Green light for Iraqi prison abuse came right from the top

Classified documents show the former US military chief in Iraq personally sanctioned measures banned by the Geneva Conventions. Andrew Buncombe reports from Washington
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The Independent US

America's leading civil liberties group has demanded an investigation into the former US military commander Iraq after a formerly classified memo revealed that he personally sanctioned a series of coercive interrogation techniques outlawed by the Geneva Conventions. The group claims that his directives were directly linked to the sort of abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib.

America's leading civil liberties group has demanded an investigation into the former US military commander Iraq after a formerly classified memo revealed that he personally sanctioned a series of coercive interrogation techniques outlawed by the Geneva Conventions. The group claims that his directives were directly linked to the sort of abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib.

Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reveal that Lt General Ricardo Sanchez authorised techniques such as the use of dogs to intimidate prisoners, stress positions and disorientation. In the documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Gen Sanchez admits that some of the techniques would not be tolerated by other countries.

When he appeared last year before a Congressional committee, Gen Sanchez denied authorising such techniques. He has now been accused of perjury.

The ACLU says the documents reveal that the abuse of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere was the result of an organised and co-ordinated plan for dealing with prisoners captured during the so-called war on terror that originates at the highest levels of the chain of command. It says that far from being isolated incident, the shocking abuse at Abu Ghraib that was revealed last year was part of a pattern.

"We think that the techniques authorised by Gen Sanchez were certainly responsible for putting into play the sort of abuses that we saw at Abu Ghraib," Amirit Singh, an ACLU lawyer, told The Independent on Sunday. "And it does not just stop with Sanchez. It goes to [Defence Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld, who wrote memos authorising these sorts of techniques at Guantanamo Bay."

In the September 2003 memo, Gen Sanchez authorised the use of 29 techniques for interrogating prisoners being held by the US. These included stress positions, "yelling, loud music and light control" as well as the use of muzzled military dogs in order to "exploit Arab fear of dogs". Some of the most notorious photographs to emerge from the Abu Ghraib scandal showed hand-cuffed, naked Iraqi prisoners cowering from snarling dogs.

Six weeks after Gen Sanchez issued his memo, a subsequent directive banned the use of dogs and several of the other techniques following concerns raised by military lawyers. The ACLU says that at least 12 of the techniques listed in the memo went beyond the limits for interrogation listed in the US Army's field manual.

"Gen Sanchez authorised interrogation techniques that were in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions and the army's own standards," said Ms Singh. "He and other high-ranking officials who bear responsibility for the widespread abuse of detainees must be held accountable."

The Abu Ghraib scandal sent shockwaves around the world and further undermined US credibility in the Arab world. In the immediate aftermath, insurgents who captured and beheaded a US engineer, Nick Berg, said they had done so in retaliation for the abuse at the infamous prison west of Baghdad, where prisoners were sexually humiliated and tortured.

A number of low-ranking reservists have been charged over the abuse. An alleged ringleader, Charles Graner, 36, was convicted last January and sentenced to 10 years in jail. At his trial his lawyer, Guy Womack, claimed his client was being used as a scapegoat. "The government is asking a corporal to take the hit for them," he said. "The chain of command says, 'We didn't know anything about this stuff'. You know that is a lie."

When he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee in May 2004, Gen Sanchez flatly refused approving such techniques in Iraq, and said that a news article reporting otherwise was false. "I never approved any of those measures to be used ... at any time in the last year," he said under oath. The ACLU accuses him of committing perjury and has asked the Attorney General to investigate. In a letter to Alberto Gonzales, the group said: "Gen Sanchez's testimony, given under oath before the Senate Armed Services committee, is utterly inconsistent with the written record, and deserves serious investigation. This clear breach of the public's trust is also further proof that the American people deserve the appointment of an independent special counsel by the Attorney General."

A number of investigations have been carried out into the abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. While some have referred to a break-down in the chain of command, none have placed responsibility with senior officers or politicians.

Kathy Kelley, a spokeswoman for the anti-war group Voices in the Wilderness, said the new documents obtained by the ACLU showed a pattern of abuse by US forces. "It saddens me but I am not shocked," she said.

Gen Sanchez is currently commanding general of the US V Corps based in Germany. He has yet to comment on the release of the memo. A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment.

The Pentagon originally refused to release the memo on national security grounds, but passed it to the ACLU after the group challenged it in court. Mr Rumsfeld last week dismissed suggestions that it had been withheld to save the Pentagon's embarrassment.

But the ACLU said the reason for the delay in delivering the more than 1,200 pages of documents in which the memo was contained was "evident in the contents", which included reports of brutal beatings and sworn statements that soldiers were told to "beat the fuck out of" prisoners.

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