Memo Criticizes Policy on Guantanamo Detainees

New Yorker writer Jane Mayer talks with Robert Siegel about her article, "The Memo," in the current issue of the magazine. She describes a 22-page memo written by the former general counsel of the Navy that is highly critical of the Bush administration's policy toward detainees at Guantanamo.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News, I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

SIEGEL: Over the past couple of years, there've been many stories about U.S. interrogation techniques at Guantanamo. The Pentagon approved methods for questioning detainees that it claimed fell short of torture. Critics disagreed. And now comes a story in the New Yorker Magazine about a critic who worked inside the Pentagon and who sounded the alarms over interrogations that he saw as leaving American personnel open to charges of war crimes.

Alberto Mora is the subject of Jane Mayer's article The Memo. Welcome.

JANE MAYER (Writer, New Yorker): Thanks very much.

SIEGEL: Who is Alberto Mora?

Ms. MAYER: He has been the general counsel of the U.S. Navy for the last four years. He left office about a month ago, and he is a political appointee, a staunch Republican, a conservative lawyer who has the ranking of a four-star general.

SIEGEL: Your article is called The Memo, and that's the memo Alberto Mora wrote. When did he write it, and what stirred him to do so?

Ms. MAYER: He wrote it in July of 2004 and it is a 22-page secret history, really, of his efforts to try to stop the Pentagon from pursuing policies that he thought authorized cruelty to detainees. And he wrote it for one of the many internal Pentagon investigations that were done into abuse at Guantanamo Bay.

SIEGEL: One of the events that concerned Mr. Mora evidently, you write, was the interrogation of Mohamed al-Qahtani . Who was Katani and how was he treated?

Ms. MAYER: Well Katani was thought to be the 20th hijacker, and he was...

SIEGEL: You mean 20th, meaning the guy who didn't make it over for 9/11?

Ms. MAYER: That's right. That's right. He was going to have been on the plane that had crashed in Pennsylvania. He was intercepted by the INS in Florida, and he never made it onto the plane. He was then subsequently picked up in Afghanistan by US forces and turned over to Guantanamo.

He was someone who went through a sort of extraordinary and long interrogation that included weeks on end of interrogations that would go for 20 hours a day. All kinds of odd techniques included things like wearing underwear on his head, and being told to bark like a dog, and wear a leash. And he was isolated for great periods of time. He was subjected to cold. He was subjected to loud music. All kinds of things that were outside of what we usually think of as approved techniques that the military's allowed to use.

SIEGEL: But part of the argument was, are they just outside of what's approved by the military or did they plainly fit the definition of torture?

Ms. MAYER: Well it comes down to what your definition of torture is, really. And that's what one of the things that Alberto Mora as a lawyer was taking a look at. What is the definition of torture that the Pentagon was using? And he also was looking at whether or not, even if they were not torturing Katani, whether or not he was being subjected unlawfully to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment that U.S. soldiers are prohibited from doing by law.

SIEGEL: So Mora was raising these points in his capacity as general counsel to the Department of the Navy. Was he finding any sympathy in the other services, or the Department of Defense General Counsel's office?

Ms. MAYER: Well his, actually he found some sympathy in the Naval Criminal Investigative Service where the people who first reported to him that what they were seeing in Guantanamo, where they had agents, what they were seeing was alarming and very upsetting to them, and they thought unlawful. So they reported this to, first to the Army and then they also tried telling the Air Force. Neither of which took any interest in it. And then they went to Alberto Mora at the Navy and Mora was a different kind of person. He's a person of tremendous integrity, and he also has very deep passionate feelings about the rule of law. And so when people beneath him in the Naval Criminal Investigative Service came to him with allegations of cruel and inhumane and possibly tortuous behavior, he was horrified. And so he tried to shut it down and he took it to his superiors and said, we can't do this. This is a violation of everything we think of as American values.

SIEGEL: The dilemma for Mora that you describe seems to have been this, he thought at that point that he was engaged in an actual debate, if largely by memo, with other government lawyers. In fact, the debate was over long before he knew it.

Ms. MAYER: Well what happened was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did suspend the more cruel of the treatments that were going on down there in response to Mora. So Mora had a certain amount of success. And then Rumsfeld put together a group that was going to study what they should do instead. And what happened was the group really became kind of a front. It was an academic exercise for the critics. While, meantime, what the lawyers at the Department of Defense did was found a lawyer in the Justice Department who would tell them what they wanted to hear. And that was someone named John Yoo who was at the office of legal counsel. Basically told Rumsfeld, you can pretty much do anything you want to do when you interrogate people.

SIEGEL: Who's become very well know as the theorist of a very powerful presidency?

Ms. MAYER: Absolutely. It was an almost a theocratic belief that he had, and that the Vice President Cheney's office had, that the Commander in Chief powers to sort of trump every other law, including laws that Congress passed against torture and even the uniform code of military justice.

SIEGEL: There's a meeting at the Pentagon that you describe toward the end of your article at which a number of both military officers, and also civilian officials at the Pentagon, are going around and they're being put the question, I mean, do we approve of these methods which run afoul at the Geneva Conventions, which are enshrined in U.S. law? The military officers seem to have gotten that one right away.

Ms. MAYER: You know it, for 50 years the U.S. military has trained to the standards that are in the Geneva Conventions, and so they really are comfortable with that. And the good thing about the Geneva Conventions is the standards are clear. I think the military has felt exposed. Many officers have felt that, that going on down the line, soldiers don't really know what they're allowed to do, and what they're not allowed to do. So that really, in this meeting, wanted to return to those standards. But not everybody in the building wanted to go there.

SIEGEL: Mora tells you, you quote him at that point in the article. He's very disturbed by this, that there may be a few people around who have no understanding, he says, of what was going on in the Nuremberg Trials.

Ms. MAYER: Well he really wondered if the people who were making these decisions in the administration understood history. He felt that they didn't understand that torture is not just another legal issue. In a way, he calls it a transformative issue. It's something that he thinks changes the nature of what America is about. If we're going to be torturing people, we can't really say everyone has an inalienable right to freedom and justice.

SIEGEL: When you ask people about these very aggressive, if perhaps torturous interrogative techniques at Guantanamo and elsewhere, do people on the inside ever claim, look we got this specific very good information. We only got that out of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed because we interrogated him that way. Do you, do you hear that argument?

Ms. MAYER: You do. I think it's a very good question. The problem for a reporter is we have no way of independently knowing what these methods have brought America in the way of new information, because while inside the Pentagon they will say they had breakthroughs that they've gotten through coercive interrogations, outside the Pentagon, and even sometimes in it, you'll hear from critics that's not so.

Torture is known as a way of making people speak, but it's not necessarily a means of getting reliable information.

SIEGEL: Jane Mayer thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. MAYER: Great to be here.

SIEGEL: Jane Mayer staff writer for the New Yorker Magazine and author of the article, The Memo.

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