Memo warned of prison tactics

USA TODAY
May 21, 2004, Friday, FIRST EDITION
BYLINE: Dave Moniz and Tom Squitieri
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 4A
LENGTH: 419 words
DATELINE: WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON — A group of senior military attorneys sent a memo 15 months ago warning top Pentagon lawyers that prisoner interrogation policies at the U.S. detention center in Cuba could lead to violations of the Geneva Conventions and other rules prohibiting abuse, Defense Department officials confirmed Thursday.

The three-page memo, which is classified, was sent Feb. 5, 2003, in an attempt to warn of potential legal troubles if the Bush administration formally adopted harsh interrogation techniques against suspected al-Qaeda detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The memo raised concerns that the United States would for the first time not afford prisoners protections under the Geneva Conventions.

The judge advocates general were particularly concerned about a proposal to use extremely harsh methods against a detainee suspected of having specific information about a potential attack. Some of the methods were approved in that case.

The warning was among the first concrete signs of deep unease among some senior officers about the way the military was questioning or planning to question prisoners after Sept. 11.

Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita said Thursday that some of the harsh techniques had been used in Guantanamo infrequently from the fall of 2002 until early 2003 in an attempt to get information that could save American lives. “The focus of the interrogations was on uncovering any information about future terrorist attacks,” he said.

DiRita did not comment on the JAGs’ memo, but he said the Pentagon adopted a more restrictive interrogation policy in April 2003. Air Force Col. Jay DeFrank, a Pentagon spokesman familiar with the memo, said that policy “substantially addressed” the JAGs’ concerns.

Although the JAGs’ memo dealt specifically with interrogation methods for prisoners captured in Afghanistan, the military lawyers were concerned that changing interrogation policy could lead to an erosion of U.S. moral authority and put U.S. troops in legal jeopardy. Congress is trying to sort out whether administration policies influenced abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.

The lawyers wrote that they feared a Pentagon plan to allow coercive interrogation methods for Guantanamo detainees would reverse a long-standing U.S. policy of following Geneva Conventions. The military lawyers argued that it could also subject American troops to U.S. disciplinary action and international sanctions if they violated the Geneva Conventions.