The Bush Administration’s Stunning Geneva Hypocrisy

Trickle-Down Torture

One of the recipients of the ICRC confidential report was Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the senior US military officer in Iraq, an ICRC official said later. Sanchez had instituted a “dozen interrogation methods beyond” the Army’s standard interrogation techniques that comply with the Geneva Conventions, according to a 2004 report by a panel headed by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger.

Sanchez said he based his decision on “the President’s Memorandum” justifying “additional, tougher measures” against detainees, the Schlesinger report said. The memorandum Sanchez was referring to was an order that Bush signed on February 7, 2002, excluding “war on terror” suspects from Geneva Conventions’ protections.

As the ICRC gathered more information about the Bush administration’s detention policies, it began to make some of its concerns public. On March 1, 2004, for instance, Gabor Rona, the ICRC’s legal adviser, wrote an op-ed, also in The Financial Times, that took issue with the Bush administration’s posture on the Geneva Conventions.

“The US is proceeding with plans to subject prisoners to military commission trials, citing the Geneva Convention provision that prisoners of war be tried by military courts. How can it do so while maintaining that no detainees are entitled to PoW status?” Rona wrote.

“That aside, the US risks throwing into the military-trial pot people whose alleged crimes have no connection with armed conflict, as understood in international humanitarian law. Such people can and should face trial, but not by military courts.”

Taft responded with an angry letter to Kellenberger on March 16, 2004.

“Your staff states categorically that detainees are entitled to an individualized procedure to challenge the basis of their detention,” Taft wrote. “No citation or support is provided for this assertion. There is, in fact, no such entitlement in the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

“However, the implication in the article is that the Geneva Conventions do provide such entitlement. This again has the unfortunate effect of misleading the public.”

The Abu Ghraib Scandal

The behind-the-scenes dispute over detainee treatment went public in another way in April 2004 when photos were leaked showing US prison guards at Abu Ghraib forcing naked Iraqi detainees into sexual positions, intimidating detainees with attacks dogs, committing other abuses, and posing with the corpse of an Iraqi who had died in custody.

After a public scandal erupted, President Bush blamed the Abu Ghraib abuses on low-level prison guards.

“I shared a deep disgust that those prisoners were treated the way they were treated,” Bush said. “Their treatment does not reflect the nature of the American people.”

However, Bush’s finger-pointing at a few “bad apples” was soon contradicted when the contents of the February 2004 ICRC report were leaked to The Wall Street Journal in May 2004. The ICRC findings made clear that the Abu Ghraib abuses were not an isolated case.

Nevertheless, 11 enlisted soldiers, who were guards at Abu Ghraib, were convicted in courts-martial. Cpl. Charles Graner Jr. received the harshest sentence – 10 years in prison – while Lynndie England, a 22-year-old single mother, who was photographed holding an Iraqi on a leash and pointing at a detainee’s penis, was sentenced to three years in prison.

Superior officers were cleared of wrongdoing or received mild reprimands.

But the February 2004 ICRC report on Iraq took on added meaning with the recent disclosure of another ICRC report, dated February 14, 2007. Based on interviews that the ICRC finally arranged with 14 “high-value” detainees held at secret CIA prisons, the report concluded those prisoners had been subjected to similar humiliating and abusive treatment, including forced nudity and stress positions, as well as the drowning sensation of waterboarding.

The ICRC concluded that the treatment “constituted torture,” a finding that has legal weight because the ICRC is responsible for ensuring compliance with the Geneva Conventions and supervising the treatment of prisoners of war.

Taken together, the two reports suggest that the Bush administration adopted a policy of torture against “high-value” detainees captured in 2002 and that the policy spread to Iraq in 2003 when US forces were grappling with a rising Iraqi insurgency against the American occupation.

In December 2008, a Senate Armed Services Committee report reached a similar conclusion, tracing the US abuse of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and later Abu Ghraib to President Bush’s February 7, 2002, action memorandum that excluded “war on terror” suspects from Geneva Conventions’ protections.

The report said Bush’s memo opened the door to “considering aggressive techniques,” which were then developed with the complicity of then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Bush’s National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and other senior officials.

The public record – as it now exists – also makes clear that the Bush administration had a selective view of international law. When it worked to American advantage – as when Iraqis videotaped captured US soldiers in March 2003 – Bush and his aides saw the rules as binding, but not when the laws of war constrained their own behavior.

In other words, international law applied to the other guy, but not to George W. Bush. He surely didn’t mean to implicate himself when he declared “the people who mistreat the prisoners will be treated as war criminals.” (Posted by (

Share This Post