From the moment that photos documenting prisoner abuse in Iraq came to light seven weeks ago, the Bush Administration has stuck to the claim that the crimes were the vile acts of a few bad soldiers. But the effort to blame a few individuals has faltered as evidence has mounted of abuse in U.S. detention centers from Cuba to Afghanistan to Iraq. Last week the scandal seemed to drift ever closer to implicating policymakers at the highest levels of the U.S. war council.
A series of leaked legal memos has revealed that since late 2001 the Administration has been quietly but fundamentally reshaping America's stance on torture. Contradicting 50 years of policy governing the treatment of detainees captured during conflict, the memos meticulously list all the laws against torture--then offer methods of evading them. The White House insists that these documents were abstract musings rather than actual policy changes. Nevertheless, they suggest that what happened at Abu Ghraib was not unique but grew out of a climate of ambiguity regarding the treatment and interrogation of prisoners that was created by an Administration determined to do whatever it takes to win the war on terrorism.
The leaked memos alone do not prove that U.S. officials endorsed the use of torture to extract intelligence from detainees. But they have put the Administration on the defensive. Before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, Attorney General John Ashcroft said, "This Administration opposes torture," but he refused to release an unclassified memo quoted by the Washington Post that seemed to undercut his words. President Bush, asked whether he signed off on any memos that might have loosened the rules of interrogation, said he did not recall seeing any such documents and that "the authorization I issued was that anything we did would conform to U.S. laws" and international treaties.
As early as Sept. 16, 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney, in his first interview after the 9/11 attacks, said, "It's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective." His declaration met little resistance from a public reeling from 9/11 and willing to support measures needed to prevent another attack. Behind the scenes, government lawyers debated the meaning of "any means at our disposal." Even before the U.S. went into Afghanistan in October 2001, State Department officials and Pentagon military lawyers were incensed that political appointees wanted to exempt captured Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters from the Geneva Conventions. "[Secretary of State Colin] Powell was irate over it," recalls a former State Department official. "He was arguing, 'You can't not follow the Geneva Conventions.'"
After 9/11, a small group of politically appointed lawyers in various departments in the Administration maintained that the conventions, which ban the use of torture on prisoners of war and were signed by the U.S. in 1955, did not apply in a war against terrorists. Top officials agreed. In February 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, "The reality is, the set of facts that exist today with al-Qaeda and the Taliban were not necessarily the set of facts that were considered when the Geneva Convention was fashioned."