US Senate committee: Senior officials responsible for detainee abuse

The authorization of “aggressive” interrogation techniques by senior US government officials has been a “direct cause of detainee abuse” in the “war on terror”, according to a US Senate inquiry.

The Senate Armed Services Committee released the summary and conclusions of its 18-month inquiry into the abuse of detainees in US custody in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo on Thursday. The bipartisan committee found that:

“The abuse of detainees in US custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of a ‘few bad apples’ acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees…

“Interrogation policies endorsed by senior military and civilian officials authorizing the use of harsh interrogation techniques were a major cause of the abuse of detainees in US custody.”

Among other things, the Committee concluded that President George W Bush’s decision to deny detainees the protections of the Geneva Conventions and to make humane treatment a matter of policy rather than law contributed to abuse. It also found that former Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld’s authorization of techniques for use in Guantánamo in late 2002 – including stripping, hooding, sensory deprivation and the use of dogs – influenced interrogation policies in Afghanistan and later Iraq.

The Chairman of the Committee said that “attempts by senior officials to pass the buck to low ranking soldiers while avoiding any responsibility for abuse are unconscionable.”

The Committee’s inquiry examined how techniques used in US military training came to be used against detainees held in US custody. Under the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) program, members of the US armed forces are trained in how to resist interrogation in the event they fall into enemy hands.

The Committee found that “senior officials in the US government decided to use some of these harsh techniques against detainees based on deeply flawed interpretations of US and international law.” One such technique was “water-boarding”, the torture method that simulates drowning.

“The conclusions of this investigation show the need for a comprehensive commission of inquiry into ‘war on terror’ abuses, as well as the prosecution of anybody against whom there is evidence of criminal wrongdoing under national or international law, regardless of the person’s rank or position,” said Susan Lee, Director of Amnesty International’s Americas team.

Khaled Sheikh Mohammed is one detainee whom the US government has admitted subjecting to water-boarding in secret CIA custody. In an interview with ABC News on Monday, Vice President Richard Cheney was asked whether he had authorized “the tactics” used against Mohammed. The Vice-President said that he “was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared… I supported it.” He specifically confirmed that, in his opinion, the use of water-boarding had been “appropriate”.

Amnesty International has said that the establishment and operation of a commission of inquiry must not be used to block or delay the prosecution of any individuals against whom there is already sufficient evidence of wrongdoing.