ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Joining us now is Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Welcome.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan; Chairman, Senate Armed Services Committee): Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: I'd like to begin asking you about Abu Ghraib, which is the most notorious case of abuse of detainees in military custody. Your report concludes this: The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Who is responsible for that abuse?

Sen. LEVIN: Our top civilian leaders made a decision that they would authorize these course of tactics at Guantanamo, secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld, and his lawyer, Mr. Haynes, both have documented approvals and authorizations of these abusive techniques at Guantanamo. And then they went from there to Afghanistan and from there to Iraq. And we have connected the dots in this 200-plus page report.

SIEGEL: But does that mean that, for example, the people who were tried at Abu Ghraib either were deprived of a proper defense that they should've been able to offer, or that other people should've been tried with them at Abu - for what happened at Abu Ghraib?

Sen. LEVIN: Well, there's been no accountability at the higher levels and that's one of the points of this bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee report. The only accountability has been at the lower levels with some of our listed people. And no one higher up has been held accountable, even though these policies were specifically considered and adopted in Washington.

SIEGEL: But those who were held accountable were held accountable in a court marshal. I mean, they were tried.

Sen. LEVIN: That's…

SIEGEL: Should others have been tried? Should they still be tried for this?

Sen. LEVIN: Yeah. My - in terms of who should be tried, I really think it's important that the Justice Department make the decision as to who, if anybody, is prosecuted here. And we ought to keep that out of politics. We should not be making that judgment. I can't express my opinion that the legal opinions here were abominations. And that's my opinion that the authority to use these techniques has severely damaged the security of this country. And I cite many, many of the military leaders for that, who feel very strongly that if we use aggressive abusive course of techniques it's going to come back against our own troops if ever they're captured. And it's also going to produce unreliable information. And that people who we mistreat are going to resist cooperating with us. So we have all that.

And I just think it's critically important that there be some accountability at the higher levels, but the assessment should be made by independent people. I've recommended to Eric Holder, the Attorney General that he appoint one, or two or three people with great credibility, perhaps retired federal judges to make recommendations to him on accountability.

SIEGEL: The - there's a defensive waterboarding that you hear nowadays, which is, yes, on a calm spring day in 2009 it's easy to be critical, but in the weeks and months immediately after 9/11, people were desperate to do whatever they could to prevent another attack against the United States. Do you buy that justification or was there enough known about this at the time for people to not have that excuse?

Sen. LEVIN: No, there was arguments against using these techniques by top uniform people. I think that maybe - the Navy General Counsel put it as eloquently as you can. And when he pointed out that we have top officers in our military who say that the first and second cause of combat deaths in Iraq, our people, were the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. It's our top military people who tried to stop this, but the civilian leadership obviously made the final decision on this and went to the dark side, is what the vice president of the United States at that time said we should do.

SIEGEL: Although you also do find that some senior uniformed officers, General Myers the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Sanchez, then in charge of Iraq, they went along.

Sen. LEVIN: They did. And I was referring to the military lawyers particularly, who argued very vehemently against this.

SIEGEL: Well, Senator Levin, thanks a lot for talking us with today.

Sen. LEVIN: Sure.

SIEGEL: Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

We tried today to reach officials involved in the Bush administration's interrogation programs. They either declined to talk with us or could not be reached, but Donald Rumsfeld did issue a statement condemning Levin's committee report. You can see the full text at npr.org.

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