By Jason Leopold
A senior FBI agent stationed in Iraq in 2004 claimed in an e-mail that President George W. Bush signed an executive order approving the use of military dogs, sleep deprivation and other harsh tactics to intimidate Iraqi detainees.
The FBI e-mail — dated May 22, 2004 — followed disclosures about abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison and sought guidance on whether FBI agents in Iraq were obligated to report the U.S. military’s harsh interrogation of inmates when that treatment violated FBI standards but fit within the guidelines of a presidential executive order.
According to the e-mail, Bush’s alleged executive order authorized interrogators to use military dogs, “stress positions,” sleep “management,” loud music and “sensory deprivation through the use of hoods, etc.” to extract information from detainees in Iraq, which is considered a violation of the Geneva Conventions ban against cruel and unusual punishments.
Bush has never before been directly linked to authorizing specific interrogation techniques at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib. Bush has admitted, however, that he personally signed off on the waterboarding of three “high-value” prisoners.
The May 2004 FBI e-mail makes numerous references to a presidential executive order and stated that the FBI interrogation team in Iraq understood that despite revisions in the executive order that occurred after the furor over the Abu Ghraib abuses, the presidential sanctioning of harsh interrogation tactics had not been rescinded.
“I have been told that all interrogation techniques previously authorized by the executive order are still on the table but that certain techniques can only be used if very high-level authority is granted,” the author of the FBI e-mail said.
“We have also instructed our personnel not to participate in interrogations by military personnel which might include techniques authorized by [Bush's] executive order but [are] beyond the bounds of FBI practices…The things our personnel witnessed (but did not participate in) were authorized by the President under his Executive order.”
“I wish to make clear our personnel have been present at various facilities when interrogation techniques made lawful by the Executive Order, but outside standard FBI practice, were utilized. While our personnel did not participate in these interrogations, they heard/saw indications that such interrogations were underway.
“We are aware that prior to a revision in policy last week, an Executive Order signed by President Bush authorized the following techniques among others: sleep “management,” use of MWDs (military working dogs), “stress positions” such as half squats, “environmental manipulation” such as the use of loud music, sensory deprivation through the use of hoods etc.”
Questions about the alleged executive order signed by Bush first surfaced in December 2004. But the White House emphatically denied that any such presidential executive order existed, calling the unnamed FBI official who wrote the e-mail “mistaken.”
At the time, President Bush and his representatives repeatedly denied that his administration condoned “torture,” although senior administration officials have acknowledged subjecting “high-value” terror suspects to aggressive interrogation techniques, including the “waterboarding” — or simulated drowning — of three al-Qaeda detainees.
One month after the e-mail was sent to FBI counterterrorism officials in Washington, then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales held a news conference in an attempt to contain the fallout from the Abu Ghraib scandal.
Gonzales told reporters that the abuses, which included sexual humiliation of Iraqi men, were isolated to some rogue U.S. soldiers who acted on their own and not as result of orders being handed down from high-level officials inside the Bush administration.
“The president has not directed the use of specific interrogation techniques,” Gonzales said on June 22, 2004. “There has been no presidential determination necessity or self-defense that would allow conduct that constitutes torture.
“There has been no presidential determination that circumstances warrant the use of torture to protect the mass security of the United States.”
Gonzales also said the White House defined torture as a “a specific intent to inflict severe physical or mental harm or suffering. That’s the definition that Congress has given us and that’s the definition that we use.”
However, on March 8, 2008, Bush vetoed congressional legislation that called for a specific ban on waterboarding and other abusive interrogation techniques, including stripping prisoners naked, subjecting them to extreme cold and staging mock executions.
“This is no time for Congress to abandon practices that have a proven track record of keeping America safe,” Bush said in a radio address explaining his veto.
“We created alternative procedures to question the most dangerous al-Qaeda operatives, particularly those who might have knowledge of attacks planned on our homeland.” Bush said. “If we were to shut down this program and restrict the CIA to methods in the [Army] field manual, we could lose vital information from senior al-Qaeda terrorists, and that could cost American lives.”
Prior to the news conference, the White House selectively declassified and released documents to reporters, including one dated Feb. 7, 2002, and signed by President Bush, that cited the Geneva Convention’s rules about humane treatment of prisoners during conflicts.
Describing the contents of the Feb. 7, 2002, memo, Gonzales said, “This is the only formal, written directive from the president regarding treatment of detainees. The president determined that Geneva does not apply with respect to our conflict with al-Qaeda. Geneva applies with respect to our conflict with the Taliban. Neither the Taliban or [sic] al Qaeda are entitled to POW protections.”
Gonzales added: “But the president also determined — and this is quoting from the actual document, paragraph 3; this is very important — he said, ‘Of course, our values as a nation, values that we share with many nations in the world, call for us to treat detainees humanely, including those who are not legally entitled to such treatment. Our nation has been, and will continue to be, a strong supporter of Geneva and its principles. As a matter of policy, the Armed Forces are to treat detainees humanely, and to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva.’”
But the FBI e-mail’s reference to an executive order describing specific harsh interrogation techniques, allegedly approved by President Bush, appeared to contradict Gonzales’s assertions.
Additionally, a bipartisan report released last week by the Senate Armed Services Committee traced the U.S. abuse of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib directly to the Feb. 7, 2002 action memorandum signed by Bush that excluded “war on terror” suspects from Geneva Convention protections.
The committee’s report said Bush’s memo opened the door to “considering aggressive techniques,” which were then developed with the complicity of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and other senior officials.
The 232-page report does not appear to mention the existence of the alleged 2004 executive order cited by the FBI agents in the e-mail. But the report does say that Bush’s Feb. 7, 2002, memo prompted Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, who became the top commander in Iraq, to institute a “dozen interrogation methods beyond” the Army’s standard practice under the convention, according to a report by a panel headed by James Schlesinger on the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses in 2004.
Separately, in 2005, the former head of interrogations at Guantanamo suggested that Bush verbally signed off on the abusive treatment of detainees at Guantanamo.
On Feb. 14, 2002, just one week after Bush signed the action memo, Maj. Gen. Mike Dunlavey was contacted by Rumsfeld who asked him to attend a Defense Department meeting with him, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and others.
At the meeting, which took place on either Feb. 21 or 22, 2002, Rumsfeld told Dunlavey he wanted him to oversee interrogations at the Guantanamo Bay naval facility in Cuba. Prisoners captured by U.S. military personnel had first arrived at Guantanamo a month earlier. Dunlavey was a Family Court Judge in Erie County Pennsylvania when he got the call from Rumsfeld and was placed in charge of interrogations at Guantanamo.
Rumsfeld told Dunlavey, according to a March 17, 2005 witness statement Dunlavey gave to U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Randall Schmidt, who was investigating FBI complaints about abuse at Guantanamo, that Rumsfeld said the Department of Defense had rounded up “a number of bad guys” and the Secretary of Defense “wanted a product and wanted intelligence now.”
Rumsfeld “wanted to set up interrogation operations and to identify the senior Taliban and senior operatives and to obtain information on what they were going to do regarding their operations and structure,” Dunlavey said, according to a copy of his witness statement. “Initially, I was told that I would answer to SECDEF (Secretary of Defense) and [U.S. Southern Command]. The directions changed and I got my marching orders from the President of the United States. I was told by the SECDEF that he wanted me back in Washington, DC every week to brief him….The mission was to get intelligence to prevent another 9/11.”
Dunlavey did not explain what he meant by “I got my marching orders from the president.” But his comments suggest that Bush may have played a much larger role in the interrogation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo than he has let on.