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Executive Summary

It has now been one year since the appearance of the first pictures of U.S. soldiers humiliating and torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Shortly after the photos came out, President George W. Bush vowed that the “wrongdoers will be brought to justice.”

In the intervening months, it has become clear that torture and abuse have taken place not solely at Abu Ghraib but rather in dozens of U.S. detention facilities worldwide, that in many cases the abuse resulted in death or severe trauma, and that a good number of the victims were civilians with no connection to al-Qaeda or terrorism. There is also evidence of abuse at U.S.-controlled “secret locations” abroad and of U.S. authorities sending suspects to third-country dungeons around the world where torture was likely to occur.

To date, however, the only wrongdoers being brought to justice are those at the bottom of the chain-of-command. The evidence demands more. Yet a wall of impunity surrounds the architects of the policies responsible for the larger pattern of abuses.

As this report shows, evidence is mounting that high-ranking U.S. civilian and military leaders — including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former CIA Director George Tenet, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, formerly the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Major General Geoffrey Miller, the former commander of the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — made decisions and issued policies that facilitated serious and widespread violations of the law. The circumstances strongly suggest that they either knew or should have known that such violations took place as a result of their actions. There is also mounting data that, when presented with evidence that abuse was in fact taking place, they failed to act to stem the abuse.

The coercive methods approved by senior U.S. officials and widely employed over the last three years include tactics that the United States has repeatedly condemned as barbarity and torture when practiced by others. Even the U.S. Army field manual condemns some of these methods as torture.

Although much relevant evidence remains secret, a series of revelations over the past twelve months, brought together here, already makes a compelling case for a thorough, genuinely independent investigation of what top officials did, what they knew, and how they responded when they became aware of the widespread nature of the abuses.

We know, for example, that the coercive interrogation methods approved by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for use on prisoners at Guantánamo — including the use of guard dogs to induce fear in prisoners, “stress” techniques such as forced standing and shackling in painful positions, and removing their clothes — “migrated to Afghanistan and Iraq, where they were neither limited nor safeguarded,” and contributed to the widespread and systematic torture and abuse at U.S. detention centers there. Inquiries established by the U.S. Department of Defense itself have shown as much, though they did not explicitly say so.

We know that some detainees in the “global war on terror” have even been “disappeared” after entering U.S. custody: the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) continues to hold al-Qaeda suspects in prolonged incommunicado detention in “secret locations,” reportedly outside the United States, with no notification to their families, no access to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or oversight of any sort of their treatment, and in some cases no acknowledgement that they are even being held. It is widely reported that some of these “disappeared detainees” have been tortured through techniques such as “waterboarding,” in which the prisoner’s head is submerged into water or covered with a wet cloth until he believes that he is drowning.

We also know that some 100-150 detainees have been “rendered” by the United States for detention and interrogation by governments in the Middle East such as Syria and Egypt, which, according to the U.S. State Department, practice torture routinely. Such rendition is, again, a violation of U.S. and international law. In an increasing number of cases, there is now credible evidence that rendered detainees have in fact been tortured.

Despite these revelations and findings, the United States has not engaged in a serious process of accountability. Officials have denounced the most egregious abuses, rhetorically reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to uphold the law and respect human rights, and belatedly opened a number of prosecutions for crimes committed against detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq. To date, however, with the exception of one major personally implicated in abuse, only low-ranking soldiers — privates and sergeants — have been called to account.

While there are obviously steep political obstacles in the way of investigating a sitting defense secretary and other high-ranking officials, the nature of crimes is so serious, and mounting evidence of wrongdoing is now so voluminous, that it would be an abdication of responsibility for the United States not to push this to the next level.

The Price of Impunity

Unless those who designed or authorized the illegal policies are held to account, all the protestations of “disgust” at the Abu Ghraib photos by President George W. Bush1 and others will be meaningless. If there is no real accountability for these crimes, for years to come the perpetrators of atrocities around the world will point to the U.S.’s treatment of prisoners to deflect criticism of their own conduct.

Indeed, when a government as dominant and influential as the United States openly defies laws against torture, it virtually invites others to do the same. Washington’s much-needed credibility as a proponent of human rights was damaged by the torture revelations and will be further damaged if torture continues to be followed by complete impunity for the policy-makers.

Torture, unfortunately, can occur anywhere. What matters, and what determines whether torture is a mere aberration or state policy, is how a government responds. Secretary Rumsfeld recognized this when, shortly after the first public revelations, he “[said] to the world: Judge us by our actions. Watch how Americans, watch how a democracy deals with wrongdoing and scandal and the pain of acknowledging and correcting our own mistakes and weaknesses.” 2 Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell recognized this, too, when he told foreign leaders: “Watch America. Watch how we deal with this. Watch how America will do the right thing.”3

Regrettably, however, the United States is not doing the right thing. Rather, it is doing what dictatorships do the world over when their abuses are discovered — loudly proclaiming its respect for human rights while covering up and shifting blame downwards to low-ranking officials and “rogue actors.”

Official Responses to Date

To the extent that officials have addressed the issue of accountability for the pattern of abuse, they have either argued that the military justice system must be given time to run its course, or they have pointed to the many Department of Defense and related investigations that have been undertaken.4

While it is true that the Pentagon established no fewer than seven investigations in the wake of Abu Ghraib, not one has had the independence or the breadth to get to the bottom of the prisoner-abuse issue. All but one involved the military investigating itself, and was focused on only one aspect or another of the treatment of detainees. None took on the task of examining the role of civilian leaders who might have had ultimate authority over detainee treatment policy. None looked at the issue of renditions. The CIA has reportedly also initiated a number of self-investigations, but no details have been made public. 

What is more, these investigations effectively defined detainee abuse as any treatment not approved by higher authorities. To the Pentagon’s investigators, treatment that followed approved policies and techniques could not, by definition, have been torture. With this logical sleight of hand, they thus rendered themselves incapable of finding any connections between policies approved by senior officials and acts of abuse in the field. But that does not mean such connections did not exist.

Grounds for Investigation

This report provides a new look at the evidence made public to date about the role played by senior leaders most responsible for setting U.S. interrogation policies, including Secretary Rumsfeld, CIA Director Tenet, Gen. Sanchez, and Gen. Miller. Human Rights Watch expresses no opinion about the ultimate guilt or innocence of these or other officials, particularly because so much evidence has been withheld and so many questions remain unanswered. We also do not purport to offer a comprehensive account of the possible culpability of these men, let alone a legal brief. More evidence is needed for that. What we do conclude, a conclusion that we believe is compelled by the evidence, is that a criminal investigation is warranted with respect to each.

Secretary Rumsfeld may bear legal liability for war crimes and torture by U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantánamo under the doctrine of “command responsibility” — the legal principle that holds a superior responsible for crimes committed by his subordinates when he knew or should have known that they were being committed but fails to take reasonable measures to stop them. Having created the conditions for U.S. troops to commit war crimes and torture by sidelining and disparaging the Geneva Conventions, approving interrogation techniques for Guantánamo that violated the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (“Convention against Torture”), and hiding detainees from the ICRC, Secretary Rumsfeld should have been alert to the possibility that troops would commit these crimes.

Indeed, from the early days of the war in Afghanistan, Secretary Rumsfeld must have been on notice through briefings, ICRC reports, human rights reporting, and press accounts that some U.S. troops were committing war crimes and acts of torture. Nevertheless, there is no indication that at any time over a three-year period of mounting evidence of abuse did he exert his authority and warn those under his command that the mistreatment of prisoners must stop. Had he done so, many of the crimes committed by U.S. forces certainly could have been avoided.

Secretary Rumsfeld might also, in addition to command responsibility, bear direct legal liability as the instigator of crimes against detainees if the illegal interrogation techniques that he approved for Guantánamo were actually used to inflict inhumane treatment on detainees there before he rescinded his blanket approval and required that he be consulted before the techniques were used. Similarly, if Secretary Rumsfeld approved a secret program that encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners, as alleged by the journalist Seymour Hersh, Secretary Rumsfeld would bear direct legal liability.

Under George Tenet’s direction, and reportedly with his specific authorization, the CIA is said to have tortured detainees using waterboarding and by withholding medicine. Other tactics reportedly used include feigning suffocation, “stress positions,” light and noise bombardment, sleep deprivation, and making a detainee believe that he was being interrogated by a government known to practice torture. Under Director Tenet’s direction, the CIA also: “disappeared” detainees, holding them in long-term incommunicado detention in secret locations without informing or letting anybody know about their fate or whereabouts; “rendered” detainees to countries in which they were apparently tortured; hid detainees from the ICRC; and transferred detainees out of Iraq for interrogation in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. commander in Iraq with command responsibility for Abu Ghraib and other detention centers in Iraq, approved illegal interrogation methods — again including the use of guard dogs to frighten prisoners — which were then applied by soldiers at Abu Ghraib. As reports of abuse mounted, Gen. Sanchez failed to intervene to stop soldiers under his direct command from commissioning war crimes and torture. This potentially exposes him to liability under the command responsibility doctrine.

Gen. Geoffrey Miller, as commander at Guantánamo Bay, may bear responsibility for the war crimes and acts of torture and other inhuman treatment of detainees that took place there, particularly since the tightly-controlled nature of that prison camp made it likely that the commander was acutely aware of what his troops were doing.

There is also evidence that other officers may have been complicit in the crimes. For the crimes at Abu Ghraib alone, such individuals include Major General Walter Wojdakowski, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, Major General Barbara Fast, Colonel Marc Warren, Colonel Stephen Boltz, Colonel Thomas Pappas, and Lieutenant Colonel Stephen L. Jordan. This list is not intended to be exhaustive.

The material compiled in this report is drawn from publicly available evidence including the official inquiries described above, Human Rights Watch’s own field reports, press accounts, and documents declassified by the government or released pursuant to litigation under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

[1] Thom Shanker and Jacques Steinberg, “Bush Voices ‘Disgust’ at Abuse of Iraqi Prisoners,” The New York Times, May 1, 2004.

[2]Donald Rumsfeld, “Congressional Testimony of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld,” Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Mistreatment of Iraqi Prisoners, Federal News Service, May 7, 2004.

[3]“Abuse Scandal ‘Terrible’ for U.S., Powell Concedes,” MSNBC, May 17, 2004 [online],

[4] On March 29, 2005, Secretary Rumsfeld was asked on National Public Radio (NPR) “whether it’s right or wrong … that no senior military official has been disciplined, fired or prosecuted for the allegations of abuse and torture in Iraq and elsewhere?” The interview continued:

Rumsfeld: I mean I think the fact that the United States has had over nine or ten or eleven different investigations, there have been over 300 investigations or prosecutions, in some cases convictions. Not 300 convictions. But there have been people of varying ranks that have been punished for wrongdoing.

NPR: Mostly lower ranks.

Rumsfeld: The Inspector General of the Army still has the obligation of looking at the people in the more senior ranks and making a judgment and recommendation or not recommendation to his superiors and that process is yet to play out.

(“Secretary Rumsfeld Interview with National Public Radio’s Steve Inskeep for ‘Morning Edition,’” news transcript, U.S. Department of Defense, March 29, 2005 [online],

Secretary Rumsfeld had a similar exchange on NBC’s “Meet the Press” the previous month:

NBC: Did you think you had done something wrong?

Rumsfeld: No. Obviously the country has to be deeply concerned that people were not treated right. And I was secretary of defense when that happened. And we’ve had eight or 10 investigations. We have had dozens of criminal trials, and people have pled guilty to doing things they shouldn’t do. And obviously you just feel terrible about that. That is not the way our country behaves. And it was a most unfortunate thing that it happened. And I was secretary of Defense [sic].

(“Secretary Rumsfeld Interview with NBC, Meet the Press,” news transcript, U.S. Department of Defense, February 6, 2005 [online],

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