US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorised the expansion of a secret programme that encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of prisoners to obtain intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq, a US magazine claims.
The Pentagon strongly denied the claims in the New Yorker magazine, which cited unnamed current and former intelligence officials.
Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita issued a statement calling the claims “outlandish, conspiratorial, and filled with error and anonymous conjecture”.
The story, by veteran journalist Seymour Hersh, said Mr Rumsfeld decided to expand the programme last year, broadening a Pentagon operation from the hunt for al-Qaida in Afghanistan to interrogation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.
Seven soldiers are facing military charges related to the abuse and humiliation of prisoners captured by the now-infamous photographs at the prison. Some of the soldiers and their lawyers have said military intelligence officials told military police assigned as guards to abuse the prisoners to make interrogations easier.
According to the story, which hits news-stands tomorrow, the initial operation Rumsfeld authorised gave blanket approval to kill or capture and interrogate “high value” targets in the war on terrorism.
The programme stemmed from frustrating efforts to capture high-level terrorists in the weeks after the start of US bombings in Afghanistan.
US national security adviser Condoleezza Rice gave her approval to the operation and President George Bush was informed of its existence, the officials told Hersh.
Under the programme commandos carried out instant interrogations – using force if necessary – at secret CIA detention centres scattered around the world, the report claims. The intelligence would be relayed to the commanders at the Pentagon.
Last year, Mr Rumsfeld and Stephen Cambone, his under-secretary for intelligence, expanded the scope of the Pentagon’s programme and brought its methods to Abu Ghraib, Hersh wrote.
Critics say the interrogation rules, first laid out in September after a visit to Iraq by the then-commander of the prison for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, amounted to a green light for abuse.
Defence Department officials deny that, saying prisoners always are treated under guidelines of the Geneva Conventions.
“No responsible official of the Department of Defence approved any programme that could conceivably have been intended to result in such abuses as witnessed in the recent photos and videos,” Mr Di Rita said in his statement. “This story seems to reflect the fevered insights of those with little, if any, connection to the activities in the Department of Defence.”
Di Rita also said Mr Cambone has never had any responsibility for any detainee or interrogation programmes.
The intelligence sources told the magazine that photos of the sexual abuse were used to intimidate prisoners and detainees into providing information on the insurgency. It was thought that some prisoners would do anything – including spying on their associates – to avoid dissemination of the shameful photos to family and friends.
One intelligence official said the CIA ended its involvement with the programme at Abu Ghraib prison by last autumn.
“They said, ‘No way. We signed up for the core programme in Afghanistan - pre-approved for operations against the high-value terrorist targets – and now you want to use it for cabdrivers, brothers-in-law, and people pulled off the streets’,” the source said.