate, if necessary – identified “high-value” al-Qaida operatives anywhere in the world.
Equally secret interrogation centres would be set up in allied countries where harsh treatments were meted out, unconstrained by legal limits or public disclosure. The programme was hidden inside the defence department as an “unacknowledged” special-access programme (SAP), whose operational details were known only to a few in the Pentagon, the CIA and the White House.
The SAP owed its existence to Rumsfeld’s desire to get the US special forces community into the business of what he called, in public and internal communications, “manhunts”, and to his disdain for the Pentagon’s senior generals. In the privacy of his office, Rumsfeld chafed over what he saw as the reluctance of the generals and admirals to act aggressively. Soon after September 11, he repeatedly made public his disdain for the Geneva convention. Complaints about the United States’ treatment of prisoners, Rumsfeld said, in early 2002, amounted to “isolated pockets of international hyperventilation”.
One of Rumsfeld’s goals was bureaucratic: to give the civilian leadership in the Pentagon, and not the CIA, the lead in fighting terrorism. Throughout the existence of the SAP, which eventually came to Abu Ghraib prison, a former senior intelligence official told me, “There was a periodic briefing to the National Security Council [NSC] giving updates on results, but not on the methods.” Did the White House ask about the process? The former officer said that he believed that they did, and that “they got the answers”.
By the time of Rumsfeld’s meeting with Rice, his SAP was in its third year of snatching or strong-arming suspected terrorists and questioning them in secret prison facilities in Singapore, Thailand and Pakistan, among other sites. The White House was fighting terror with terror.
On December 18 2001, American operatives participated in what amounted to the kidnapping of two Egyptians, Ahmed Agiza and Muhammed al-Zery, who had sought asylum in Sweden. The Egyptians, believed by American intelligence to be linked to Islamic militant groups, were abruptly seized in the late afternoon and flown out of Sweden a few hours later on a US government-leased Gulfstream private jet to Cairo, where they underwent extensive and brutal interrogation. “Both were dirty,” a former senior intelligence official, who has extensive knowledge of special-access programmes, told me, “but it was pretty blatant.”
The seizure of Agiza and Zery attracted little attention outside of Sweden, despite repeated complaints by human-rights groups, until May 2004 when a Swedish television news magazine revealed that the Swedish government had cooperated after being assured that the exiles would not be tortured or otherwise harmed once they were sent to Egypt. Instead, according to a television report, entitled The Broken Promise, Agiza and Zery, in handcuffs and shackles, were driven to the airport by Swedish and, according to one witness, American agents and turned over at plane-side to a group of Americans wearing plain clothes whose faces were concealed. Once in Egypt, Agiza and Zery have reported through Swedish diplomats, family members and attorneys, that they were subjected to repeated torture by electrical shocks distributed by electrodes that were attached to the most sensitive parts of their bodies. Egyptian authorities eventually concluded, according to the documentary, that Zery had few ties to ongoing terrorism, and he was released from jail in October 2003, although he is still under surveillance. Agiza was acknowledged by his attorneys to have been a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group outlawed in Egypt, and also was once close to Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is outranked in al-Qaida only by Osama bin Laden. In April 2004, he was sentenced to 25 years in an Egyptian prison.
Fredrik Laurin, a Swedish journalist who worked on The Broken Promise, extensively researched the leased Gulfstream jet that was used to take Zery and Agiza to Cairo. Laurin told me that he was able to track the aircraft to landings in Pakistan, Kuwait, Egypt, Germany, England, Ireland Morocco, as well as the Washington DC area. It also made visits to Guantánamo. The company told Laurin that the plane was leased almost exclusively to the US government. Significantly, the records obtained by Laurin indicate that the Gulfstream apparently halted its overseas trips from May 5 2004 – the week after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke – until July 7, when it flew from Dulles Airport in suburban Washington to Cairo.
After the Abu Ghraib abuses were revealed, a former senior intelligence official with direct information about the SAP gave me an account of how and why the top-secret programme had begun. As the American-led hunt for al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden began to stall, he said, it was clear that the American intelligence operatives in the field were failing to get useful intelligence in a timely manner. With the pressure mounting, some information was being delivered via the CIA by friendly liaison intelligence services – allies of the United States in the Middle East and south-east Asia – who were not afraid to get rough with prisoners. The tough tactics appealed to Rumsfeld and his senior civilian aides.
Rumsfeld then authorised the establishment of the highly secret programme, which was given blanket advance approval to kill or capture and, if possible, interrogate high-value targets. The SAP – subject to the defence department’s most stringent level of security – was set up, with an office in a secure area of the Pentagon. The people assigned to the programme recruited, after careful screening, highly trained commandos and operatives from US elite forces – navy seals, the army’s delta force, and the CIA’s paramilitary experts.
“Rumsfeld’s goal was to get a capability in place to take on a high-value target – a stand-up group to hit quickly,” the former senior intelligence official told me. The operation had across-the-board approval from Rumsfeld and from Condoleezza Rice. Fewer than 200 operatives and officials, including Rumsfeld and General Myers [Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff], were “completely read into the programme”, the former intelligence official said. “The rules are ‘Grab whom you must. Do what you want.’”
One Pentagon official who was deeply involved in the programme was Stephen Cambone, the undersecretary of defence for intelligence. Cambone had worked closely with Rumsfeld in a number of Pentagon jobs since the beginning of the administration, but this office, to which he was named in March 2003, was new; it was created as part of Rumsfeld’s reorganisation of the Pentagon. Known for his closeness to Rumsfeld, Cambone was a strong advocate for war against Iraq. He chafed, as did Rumsfeld, at the CIA’s inability before the Iraq war to state conclusively that Saddam Hussein harboured weapons of mass destruction.
Early in his tenure, Cambone provoked a bureaucratic battle within the Pentagon by insisting that he be given control of all special-access programmes that were relevant to the war on terror. In mid-2003, the SAP was regarded, at least in the Pentagon, as one of the success stories of the war on terror.
“It was an active programme,” the former senior intelligence official told me. “As this monster begins to take life, there’s joy in the world. The monster is doing well – real well” – at least from the perspective of those involved who, according to the former officer, began to see themselves as “masters of the universe in terms of intelligence”.
I was initially told of the SAP’s existence by members of the intelligence community who were troubled by the programme’s prima facie violation of the Geneva convention; their concern was that such activities, if exposed, would eviscerate the moral standing of the United States and expose American soldiers to retaliation. In May 2004, a ranking member of Congress confirmed its existence and further told me that President Bush had signed the mandated finding officially notifying Congress of the SAP.
The legislator added that he had none the less been told very little about the programme. Only a few members of the House and Senate leadership were authorised by statute to be informed of it, and, even then, the legislators were provided with little more than basic budget information. It’s not clear that the Senate and House members understood that the United States was poised to enter the business of “disappearing” people.
The Pentagon may have judged the SAP a success, but by August 2003, the war in Iraq was going badly and there was, once again, little significant intelligence being generated in the many prisons in Iraq. The president and his national security team turned for guidance to General Miller, the “Gitmo” [Guantánamo] commander. Recounting that decision, one of the White House officials who had supported General Gordon’s ill-fated effort to change prisoner policy asked me, rhetorically, “Why do I take a failed approach at Guantánamo and move it to Iraq?”
By the autumn of 2003, a military analyst told me, the extent of the Pentagon’s political and military misjudgments in Iraq was clear. The solution, endorsed by Rumsfeld and carried out by Cambone, was to get tough with the Iraqi men and women in detention – to treat them behind prison walls as if they had been captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan. General Miller was summoned to Baghdad in late August to review prison interrogation procedures.
Rumsfeld and Cambone went a step beyond “Gitmoizing”, however: they expanded the scope of the SAP, bringing its unconventional methods to Abu Ghraib. The commandos were to operate in Iraq as they had in Afghanistan. The male prisoners could be treated roughly and exposed to sexual humiliation.
“They weren’t getting anything substantive from the detainees in Iraq,” the former intelligence official told me. “No names. Nothing that they could hang their hat on. Cambone says, I’ve got to crack this thing and I’m tired of working through the normal chain of command. I’ve got this apparatus set up – the black special-access programme – and I’m going in hot.
“So he pulls the switch, and the electricity begins flowing last summer. And it’s working. We’re getting a picture of the insurgency in Iraq and the intelligence is flowing into the white world. We’re getting good stuff.”
Cambone then made another crucial decision, the former intelligence official told me: not only would he bring the SAP’s rules into the prisons, he would bring some of the army military intelligence officers working inside the Iraqi prisons under the SAP’s auspices.
“So here are fundamentally good soldiers – military intelligence guys – being told that no rules apply,” the former official said.
In a separate interview, a Pentagon consultant, who spent much of his career directly involved with special-access programmes, spread the blame. “The White House subcontracted this to the Pentagon, and the Pentagon subcontracted it to Cambone,” he said. “This is Cambone’s deal, but Rumsfeld and Myers approved the programme.” When it came to the interrogation operation at Abu Ghraib, he said, Rumsfeld left the details to Cambone. Rumsfeld may not be personally culpable, the consultant added, “but he’s responsible for the checks and balances. The issue is that, since 9/11 we’ve changed the rules on how we deal with terrorism and created conditions where the ends justify the means.”
According to interviews with several past and present American intelligence officials, the Pentagon’s operation – aspects of which were known inside the intelligence community by several code words, including Copper Green – encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in an effort to generate more intelligence about the insurgency. A senior CIA official confirmed the details of this account and said that the operation stemmed from Rumsfeld’s long-standing desire to wrest control of clandestine and paramilitary operations from the CIA.
Who was in charge of Abu Ghraib – whether military police or military intelligence – was no longer the only question that mattered. Hard-core special operatives, some of them with aliases, were working in the prison. The military police assigned to guard the prisoners wore uniforms, but many others – military intelligence officers, contract interpreters, CIA officers, and the men from the SAP – wore civilian clothes. It was not clear who was who, even to General Karpinski, then the commander of the 800 military police brigade. “I thought most of the civilians there were interpreters, but there were some civilians that I didn’t know,” Karpinski told me. “I called them the disappearing ghosts. I’d seen them once in a while at Abu Ghraib and then I’d see them months later.” The mysterious civilians, she said, were “always bringing in somebody for interrogation or waiting to collect somebody going out”. Karpinski added that she had no idea who was operating in her prison system.
Military intelligence personnel assigned to Abu Ghraib repeatedly wore “sterile”, or unmarked, uniforms or civilian clothes while on duty. “You couldn’t tell them apart,” a source familiar with the investigation said. The blurring of identities and organisations meant that it was impossible for the prisoners, or, significantly, the military policemen on duty, to know who was doing what to whom and who had the authority to give orders.
By last autumn, according to the former intelligence official, the senior leadership of the CIA had had enough. “They said, ‘No way. We signed up for the core programme in Afghanistan – pre-approved for operations against high-value terrorist targets. And now you want to use it for cab drivers, brothers-in-law, and people pulled off the streets.’” The CIA balked, the former intelligence official said: “The agency checks with their lawyers and pulls out,” ending those of its activities in Abu Ghraib that related to the SAP. (In a later conversation, a senior CIA official confirmed this account.)
The CIA’s complaints were echoed throughout the intelligence community. There was fear the situation at Abu Ghraib would lead to the exposure of the secret SAP, and thereby bring an end to what had been, before Iraq, a valued covert operation. “This was stupidity,” a government consultant told me. “You’re taking a programme that was operating in the chaos of Afghanistan against al-Qaida, a stateless terror group, and bringing it into a structured, traditional war zone. Sooner or later, the commandos would bump into the legal and moral procedures of a conventional war with an army of 135,000 soldiers.”
In mid 2003, Rumsfeld’s apparent disregard for the requirements of the Geneva convention while carrying out the war on terror had led a group of senior military legal officers from the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps to pay two surprise visits within five months to Scott Horton, who was then chairman of the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on International Human Rights. “They wanted us to challenge the Bush administration about its standards for detentions and interrogation,” Horton told me in May 2004. “They were urging us to get involved and speak in a very loud voice. [ … ] The message was that conditions are ripe for abuse, and it’s going to occur.” The military officials were most alarmed about the growing use of civilian contractors in the interrogation process, Horton recalled. The JAG officers told him that, with the war on terror, a 50-year history of exemplary application of the Geneva convention had come to an end.
In July 2004, I again spoke to Scott Horton, who has maintained contact with a network of JAG lawyers. He told me that Rumsfeld and his civilian deputies had pressured the army to conclude the pending investigations by late August, before the Republican convention in New York. Horton added that the politics were blatant.
Pentagon investigations, he said, “have a reputation for tending to whitewash, but even taking this into account, the current investigations seem to be setting new standards”. Rumsfeld’s office had circumscribed the investigators’ charge and also placed tight controls on the documents to be made available. In other words, Horton said, “Rumsfeld has completely rigged the investigations. My friends say we should expect something much akin to the army inspector general’s report – ‘just a few rotten apples’.”
But General Taguba’s highly critical internal investigation into military prisons in Iraq – which, together with the shocking photographs of prisoner abuse, sparked the Abu Ghraib scandal in April – amounted to an unsparing study of collective wrongdoing and the failure of army leadership at the highest levels. The picture Taguba drew of Abu Ghraib was one in which army regulations and the Geneva convention were routinely violated, and in which much of the day-to-day management of the prisoners was abdicated to army military intelligence units and civilian contract employees.
Rumsfeld’s most fateful decision, endorsed by the White House, came at a time of crisis in August 2003 when the defence secretary expanded the highly secret SAP into the prisons of Iraq. The roots of the Abu Ghraib scandal therefore lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few army reservists, but in the reliance of George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld on secret operations and the use of coercion – and eye-for-an-eye retribution – in fighting terrorism.
Published Monday, September 13th, 2004
This is an edited extract from Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, by Seymour M Hersh, published today by Penguin Press.