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An e-mail to senior FBI officials released yesterday under a Freedom of Information Act request repeatedly referred to an Executive Order that permitted military interrogators in Iraq to place detainees in painful stress positions, impose sensory deprivation through the use of hoods, intimidate them with military dogs and use other coercive methods.

“The FBI e-mail is not proof of a presidential order to commit unlawful acts, but it strongly suggests that U.S. interrogators thought they were acting with the president’s approval,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “It’s no longer enough for Bush to issue a simple denial. A real explanation is needed.”

The e-mail was sent to senior members of the FBI on May 22, 2004, more than a year after the Pentagon reputedly disavowed the use of such interrogation methods at Guantanamo Bay. The e-mail makes 11 references to an Executive Order “signed by President Bush” that authorized these abusive interrogation methods. Since yesterday’s publication of the document, various executive agencies have denied the existence of such an Executive Order, stating that the FBI agent made a mistake.

Even if there were no formal Executive Order, Human Rights Watch is concerned that the FBI in Iraq believed that the executive branch had authorized certain abusive interrogation methods being employed by U.S. military personnel. Since the reporting of torture at Abu Ghraib, the Bush administration has yet to fully detail the instructions on interrogation and treatment of detainees it has provided to U.S. forces in the field.

Other documents released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) described acts of torture and other unlawful treatment of detainees by U.S. personnel in Iraq and at Guantanamo. These included strangulation, putting lit cigarettes into detainees’ ears, sleep deprivation, beatings, and chaining detainees in a fetal position for 18-24 hours or more.

Human Rights Watch and others have previously reported similar accounts by former detainees at U.S. detention facilities. In the documents released to the ACLU, at least one interrogation technique and information related to a “cover-up” of abuses had been blacked out.

The various interrogation methods described in the FBI e-mail and in the other released documents are violations of U.S. obligations under international law. These include provisions of the Geneva Conventions prohibiting “cruel treatment and torture” and “humiliating and degrading treatment.” And they violate the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which the United States is also a party.

Human Rights Watch called on the Bush administration to fully explain the “Executive Order” and to release publicly all documents pertaining to the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. In addition, Human Rights Watch urged the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to hold hearings on this issue when the new Congress convenes in January.

“The released documents not only show the brutal torture of prisoners, but they also suggest a new link to the highest levels of the Bush administration,” said Roth. “It’s time the U.S. government threw out the ‘bad apples’ argument and took a serious look at the whole barrel.”

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