Early signs were given secondary priority

May 10, 2004, Monday, FINAL EDITION

BYLINE: John Diamond
LENGTH: 1660 words

WASHINGTON — Days after a military prison guard in Iraq placed a compact disk containing photographs of prisoner abuse on the bunk of an Army investigator, the military’s top officer knew that the Pentagon, and the country, were facing a major crisis.

The call to Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came via telephone from his four-star commander in Iraq, Gen. John Abizaid. It was Jan. 14 or 15 — Myers can’t recall the exact date. But he recalls the message: “There are reports of abuse” by U.S. guards at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, Abizaid said.

Over the secure line, Abizaid described the allegation of mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners reported on Jan. 13 by Army Spc. Joseph Darby, a reservist from Maryland. He told Myers about the disk, “Here’s what basically the pictures might show.”

Abizaid added, “This is a big deal.”

This was the Pentagon’s first explicit, high-level warning, but by no means its first hint that something had gone drastically wrong at the largest U.S.-run prison in Iraq. The now voluminous public record shows that the Pentagon received repeated reports of prisoner abuse but put a higher priority on extracting information about terrorist or insurgent attacks.

Although the specific abuses at Abu Ghraib occurred far down the chain of command from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, it was a chain closely supervised from the top. Indeed, in cases of high-level detainees, rules imposed by Rumsfeld dictated that Pentagon officials up to and including the Defense secretary be involved in approving the use of coercive interrogation methods.

Myers said in congressional testimony Friday that he alerted Rumsfeld almost immediately, though Rumsfeld said his memory was vague about when he first heard of the photographs. Rumsfeld and Gen. Peter Pace, Myers’ deputy, told President Bush in early February that a prisoner abuse investigation was underway in Iraq, apparently without giving Bush much detail.

In subsequent weeks, as Rumsfeld and his senior officers at the Pentagon kept tabs on the investigation, including discipline meted out to guards at Abu Ghraib and military intelligence commanders, they made a crucial decision: They never asked to see the photographs. They said they didn’t want to interfere in an ongoing investigation.

And so, after that first call from Abizaid in Baghdad, just how big a deal the prison abuse incidents would become would not be clear for three months, when the photos were aired by CBS’ 60 Minutes II the evening of April 28. CBS had delayed the broadcast for two weeks in response to personal appeals from Myers to news anchor Dan Rather. The situation in Iraq was critical, Myers said. Attacks on U.S. forces were escalating, and there were as many as 90 Western hostages in Iraqi hands who might fall victim to torture or killing if the pictures were aired.

Even when Rumsfeld and Myers finally asked for the photos, it took days for subordinates to produce the computer disk. Only last week, on the eve of their congressional testimony, did Rumsfeld and Myers sit down at a computer with the disk and view the pictures not made public.

Meanwhile, what began with a quiet report from a conscience-wracked enlistee had culminated with a public apology from the president of the United States to the entire Arab world.

Early warnings

Long before Abizaid broke the news of the Abu Ghraib abuses, the Pentagon had reason to be concerned about conditions at the network of prisons it had established since the 9/11 terror attacks.

The facilities in Iraq, in Afghanistan, at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia were set up under Rumsfeld’s control.

Bush himself in early 2002 had ruled that terror suspects in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo would not be covered by Geneva Convention protections, though Rumsfeld said they would be treated humanely.

In December 2002, in two separate cases, Afghan detainees died as a result of blunt-force injuries delivered by their U.S. captors. Both cases were ruled homicides and are under investigation.

Beginning in March 2003, the International Red Cross began conducting spot-checks on U.S. prisons in Iraq and reported privately to the State Department, the Pentagon and commanders on the ground concerns about the ill-treatment of prisoners.

In July 2003, Amnesty International announced it had received reports of torture or ill treatment of prisoners by coalition forces in Iraq. And some weeks after a surprise visit to Abu Ghraib in October, the Red Cross reported to U.S. commanders some of the abuses that would later emerge in the criminal investigation. Rumsfeld said he could not recall hearing about this report.

None of these warning signs appear to have alerted Rumsfeld to the gravity of the developing crisis. In a day of testimony on Capitol Hill Friday, the Defense chief cited no memo, order or guidance issued by him reminding his subordinates about the importance of humane treatment of prisoners. Nor did Rumsfeld tell Congress that he had set up a system requiring Pentagon approval, sometimes his personal approval, for coercive interrogation of high-level prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, according to sources familiar with the system.

Rumsfeld instituted the system shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks in response to the sudden influx of detainees in the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan. It continues to be followed in Iraq, indicating a level of hands-on control of what was going on in the field far beyond what Rumsfeld has publicly described.

Two civilian Pentagon officials, a high-ranking military officer and a U.S. intelligence official — all with direct knowledge of the system and its rules — described the elaborate process for consulting with the Pentagon on interrogations. All spoke on condition they not be identified. It was unclear whether top Pentagon officials approved coercion or any of the abuses at Abu Ghraib. But the civilian, military and intelligence officials who described the process said that high-ranking Pentagon officials did approve coercive interrogation methods such as sleep deprivation for high-level detainees at other facilities in Iraq and elsewhere. Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita did not return several phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.

The policy stemmed from the urgent need to extract information from terrorist and insurgent suspects about possible impending attacks. In Iraq, the priority was on finding out about plans to strike U.S. forces. In effect, it gave the Pentagon veto power over the use of coercive techniques against subjects when, for political or other reasons, senior Defense officials believed such methods would be counterproductive.

The policy, first reported in The Washington Post, applied to “high value” detainees, such as officials on the U.S. list of the 55 most-wanted Iraqis. Rumsfeld, for example, personally involved himself in decisions relating to the handling of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, according to one of the Pentagon officials, a senior aide to Rumsfeld.

Guards given new direction

Just how high a priority the Pentagon placed on getting usable intelligence from interrogations was demonstrated last September when Steve Cambone, Rumsfeld’s top civilian intelligence official, directed Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, commander of the Guantanamo Bay prison, to go to Iraq to assess the situation there. Miller was chosen because his bosses felt he had been highly successful in extracting valuable intelligence from the Guantanamo detainees.

Once in Iraq, Miller made a pivotal recommendation last September. Prison guards, Miller said, should be subordinate to military and CIA interrogators and should handle prisoners in a way that “sets the conditions for (their) successful interrogation.”

Miller’s recommendation lies at the core of whether the abuses at Abu Ghraib in the following months were the acts of a few rogue guards on the night shift or were part of a strategy, designed by higher-ups, to subject certain high-value prisoners to humiliation and abuse in the hours leading up to morning interrogations.

But the picture is confused.

A report by Gen. Antonio Taguba on the abuses at Abu Ghraib says that on Nov. 6, 2003, Maj. Gen. Donald Ryder, the first officer to investigate prison conditions in Iraq, criticized the use of guards as part of an interrogation strategy. Yet two weeks later, orders placed Abu Ghraib guards under the command of military intelligence officers. It was during this time that the abuses took place. The order was later rescinded.

In testimony Friday, Rumsfeld defended the practice of subordinating guards to military intelligence officers and praised Miller, who is now in overall charge of the prisons in Iraq.

“It is quite proper, in my view,” Rumsfeld told the House Armed Services Committee, (and) “indeed it is desirable to have the people who keep (prisoners) safe and secure do it in a manner that allows the interrogation process to be most effective.” He rejected the idea that anyone at the Pentagon directly or by implication condoned the abuses at Abu Ghraib.

Miller told reporters in Iraq Saturday he would discontinue several “very aggressive” interrogation techniques at Abu Ghraib and other prisons, including using hoods on prisoners, putting them in stressful positions and depriving them of sleep.

Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., told Rumsfeld and Myers on Friday that he had spoken with one of the guards from a Pennsylvania unit assigned to Abu Ghraib. The guard said he reported abuses in December but had only heard back from higher-ups this month. He said the orders to harass prisoners on the overnight shift came from military intelligence officers who were running the operation under the parameters set by Miller.

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