Memo Suggests Intent to Commit War Crimes
June 7, 2004
We now know that at the highest levels of the Pentagon there was a shocking interest in using torture and a misguided attempt to evade the criminal consequences of doing so. If anyone still thinks the abuses at Abu Ghraib were only dreamed up by a handful of privates and sergeants, this memo should put that myth to rest.
Kenneth Roth Executive Director, Human Rights Watch

The Bush administration should immediately explain who reviewed and approved a high-level classified Pentagon memorandum that sought to justify the use of torture, Human Rights Watch said today.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal on June 7, the lengthy memorandum argued that the U.S. President could order the torture of detainees with legal impunity. Human Rights Watch said the administration should make the full text of the memorandum public and disclose any actions taken in response to it, including whether President George W. Bush or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in fact ultimately authorized the use of torture.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal on June 7, the lengthy memorandum argued that the U.S. president could order the torture of detainees with legal impunity. Human Rights Watch said the administration should make the full text of the memorandum public and disclose any actions taken in response to it, including whether President George W. Bush or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in fact ultimately authorized the use of torture.

“We now know that at the highest levels of the Pentagon there was a shocking interest in using torture and a misguided attempt to evade the criminal consequences of doing so,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “If anyone still thinks the abuses at Abu Ghraib were only dreamed up by a handful of privates and sergeants, this memo should put that myth to rest.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that the secret memorandum was apparently created to provide advice to the administration on what interrogation methods could be used against uncooperative detainees held at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay detention facilities. The memo was created by a working group of high-level administration lawyers, directed by the Pentagon’s general counsel William J. Haynes, after consulting with the military branches, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Department of Justice, and the intelligence services. The memo argued that President Bush’s powers as military commander-in-chief included the authority to authorize the use of torture in the defense of national security and suggested a series of legal arguments to avoid the prosecution of any government agents who engaged in torture at his direction. Human Rights Watch said that the argument is riddled with legal error.

According to Human Rights Watch, the memorandum may indicate a specific intent by administration officials to engage in torture, which is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions, a breach of several international treaties by which the United States is bound, and a serious crime under domestic U.S. law. The Geneva Conventions, the U.N. Convention against Torture, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—treaties to which the United States is a party—forbid torture under any and all circumstances.

“Senior administration officials tried to drape a thin veneer of legality over abuse that has been unconditionally prohibited, even during war, throughout modern times,” said Roth. “If this legal advice were accepted, dictators worldwide would be handed a ready-made excuse to ignore one of the most basic prohibitions of international human rights law.”

For more information on international and U.S. law prohibiting torture, please click here.

For a Human Rights Watch background briefing on torture, please click here.