WASHINGTON — FBI agents repeatedly complained that harsh interrogation techniques used on detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo might violate the law and jeopardize future criminal trials, but administration officials did little to address the concerns, a government watchdog concluded in a report released Tuesday.
At one point in 2003, several top Justice Department officials took the concerns about interrogation practices used by the military at Guantanamo to the National Security Council, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine said in his report. However, Fine said the complaints did not appear to trigger any response from the National Security Council, which includes President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and was chaired at the time by then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Although the FBI's concerns about harsh interrogation techniques were previously known, Fine's report provides the most detailed narrative yet of how top law enforcement and military officials were slow to respond to the agents' complaints and how, in some instances, administration officials appear to have disregarded them.
Several witnesses told Fine's investigators then-Attorney General John Ashcroft also brought the matter to the attention of the National Security Council or the Pentagon, but Fine couldn't verify the accounts because Ashcroft refused to be interviewed.
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The 370-page report took four years to complete, with its release delayed by the Pentagon's attempt to keep a larger portion of the report classified, according to Fine. His investigators interviewed more than 230 witnesses and surveyed 1,000 FBI agents.
The report describes how agents beginning in 2002 became deeply troubled by some of the interrogations they witnessed and details frequent clashes between agents and their military counterparts over the military's and CIA's use of harsh techniques that one agent described as "borderline torture."
In late 2002, the military adopted broad interrogation policies that clashed with those permitted by the FBI. Among the permitted techniques were hooding, putting prisoners in stress positions for as long as four hours, 20-hour interrogations and removal of clothing.
While FBI agents took part in interrogations in a few isolated cases "that would not normally be permitted in the United States," Fine said the situations "in no way resembled" the treatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where graphic photos later exposed abuses. A vast majority of the FBI agents followed FBI policies and did not participate when other agencies used techniques that violated the bureau's policies, Fine said.
"In sum, we believe that while the FBI could have provided clearer guidance earlier, and while the FBI could have pressed harder for resolution of concerns about detainee treatment by other agencies, the FBI should be credited for its conduct and professionalism in detainee interrogations," said Fine, who has no jurisdiction over the CIA or the Pentagon.
Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the Pentagon found no evidence that interrogators tortured detainees during a 2005 review of techniques used at Guantanamo. Whitman also said he did not know of any Pentagon efforts that had delayed the inspector general's report.
In a brief statement, Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the department was "pleased" that the report "credited the FBI for its conduct and professionalism during interrogations."
Justice and Pentagon officials, however, did not address the questions raised by the report's description of interrogation techniques that disturbed FBI agents. Agents at Guantanamo, for example, witnessed and complained about the use of sleep deprivation, prolonged short-shackling, in which a detainee's hands were shackled close to his feet, and the holding of detainees in rooms at extremely cold or hot temperatures.
At times, agents witnessed detainees' thumbs twisted, female interrogators touching detainees sexually and the wrapping of detainees' heads in duct tape.
In 2002, FBI agents objected to the treatment of top al Qaida member Abu Zubaydah, whom they first questioned but later handed over to the CIA. The CIA has since acknowledged waterboarding him, but Fine said FBI agents did not appear to have witnessed waterboarding, which simulates drowning by pouring water over a restrained detainee's face.
Tensions between agents and interrogators heightened between 2002 and 2003 during the military's interrogation of Mohammed al Qahtani, the alleged 20th hijacker who was prevented from participating in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Fine said.
After his capture, al Qahtani resisted FBI attempts to interview him and the military took over his questioning. FBI agents complained interrogators relied on questionable techniques, including keeping him awake during 20-hour intervals and threatening him with a dog.
"The informal response that some of these agents received from FBI Headquarters was that agents could continue to witness (military) interrogations ... so long as they did not participate," Fine said.
"No formal responses were ever received by the agents."
Although agents witnessed interrogation techniques that appeared to violate their own policies, the FBI was slow to clarify the bureau's stance on the methods, Fine said.
In 2002, the FBI decided it would not participate in joint interrogations with other agencies when techniques violated the bureau's policies. However, the FBI did not formalize the guidance until May 2004, after abuse surfaced at Abu Ghraib.
Meanwhile, agents continued to remain concerned about whether they could be criminally liable for merely witnessing the interrogations and questioned whether the interrogations jeopardized future trials, Fine said.
Their concerns appear to be justified. This month, military officials dropped charges against al Qahtani, citing concerns about questionable information obtained during the interrogations.
"We believe that the FBI should have recognized earlier the issues raised by the FBI's participating with the military in detainee interrogations ... and should have moved more quickly to provide clearer guidance to its agents on these issues," Fine said.
Officials with the CIA and the Pentagon have said they later revised their rules to limit interrogation methods, including banning the use of waterboarding, which the CIA has acknowledged was used on three high-level terrorism suspects.
The Pentagon and CIA knew of the FBI's ongoing concerns, but did not appear to have weighed them when coming up with their own interrogation policies, Fine said.
McClatchy Washington correspondent Nancy Youssef contributed.