Top US officials, not a "few bad apples" of low rank, were behind harsh military interrogation tactics that spread from Guantanamo Bay to Afghanistan to Iraq, a new Senate report said.
The Senate Armed Services Committee’s 261-page report, the fruit of its investigation into US treatment of "war on terror" detainees, is likely to stoke the ongoing debate over US techniques widely seen as torture.
The panel, led by Democratic Senator Carl Levin, released its chief conclusions in December 2008, but its detailed findings had been kept under wraps during US Defense Department declassification proceedings.
Levin said in a statement that the report showed that claims by top aides to then-president George W. Bush "that detainee abuses could be chalked up to the unauthorized acts of a ‘few bad apples,’ were simply false."
The report is "a condemnation of both the Bush administration’s interrogation policies and of senior administration officials who attempted to shift the blame for abuse — such as that seen at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and Afghanistan — to low ranking soldiers," said Levin.
The report says US officials began preparing for what came to be known as "enhanced interrogation" techniques just a few months after the September 11, 2001 attacks and before a series of memos declaring such practices legal.
The approach harnessed a US military program known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE), which aims to train US military personnel to resist questioning by foes who do not follow international bans on torture.
The resulting program included tactics like stripping a detainee, slapping, as well as "waterboarding," a notorious kind of near-drowning.
The report also says that one suspected terrorist was forced "to bark and perform dog tricks" while another was "forced to wear a dog collar and perform dog tricks" in a bid to break down their resistance.
Interrogation tactics also included "religious disgrace" and "invasion of space by a female."
One of the officials quoted in the report says some of the harsh tactics were used before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq amid frustration in Washington at the lack of evidence linking Al-Qaeda and Baghdad.
"Even though they were giving information and some of it was useful, while we were there a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between Al-Qaeda and Iraq," the report quoted US Army psychiatrist Major Paul Burney as saying of some Guantanamo Bay interrogations.
"We were not being successful in establishing a link between Al-Qaeda and Iraq. The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish this link… there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results," said Burney.
Others did not recall such pressure, the report said.
The report also details repeated warnings from military and other experts, almost from the outset, that harsh questioning was likely to yield "less reliable" intelligence results than less aggressive approaches.
One July 2002 memo from the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency that oversees the SERE program warned "if an interrogator produces information that resulted from the application of physical and psychological duress, the reliability and accuracy of this information is in doubt.
"In other words, a subject in extreme pain may provide an answer, any answer, or many answers in order to get the pain to stop," it said.