How Donald Rumsfeld Micromanaged Torture

Photograph Source: thierry ehrmann – CC BY 2.0

When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld boasted, as he did frequently, of his unrelenting focus on the war on terror, his audience would have been startled, maybe even shocked, to discover the activities that Rumsfeld found it necessary to supervise in minute detail. Close command and control of far away events from the Pentagon were not limited to the targeting of bombs and missiles. Thanks to breakthroughs in communications, the interrogation and torture of prisoners could be monitored on a real time basis also.

The first prisoner to experience such attention from Rumsfeld’s office, or the first that we know about, was an American citizen, John Walker Lindh, a young man from California whose fascination with Islam had led him to enlist in the Taliban. Shortly thereafter, he and several hundred others surrendered to the Northern Alliance warlord Abdu Rashid Dostum in return for a promise of safe passage. Dostum broke the deal, herding the prisoners into a ruined fortress near Mazar-e-Sharif. Lindh managed to survive, though wounded, and eventually fell into the hands of the CIA and Special Forces, who proceeded to interrogate him.

According to documents later unearthed by Richard Serrano of the Los Angeles Times, a Special Forces intelligence officer was informed by a Navy Admiral monitoring events in Mazar-e-Sharif that “the Secretary of Defense’s Counsel (lawyer William Haynes) has authorized him to ‘take the gloves off’ and ask whatever he wanted.” In the course of the questioning Lindh, who had a bullet in his leg, was stripped naked, blindfolded, handcuffed, and bound to a stretcher with duct tape. In a practice that would become more familiar at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq 18 months later, smiling soldiers posed for pictures next to the naked prisoner. A navy medic later testified that he had been told by the lead military interrogator that “sleep deprivation, cold and hunger might be employed” during Lindh’s interrogations. Meanwhile, his responses to the questioning, which ultimately went on for days, were relayed back to Washington, according to the documents disclosed to Serrano, every hour, hour after hour. Someone very important clearly wanted to know all the details.

Lindh was ultimately tried and sentenced in a U.S. court, but Rumsfeld was in no mood to extend any kind of legal protection to other captives. As the first load of prisoners arrived at the new military prison camp at Guantanamo, Cuba, on January 11, 2002, he declared them “unlawful combatants” who “do not have any rights under the Geneva Convention.” In fact, the Geneva Conventions provide explicit protection to anyone taken prisoner in an international armed conflict, even when they are not entitled to actual prisoner of war status, but no one at that time was in a mood to contradict the all-powerful secretary of defense.

A year after Haynes, his chief counsel, had passed the message that interrogators should “take the gloves off” when questioning the hapless John Walker Lindh and report the results on an hourly basis, Rumsfeld was personally deciding on whether interrogators could use “stress positions” (an old CIA technique) like making prisoners stand for up to four hours, or exploit “individual phobias, such as fear of dogs, to induce stress,” or strip them naked, or question them for 28 hours at a stretch, without sleep, or use “a wet towel and dripping water to induce the misperception of suffocation”. These and other methods, euphemistically dubbed “counter-resistance techniques” in Pentagon documents that always avoided the word “torture,” were outlined in an “action memo” submitted on November 27, 2002, for Rumsfeld’s approval by Haynes. The lawyer noted that Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and Richard General Richard Myers (respectively deputy defense secretary, under-secretary for policy and chairman of the joint chiefs) had already agreed that Rumsfeld should approve all but the most severe options, such as the wet towel, without restriction. A week later, Rumsfeld scrawled his signature in the “approved” box but added, “However, I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?”

The answer, of course, was that he could always sit down if he felt like it, and in any case, according to a sworn statement by Air Force Lt. General Randall Schmidt, appointed in 2005 to investigate charges by FBI officials that there had been widespread abuse at Guantanamo, Rumsfeld’s signature was merely for the record; he had given verbal approval for the techniques two weeks before. In any event, sitting down at will was not an option available to Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi inmate in Guantanamo who soon began to feel the effects of Rumsfeld’s authorization in the most direct way. Qahtani, alleged to have been recruited for the 9/11 hijackings only to fail to gain entry into the U.S., had been under intense questioning for months.

There is no more chilling evidence of just how closely connected Secretary Rumsfeld was to the culture of torture so defiantly adopted by the Bush administration than Schmidt’s 55-page statement, which at times takes on an informal, almost emotional tone. Schmidt is adamant that Rumsfeld intended the techniques “for Mister Kahtani (sic) number one.” And so Qahtani’s jailers now began forcing him to stand for long periods, isolating him, stripping him, telling him to bark like a dog, and more. “There were no limits put on this and no boundaries”, Schmidt reported. After a few days, the sessions had to be temporarily suspended when Qahtani’s heartbeat slowed to 35 beats a minute. “Somewhere”, General Schmidt observes, “there had to be a throttle on this”, and the “throttle” controlling the interrogation was ultimately Rumsfeld, who was “personally involved”, the general stresses, “in the interrogation of one person.” Bypassing the normal chain of command, the secretary called the prison chief directly on a weekly basis for reports on progress with Qahtani.

Years before, a G.D. Searle executive had remarked on Rumsfeld’s practice of “diving down in the weeds” to check on details, but this was a whole new departure. At one point in Schmidt’s description of his interview with the secretary during his investigation, it appears that Rumsfeld was bemused by the practical consequences of his edicts: “Did [I] say ‘put a bra and panties on this guy’s head and make him dance with another man?’” Schmidt quotes him as remarking defensively. To which Schmidt, in his statement, answers that Rumsfeld had indeed authorized such specific actions by his broad overall approval.

Sometime in mid-August 2003, Rumsfeld took action to deal with the question of “insurgency” in Iraq once and for all. During an intelligence briefing in his office he reportedly expressed outrage at the quality of intelligence he was receiving from Iraq, which he loudly and angrily referred to as “shit”, banging the table with his fist “so hard we thought he might break it”,according to one report. His principal complaint was that the reports were failing to confirm what he knew to be true ­ that hostile acts against U.S. forces in Iraq were entirely the work of FSLs [“Former Saddam Loyalists”] and dead-enders. Scathingly, he compared the quality of the Iraqi material with the excellent intelligence that was now, in his view, being extracted from the prisoners at Guantanamo, or “Gitmo,” as the military termed it, under the able supervision of prison commander Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller. Rumsfeld concluded his diatribe with a forthright instruction to Stephen Cambone [under-secretary of defense for intel]ligence] that Miller be ordered immediately to the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, where the unfortunate PUCs [Persons Under Confinement] were ending up, and “Gitmoise it.” Cambone in turn dispatched the deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, Lt. Gen. William Boykin, a fervent Christian fundamentalist given to deriding the Muslims’ Allah as “an idol,” to Cuba to brief Miller on his mission.

Boykin must have given Miller careful instruction, for he arrived in Iraq fully prepared, bringing with him experts such as the female interrogator who favored the technique of sexually taunting prisoners, as well as useful tips on the use of dogs as a means of intimidating interviewees. First on his list of appointments was Lt. Ricardo Sanchez, who had succeeded McKiernan as the commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq. It must have been an instructive conversation, since within 36 hours Sanchez issued instructions on detainee interrogation that mirrored those authorized by Rumsfeld for use at Guantanamo in December the previous year that gave cover to techniques including hooding, nudity, stress positions, “fear of dogs,” and “mild” physical contact with prisoners. There were some innovations in Sanchez’ instructions however, such as sleep and dietary manipulation. Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the overall commander of the U.S. military prison system in Iraq at that time, later insisted that she did not know what was being done to the prisoners at Abu Gharib, though she did recall Miller remarking that “at Guantanamo Bay we learned that the prisoners have to earn every single thing that they have” and “if you allow them to believe at any point that they are more than a dog, then you’ve lost control of them”.

The techniques were apparently fully absorbed by the Abu Ghraib interrogators and attendant military police, as became apparent when photographs snapped by the MPs finally began to surface, initially on CBS News’ 60 Minutes in late April 2004. When Rumsfeld first learned that there were pictures extant of naked, humiliated and terrified prisoners being abused by cheerful soldiers, he said, according to an aide who was present, “I didn’t know you were allowed to bring cameras into a prison.”

It is not clear when Rumsfeld first saw the actual photographs. He himself testified under oath to Congress that he saw them first in expurgated form when they were published in the press, and only got to look at the originals nine days later after his office had been “trying to get one of the disks for days and days”.

The army’s criminal investigation division began a probe on January16, 2004, after Joseph Darby, a soldier not involved in the abuse, slipped the investigators a CD carrying some of the photos. As the CID investigation set to work, Karpinski, according to her later testimony, asked a sergeant at the prison, “What’s this about photographs?” The sergeant replied, “Ma’am, we’ve heard something about photographs, but I have no idea. Nobody has any details, and Ma’am, if anybody knows, nobody is talking.” When she asked to see the logbooks kept by the military intelligence personnel, she was told that the CID had cleared up everything. However, when she went to look for herself, she found they had missed something, a piece of paper stuck on a pole outside a little office used by the interrogators. “It was a memorandum signed by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, authorizing a short list, maybe 6 or 8 techniques: use of dogs; stress positions; loud music; deprivation of food; keeping the lights on, those kinds of things,” Karpinski said. Over to the side of the paper was a line of handwriting, which to her appeared to be in the same hand and with the same ink as the signature. The line read: “Make sure this happens!!”

Further indications of Rumsfeld’s close interest in ongoing events at Abu Ghraib emerged in subsequent court proceedings. In May 2006, Sergeant Santos Cardona, an army dog handler was court-martialed at Fort Meade, Maryland. In stipulated (i.e., accepted by defense and prosecution) testimony, Maj. Michael Thompson, who had been assigned to the 325th Military Intelligence Battalion in the relevant period and reported to Col. Tom Pappas, the battalion commander, stated that he was frequently told by Pappas’ executive assistant that “Mr. Donald Rumsfeld and Mr. Paul Wolfowitz” had called and were “waiting for reports”. The defense also read aloud stipulated testimony from Steve Pescatore, a civilian interrogator employed by CACI, a corporation heavily contracted to assist in interrogations, who recalled being told by military intelligence personnel that Secretary Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz received “nightly briefings”.

Needless to say, the numerous investigations of itself by the military high command concluded that no officer or official above the rank of colonel bore any responsibility for Abu Ghraib. Col. Pappas was granted immunity in return for his testimony against a dog handler. One of the investigations, conducted by former Defense Secretary Schlesinger (who had become a friend of Rumsfeld since the distant days of the Ford administration) concluded that the whole affair had been simply “animal house on the night shift”, the acts of the untrained national guard military police unit from Cumberland Mary, and assigned to Abu Ghraib.

This strategy of deflecting responsibility downwards appears to have been crafted in the three desperate weeks that followed the first call for comment on the photographs from 60 Minutes’ producer Mary Mapes. While Gen. Myers bought time with appeals to the broadcasters’ patriotism, Rumsfeld’s public affairs specialists went into crisis mode under the urgent direction of Larry DiRita, who had taken on Torie Clarke’s responsibilities as Pentagon public affairs chief following her departure in April 2003 . To help in developing tactics to deal with the storm they knew would break once 60 Minutes went ahead, DiRita’s staff summoned an “echo chamber” of public relations professionals, “all Republicans of course”, as one official assured me, from big firms such as Hill and Knowlton to advise them. Naturally, the well-oiled system for delivering the official line through the medium of TV military analysts was brought into play. Retired Army Gen. David Grange, one of the stars of this system, got the tone exactly right on CNN. Responding to a question from Lou Dobbs that though there were six soldiers facing charges, “their superiors had to know what was going on here.” Grange responded quickly: “Or they didn’t know at all because they lacked the supervision of those soldiers or (were not) inspecting part of their command.” In other words, the higher command’s fault lay not in encouraging the torture at Abu Ghraib, but simply in failing to notice what the guards were up to. “These soldiers,” continued Grange indignantly, “these few soldiers let down the rest of the force in Iraq and the United States, to include veterans like myself. It is unexcusable.”

Meanwhile, Rumsfeld accepted full responsibility without taking any blame, a standard response for high officials implicated in scandal. He said had had no idea what was going on in his Iraqi prisons until Specialist Darby, whom he commended, alerted investigators, though he also claimed that a vague press release on the investigation issued in Baghdad at that time had in fact “broken the story” and alerted “the whole world.” He said he had written not one but two letters of resignation to President Bush, which were rejected. Gen. Myers testified under oath that he never informed Rumsfeld that he was trying to persuade CBS to suppress their report. When a leaked internal report by Gen. Antonio Taguba detailing how “numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees” at Abu Ghraib had been published in the press and even on Fox TV a few days after the original CBS broadcast, Feith sent an urgent memo round the Pentagon warning officials not to read it , or even discuss it with family members.

What Rumsfeld did not mention in all his public protestations of regret over Abu Ghraib was that in the same month of May 2004 he had on his desk a report prepared by the Navy inspector general’s office detailing the interrogation methods, refined in their cruelty, being practiced on Jose Padilla and other inmates in the South Carolina naval brig. Padilla, a Puerto Rican former gang member, found himself incarcerated on the direct authority of the secretary of defense, one of three prisoners accused of terrorism held in the jail and subjected to a carefully designed regime of isolation and sensory deprivation. Padilla, according to his attorneys, would ultimately spend 1,307 days in a nine-by-seven-foot cell, often chained to the ground by his wrists and torso and kept awake at night by guards using bright lights and loud noises. In repeated legal arguments, administration lawyers maintained that Rumsfeld was entitled to hold anyone deemed ‘an enemy combatant’ in his rapidly excpanding prison system.

Excerpted from Rumsfeld by ANDREW COCKBURN. Copyright 2007 by ANDREW COCKBURN. Reprinted by permission by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine.  An Irishman, he has covered national security topics in this country for many years.  In addition to publishing numerous books, he co-produced the 1997 feature film The Peacemaker and the 2009 documentary on the financial crisis American Casino. His latest book is  The Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the American War Machine. (Verso.)