Top Commander Bars Coercive Tactics in Interrogation of Iraqis

Posted in Iraq | 16-May-04 | Author: Eric Schmitt| Source: The New York Times

WASHINGTON, May 14 — Under a barrage of international and domestic criticism, the top American commander in Iraq has barred virtually all coercive interrogation practices, like forcing prisoners to crouch for long periods or depriving them of sleep, the Pentagon said Friday.

The commander, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, will still consider requests to hold prisoners in isolation for more than 30 days, according to a senior Central Command official who briefed reporters on Friday. The general has approved 25 such requests since October, the official said. But the official said that General Sanchez would deny requests to use other harsh methods.

"Simply, we will not even entertain a request, so don't even send it up for a review," the Central Command official said.

Previously, certain interrogation techniques, including sensory deprivation were supposed to be used only with the general's explicit approval. General Sanchez issued the new guidelines on Thursday, the same day that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made a surprise visit to Baghdad and to Abu Ghraib prison, where the worst abuses occurred, in an effort to quiet the furor over the abuse scandal.

Mr. Rumsfeld has said that the American military in Iraq was abiding by the Geneva Conventions, and that the mistreatment was the work of a terrible few. But at a Senate hearing on Thursday, Mr. Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz, acknowledged that hooding prisoners or forcing them to crouch naked for 45 minutes — tactics available to interrogators with General Sanchez's approval under the old policy — was inhumane. The International Red Cross had warned American officials for months that Iraqi prisoners were being abused in American-run prisons.

The senior Central Command official said the coercive practices were dropped because General Sanchez was not receiving requests to use most of them. But the Pentagon's chief spokesman, Lawrence Di Rita, acknowledged that it was "likely that the heightened scrutiny of the last couple weeks" had prompted General Sanchez to revise the interrogation rules. He said Mr. Rumsfeld did not order General Sanchez to change the policy.

The changes appear to affect only operations in Iraq, and would not change interrogation methods at the American base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, or in Afghanistan. The rules also apply to any civilian contractors.

The Army's top intelligence officer, Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, had presented to senators this week a list of techniques, some of which were approved for use on all prisoners and others that required General Sanchez's approval. The chart also listed safeguards, including a warning that "approaches must always be humane and lawful." Senators said at the hearing on Tuesday that General Alexander had characterized the one-page chart as a product of the American military high command in Baghdad. But the Central Command official disclosed Friday that the document was actually produced sometime in October by the Army's 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, which oversaw interrogations at Abu Ghraib. The Central Command official also said that until last fall, commanders did not have an interrogation policy specific to Iraq.

That changed, however, after Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, the head of detention operations at Guantanamo Bay, visited Iraqi prisons last September and recommended several changes, including the creation of a specific interrogation policy for prisons in Iraq. An interim policy, from Sept. 14 to Oct. 12 last year, spelled out approved interrogation techniques for all prisoners, a separate list of harsher tactics that required General Sanchez's approval, and the list of safeguards.

A revised policy took effect on Oct. 12 that dropped the listing of the approaches needing the general's approval, although the Army intelligence brigade that actually conducted the interrogations produced a chart that kept the old listings, and posted it as a guide.

A senior military official said the American headquarters in Baghdad expected interrogators and their commanders to request exceptional permission for any approach that was not in the pre-approve category.

"There are reasonable people and very intelligent people who can differ on what is authorized, what's permissible under the Geneva Conventions," the official said.

The official said, for instance, that there were harsher approaches, now barred by General Sanchez, that in his view did not violate the Conventions. The official said requiring a prisoner to stand at attention would be an example of what military interrogators call "a stress position" that would be allowable. Military officials said that since October, interrogators in the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade had requested to use stress positions in three cases, but each one was denied at the brigade level.

The official acknowledged that a Red Cross report submitted last November to Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, head of the 800th Military Police Brigade, contained allegations that the official said were "very concerning" and that had been investigated by Army criminal investigators as well as Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who first reported the abuses. But the official did not elaborate.

On Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats who had accused the Pentagon this week of employing practices that violated the Conventions applauded the policy changes. "Pressure works," said Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.

Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who clashed with Mr. Wolfowitz at Thursday's hearing, said in a telephone interview, "I'm glad they're changing them, but it's like closing the barn door after the herd is out. Why were these regulations promulgated in the first place?"

In Iraq on Friday, criminal charges were brought against Specialist Charles A. Graner, bringing him to a general court-martial. The seven charges against Specialist Graner are conspiracy to maltreat detainees; dereliction of duty for willfully failing to protect detainees from abuse; cruelty and maltreatment; maltreatment of detainees; assaulting detainees; committing indecent acts; and adultery and obstruction of justice.

A military judge will arraign Specialist Graner along with Sgt. Javal Davis on May 20. Sergeant Davis acknowledged on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Friday that he stomped on prisoners' hands, but said he had been directed to do so by military intelligence officers.

Also on Friday, the military released 293 detainees from the Abu Ghraib prison. American officials have said that at least 60 percent of Iraqis taken into custody by American forces — there are about 3,000 at Abu Ghraib now — were arrested by mistake. Another 475 prisoners will be released in May, the military said.