NEW YORK, May 9 – LAWFUEL – Since 9/11, secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld insisted on personally signing off on the harsher methods used to
squeeze suspected terrorists held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
reports Assistant Managing Editor Evan Thomas in the May 17 Newsweek cover
story (on newsstands Monday, May 10). The conservative hard-liners at the
Department of Justice have given the secretary of Defense a lot of leeway. It
does not violate the spirit of the Geneva Conventions, the lawyers have told
Rumsfeld, to put prisoners in ever-more-painful “stress positions” or keep
them standing for hours on end, to deprive them of sleep or strip them naked.
According to one of Rumsfeld’s aides, the secretary has drawn the line at
interrogating prisoners for more than 24 hours at a time or depriving them of
Apparently, even Rumsfeld could not control everything that happens in the
vast American gulag that has sprung up since 9/11 to deal with enemies of the
state, reports Thomas. Rumsfeld last week was left explaining that he had not
seen the actual pictures of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib that appalled the
world until eight days after the images first appeared on “60 Minutes II.”
Before the Senate Armed Services Committee last Friday, Rumsfeld warned that
more photos and even videos will surface. According to knowledgeable sources,
the images include an American soldier having sex with a female Iraqi detainee
and American soldiers watching Iraqis have sex with juveniles. Another photo
shows a female prison guard gloating over the body of a dead Iraqi.
President Bush stood by Rumsfeld last week, more or less, reports Thomas.
And by the end of the week Bush was telling an aide to instruct “your
clackers” (Bushspeak for press staff) that if he heard any chatter from White
House aides about Rumsfeld getting fired, “they’ll have to answer to me.” But
if Bush’s re-election chances are jeopardized by Rumsfeld’s continued presence
at the Pentagon, those instructions could change. Bush and Rumsfeld are “not
buddies,” says one senior administration official. Still, Rumsfeld has been
Bush’s trusted war minister since 9/11, and “it is not in the Bush DNA to back
down under fire,” says an aide.
In the days and weeks ahead, it is likely to emerge that the International
Committee of the Red Cross, the State Department and the head of the Coalition
Provisional Authority, Ambassador Paul Bremer in Baghdad, all warned of
mounting problems in the prisons-not just in Iraq but in Afghanistan as well.
The Red Cross brought its complaints to the State Department’s attention
“regularly and consistently over a lengthy period” dating all the way back to
the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, one top State Department
official tells Newsweek. A 24-page report delivered to the Pentagon in
February tells of systemic “use of ill treatment” — most graphically, seven
shootings of unarmed prisoners, sometimes from watchtowers. The abuses were
“tantamount to torture,” the report states.
Aides to Bremer say that last August the American proconsul became
concerned about reports of detainees who were removed from their families and
crowded into makeshift prisons in and around Baghdad, including Abu Ghraib,
Saddam’s notorious dungeon and torture chamber downtown. Bremer began urging
military and Bush-administration officials to improve the state of affairs.
How hard he rang the bell is not clear. “The CPA always viewed this as a
military issue,” says one administration official — i.e., someone else’s
Likewise, by about November of last year, Secretary of State Colin Powell
was bringing up prisoner abuse at meetings of top administration officials,
including Rumsfeld. Powell has always been a strong supporter of adhering to
the Geneva Conventions, the international accords that safeguard the rights of
captured soldiers and civilian detainees in time of war. But it does not
appear, from what is known thus far, that Powell was very urgent or vocal
about his warnings. Nor does it seem that national-security adviser
Condoleezza Rice, whose job is to coordinate policy among agencies, swung into
action in any forceful way.
In January came the first reports of the grotesque humiliation of
prisoners at Abu Ghraib. A whistle-blower — a soldier with a sense of decency
— slid a computer disk with some hair-raising pictures under an
investigator’s door. The military publicly announced that it was launching an
investigation. With the usual can-do attitude, the report up the chain to the
secretary of Defense was situation-under-control. Rumsfeld did not ask to see
For a forward-leaning detail man, Rumsfeld was strangely passive, reports
Thomas. It does not seem to have occurred to him that the photos could be
devastating. Last week he protested that he could not very well have reached
down into the investigation and asked to see the evidence. Since he might have
to rule on the fates of defendants facing courts-martial, Rumsfeld and his
aides could not be seen prejudging the case or influencing it in any way.
Rumsfeld, who normally mocks lawyers as worrywart bureaucrats and nitpickers,
was demonstrating unusual legal fastidiousness. But he was also being true to
his disdain for all things Clintonian. He scorned the prior administration for
being more concerned about image than action.
Rumsfeld’s strengths have always been his weaknesses, reports Thomas. His
imperious manner and biting questions, his obsession with control, his
occasional slipperiness, have alienated a large number of senior military
officers, particularly in the Army. When Rumsfeld’s aggressive approach to
prisoner interrogation began to backfire, no brave officer rose up to brace
him, to warn and him or rescue him from a situation that Rumsfeld now
describes as a “catastrophe.”