Sanchez's Torture Memos

On Sept. 14, 2003, and Oct. 12, 2003, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez issued guidance for interrogations in Iraq. His memos acknowledge that detainees in Iraq are protected by the Geneva Conventions. But that understanding isn't apparent in the lists of approved interrogation approaches and techniques that follow. Most scholars I've talked to agree that the interrogation rules spelled out for Abu Ghraib go beyond the limits of Geneva.

Nonetheless, Sanchez continues to stand by his decisions. In a passage of his autobiography describing his post-Abu Ghraib testimony on Capitol Hill, he offers this defense:

In the closed hearing, Senator Jack Reed was obsessed with finding an intelligence stovepipe "shadow" chain of command that circumvented the normal flow of orders. Senator Reed embraced virtually every improper conclusion made by the rest of the committee, and concluded that I was being circumvented as commanding general in Iraq when it came to interrogations, intelligence and detention operations. He was absolutely flabbergasted that he could not link Secretary Rumsfeld and the administration to the Abu Ghraib scandal via a "smoking gun" memorandum. Senator Reed also expressed absolute disbelief when I told him that no such guidance had been issued from higher headquarters.

The entire Senate hearing was stressful, but I thought Abizaid, Miller, Warren and I accomplished a lot. We clearly stated the context and rationale for decisions made and, I believe, we were all transparent on policies and directives. In retrospect, it was clear to me that some of the committee's members did not like the truth. They would not accept it, because it did not fulfill their political agendas.

Unfortunately, Senator Jack Reed continued his erroneous statements about me after the hearing. As a distinguished graduate of West Point, he should have known better, because cadets there are taught that integrity and honor are part of a warrior's ethic. He had apparently been designated the Democratic point man, because he repeated reports that I was in command of everything going on in Iraq, including the CIA, Special Forces, and all interrogations. And then he and other Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee portrayed my memorandums of September 14, 2003, and October 12, 2003, as having opened the door to aggressive interrogation techniques that went far beyond those listed in the Army Field Manual. However, this was not an issue of aggressive techniques. It was an issue of what the Geneva Conventions allowed.

In responding through various communication channels (such as follow-on investigations and resopnses to congressional questions for the record), I tried to explain the context and reasons behind the publication of the memorandums -- that there were no standards or guidance from the Army or anyone else in the Department of Defense as to what interrogation procedures should be used; that, as a result, absolutely no boundaries existed; that the Army Field Manual does not establish any controls or safeguards, and leaves the entire universe of techniques available for use; that I had given up on the Department of Defense ever issuing guidelines, and subsequently had exercised leadership by instituting specific standards so that we could get some controls into the Iraq interrogation environment; and most important, that every technique listed in the memorandums fell within the guidelines of the Geneva Conventions, and therefore could not be labeled torture. No one, however, wanted to listen. My explanations fell on deaf ears.

That same month, Sanchez revised his interrogation guidance a third time, on the advice of the former Guantanamo Bay commander brought in to run detention operations in Iraq. Sanchez writes:

[In April 2004] MG Geoff Miller was assigned as our deputy commanding general for detention operations, and immediately took steps to eliminate the possibility of abuse occurring in the future. After conducting a comprehensive review of our theater-wide procedures, Miller suggested that we modify my October 12, 2003, memorandum, which listed certain approved interrogation techniques. "Sir, we're never going to use these tougher techniques," said Miller. "It'll be too hard for us to ever get the legal concurrences to use them and they would probably yield little intelligence. So we should remove them. That will also make the list more acceptable in terms of a printed document."

COL Marc Warren also stated his opinion: "Sir, there is nothing wrong with the policy we have now," he said. "These techniques are not in violation of the Geneva Conventions. Such a change would only be more aesthetically appealing with the items off the list. However, I have no problem if you wish to follow MG Miller's advice."

"Okay, if it'll help us with perception, let's go ahead and reissue the guidance with those techniques off the list," I said. So on May 13, 2004, we issued a new memorandum [on interrogation] to that effect.

So, to sum up, Sanchez believes that the abuses at Abu Ghraib (1) were the acts of a few bad apples, (2) had nothing to do with interrogation, despite the findings of the Taguba and Fay-Jones reports, and (3) had nothing to do with his memoranda.

In my next post, I'll examine these assertions through the words of several witnesses from Abu Ghraib.

By Phillip Carter |  May 23, 2008; 12:00 PM ET  | Category:  Wiser in Battle
Previous: Pressure to Get Intelligence | Next: A Few Bad Apples?


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Sanchez is full of crap.

Posted by: RJS | May 23, 2008 6:45 PM

He claims he got no direction from DOD on interrogation, so he wrote his own manual authorizing techniques that don't appear in the army field manual (apparently) but still conform to Geneva restrictions (at least in his mind). Then the guy from Gitmo tells him "Sir, we're never going to use these tougher techniques,".
When you scare the guy from Gitmo, isn't that a heads up you might have gone to far? The underlying question, did the US army prosecute enlisted for following the orders of their commanding general without prosecuting the general who gave the unlawful order, isn't going to be answered until we know what was in his "interrogation memo".

Posted by: dijetlo | May 23, 2008 7:26 PM

I would think that after going thru the process of writing a book, the denial that Sanchez show, should of faded away. As a West Point Grad. he knew what the limits to the Geneva Convention were and are yet he chose to ignore them. We know that Cheney's people were personally involved and it's hard to believe that during their trips incountry that they didn't sit Sanchez down and lay out exactly what extent they wanted the tortures to go to. As a Warrior Sanchez should of drawn the line in the sand the first time a prisoner died during questioning. It goes against the code of a soldier to kill someone that can't fight back. It is murder in plain terms, and we know it happen at Abu G., just not how many times.

Posted by: SmileySam | May 24, 2008 12:41 AM

The failure of the American army in Iraq is the failure of the General Officers. If our men in command had been competent, they would have fought Rumsfeld for change and we would not be five years plus in this mess. These failed officers have no shame and have received no blame.

Posted by: c. perry | May 24, 2008 7:28 AM

As much as I respect Phil and the great importance of general perception and rule of law, especially in COIN, I'm still conflicted on this topic. It poses a very difficult ethical dilemma.

First, I recall the story from early in the war of an Army Bn Cdr, LTC Allen West, who used an illegal intimidation tactic (firing his M9 into a clearing barrel next to a captured enemy fighter's head) near the close of major combat ops. Although LTC West successfully saved the lives of his soldiers by his action and was by all accounts an outstanding and respected leader, he was punished and his fast-rising career was ended.

Regarding GEN Sanchez' memos, I recall the context of that period in OIF as terrorists and the insurgency gaining the upper hand through a shocking application of sabotage, kidnappings, mass murders and assassinations, torture, and all kinds of unrestrained atrocities against coalition troops, GO and NGO aid reps, non-military contract workers, and many many Iraqi civilians, community and government leaders and workers, police, and military.

How do you balance rule of law with the critical immediate need to regain control when the SASO apparatus seems manifestly insufficient to deal with aggressive sources of disorder and death, and the failure of the mission seems imminent?

Intel, of course, was key to try to head off the next attack. The best sources of intelligence were captured insurgents and terrorists, which means interrogation techniques (perceived as) able to yield timely actionable intel. It seems reasonable that GEN Sanchez was under tremendous urgent pressure to regain control of the situation by any means necessary. Furthermore, I can't imagine the pressure on individual interrogators for whom success or failure in their job meant - without exaggeration - hundreds of Iraqi civilians and their fellow soldiers would live or die. GEN Sanchez did remain restrained in those circumstances, but the question raised is, was he restrained enough with his interrogation policies?

I see the problem less in terms of restraint regarding rule of law than insufficiency of COIN (and, yes, we can blame GEN Sanchez among others for that, too). Laws and the rule of them, after all, are effective and respected only as far as they can be practically enforced. Successful COIN, therefore, not only features rule of law but provides the on-the-ground enforcement mechanisms to empower, and therefore legitimize, rule of law. GEN Sanchez didn't have COIN; what he had was a limited set of tools with which to react to an exploding crisis (pun intended).

Place me in that leadership challenge, I can't say how I would have reacted. Can anybody else here honestly say they would have handled the crisis better than GEN Sanchez?

Posted by: Eric Chen | May 24, 2008 10:26 AM


LTC Allen West is a nutcase ... his quixotic attempts to leverage his 15 minutes of "infamy" as a means of currying favor with the extreme right-wing milbloggers demonstrates this.

LTC Nate Sassaman - another disgraced 4 ID Battalion Commander was in way over his head.

Both of these men as battalion commanders fell under then-MG Odierno and give a good glimpse of the command climate of 4th ID. When Battalion Commanders lie and violate the law with impunity, you have to look to the command climate.

Eric, I like and respect you but over the past few weeks here you have expressed some very extreme views ... a defense of LTC West is only the most recent.

Posted by: IRR Soldier ... | May 24, 2008 11:23 AM

To SmileySam:

Sanchez is not a "West Point Grad." He graduated from what used to be Texas A&I University and the ROTC program. Please check your facts if you want anyone to take your opinions seriously.

Posted by: beachhead | May 24, 2008 12:53 PM

"In retrospect, it was clear to me that some of the committee's members did not like the truth. They would not accept it, because it did not fulfill their political agendas."

Kaffee: I want the truth!
Jessep: You can't handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives...You don't want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.
We use words like honor, code, loyalty...we use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use 'em as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it! I'd rather you just said thank you and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you're entitled to!
Kaffee: Did you order the code red?
Jessep: (quietly) I did the job you sent me to do.
Kaffee: Did you order the code red?
Jessep: You're goddamn right I did!!

Change "Jessep" to Sanchez and we're probably on to a deeper truth.

Posted by: Carl P | May 24, 2008 1:09 PM

I have always liked and respected Senator Reed. Whoever is the next President would do well to put him on his cabinet. Sanchez trashes his own reputation when he tires to trash Reed.

As for LtCol West, he saved none of his troops lives by his actions that day. He is a liar and a dishonorable stain on the US military if he claims otherwise. God help us if this whacko gets elected to Congress.

Posted by: mike | May 24, 2008 1:09 PM

"So, to sum up, Sanchez believes that the abuses at Abu Ghraib (1) were the acts of a few bad apples, (2) had nothing to do with interrogation, despite the findings of the Taguba and Fay-Jones reports, and (3) had nothing to do with his memoranda."

A freakin' PVT knows what's tantamount to torture and what's not. The man was the LTG in charge of all US forces in OIF. It gets a bit annoying to read his self-serving claptrap that, for some reasons, other GOs found mind-boggling lies when he tried to utter them the first time.

I'm glad you bought his book, Phil, because I couldn't pay the blood money.

Posted by: Soldiernolongeriniraq | May 24, 2008 1:13 PM


I'm not sure what other opinions I've expressed here that qualify as "very extreme". If they are, they are, I guess.

I don't know anything about LTC Sassaman - first time I've heard that name. I read the initial news reports on LTC West and recall it being a topic on milblogs, but I didn't know LTC West has tried to make additional hay out of the incident.

We all had the same ethics classes in the Army. Upholding the Geneva Conventions and the lawful conduct of our soldiers is always the right answer. But, 'mission first, soldiers always' is also the right answer. LTG Sanchez (I've been promoting him) was responsible for lawful conduct, but was also accountable for saving the mission and lives by regaining control of the AO against an out-of-control enemy who had seized the initiative.

In my job, I have a first-hand view of what happens when people - victims - believe that the criminals threatening them are more empowered to act than law enforcement they perceive as relatively less empowered to protect them and deal with the criminals. Under those conditions, the reaction boils down to fight or flight, with or without lawful restraint. When rule of law breaks down, it's a fine line between victim and criminal. Our law enforcement can work only if the people buy into it, and fortunately, at least in my experience, our law enforcement system works more than it doesn't, and only a minority of victims here believe the state is less empowered than criminals. I can't say that was the case in late-2003 Iraq.

The LTC West example shows two things. One, ethical dilemmas for soldiers, especially leaders, in war can yield answers that are wrong and right at the same time. Two, there wasn't a prevailing disregard for the Geneva Conventions at the outset of OIF, but in the midst of the crisis - however much our own weaknesses and incompetencies in Phase IV contributed to that crisis - necessity pushed the limits. So, while I can agree with Phil from where I sit that LTG Sanchez and his chain of command should have been more disciplined in enforcing strict lawful conduct, I can sympathize with LTG Sanchez that when urgent bloody accountability conflicts with a conceptual responsibility, the choices are hard.

I don't mean to say that LTG Sanchez was successful, only that I can sympathize with the difficulty of his position. The highest level of responsibility I had in the Army was acting NCOIC of a Bn S2 during peace-time. However, even in peace-time on that small scale, did I bend rules at times to try to take care of my soldiers and charlie-mike in general? Yes, I did. Was I always successful? No. Would I have gone so far as to *break* rules in order to *save* the lives of my soldiers, or civilians, in war-time? ... in order to charlie-mike in a war-time mission that held the highest stakes? Extrapolate that to LTG Sanchez' level. I don't know. Do you?

Posted by: Eric Chen | May 24, 2008 1:17 PM

FYI - link to a good 2004 NY Times article about LTC West and the controversy, via wikipedia:

Shows what can break down in a 5 year old memory. I was mistaken in my characterization that LTC West "successfully saved the lives of his soldiers by his action". That may be true as a secondary effect, but it wasn't ever proven that the information he gathered in his interrogation was directly actionable. The detainee wasn't an outright "enemy fighter", either, but it's also not clear he was a loyal ally to the Americans. (Neither is it clear that he wasn't.) The article does highlight the challenge of interrogation in that chaotic, uncertain period of OIF compounded by our shortfall of competency in that area. It also appears West was "an outstanding and respected leader" who was effective in civil affairs. It's too bad - under different circumstances, LTC West may have been an asset to current ops in Iraq. But he did what he did and was punished for it.

My point about the ethical dilemma stands.

Posted by: Eric Chen | May 24, 2008 2:29 PM

The fish stinks from the head down. Commanders lead from the front and lead by example. I'm not talking about Sanchez who got caught allowing the deliberate infliction of pain and now rages like a wild animal that's been caged, pointing fingers at everyone but himself. I'm talking about his bosses.

Whether it was words of mass deception, water boarding, rendition, prisoners held incommunicado, desecrating religious symbols, or the treason of outing a CIA agent for simple political gain, the Cheney Administration did it on purpose or allowed it to happen on purpose.

What's GI Joe or GI Jane supposed to think when their leaders regard anyone who disagrees as an enemy? Imagine how they'll treat a real, perceived enemy.

This isn't a justification; just an explanation.

As far leading from the front, at least Cheney and Rumsfield stood out front and told their lies. Our Commander in Chief cowered behind his stooges, pawns and flacks.

Posted by: AFSHome | May 24, 2008 7:17 PM

The thing is that leaders are paid to look beyond the emotion of the moment. What LTC West did was to get caught up in the emotion, the fear for the lives of his soldiers and the anger at the situation. That is exactly what a leader should NOT do. Otherwise, he can easily lose sight of the bigger picture, the context of his unit's mission.

While one might have sympathy in the abstract for the moral dilemma LTC West was stuck in, I do not have any sympathy for the decision he made. But apparently, several accounts have described the command climate of 4ID as one that expected agression towards the population. 4ID was the division that was notorious for rounding up literally everybody when they conducted cordon and search operations and calling them detainees. Not exactly keeping your eye on the bigger picture.

So, no matter what the situation, a military leader should be able to keep their wits about them, and not get carried away in the emotion of a situation. Otherwise there is not real check to prevent atrocities committed in the name of vengeance or anger or frustration.

Being a combat leader, with all due respect to the job of law enforcement which has its own considerable set of challenges, is not necessarily like leading soldiers in combat. As a combat leader, your subordinates are constantly under the threat of dying. It is a different set of concerns. And to accomplish your mission, you are required to put your soldiers in harm's way. As a leader, your need to recognize that even when a mission entails a greater risk to the lives of your soldiers, you sometimes have to accept that risk in order to accomplish the mission.

I hate to say it, but it is considerably different than peacetime exercises. In combat, you sometimes do a risk assessment when you get a mission and you might get a little sick thinking about how dangerous it is. But you write the order, brief your soldiers, and execute.

So the moral dilemma doesn't carry a lot of weight with me. As BN Commander, West should have known what the context was and that his conduct towards the prisoner could likely be detrimental towards to overall mission. Furthermore, he should have know it was illegal. So he needs to be ready to face the music, especially if he felt that he saved soldiers lives (though there is no reason to believe that he did, in fact).

As far as your experience in law enforcement, another difference is that even if you thought that you might be able to prevent a crime if some witness or other would provide you with the information that you believed he or she had, would you threaten them with a gun, pretending that you would shoot them if they didn't tell you? I would hope that you wouldn't. And if not, why not? Or if so, do you think you would be justified and how would you attempt to argue against your possible prosecution? And do you think LTC West could use the same arguments?

Posted by: DM Inf | May 25, 2008 12:49 AM

How much sympathy do we really want to have for a senior general facing a complex and stressful situation?

Leave aside for purposes of this comment whether enlisted men and junior officers caught abusing prisoners should be held to a tougher standard than the senior officers commanding them. After Abu Ghraib the Army evidently decided they should. Right now I'd observe only that Iraq is not the first war this country has ever fought. Winder, Burnside, and Fredendall all faced complex situations fraught with difficulty and risk; given the fearful demands placed on them, and the limited support provided them by the government they served, we might well sympathize with them as some are tempted to sympathize with Gen. Sanchez.

But we don't. The bottom line is that generals who leave their area of responsibility worse off than they found it are generally reckoned to be bad generals. Sanchez left Iraq a lot worse off than he found it.

His argument now is that none of it was his fault, and secondarily that all of it was someone else's fault. The self-exculpatory military memoir is a literary genre almost as old as warfare itself, but this is a free country. Sanchez has a right to plead his case that he should be regarded as something other than a failure as a general, just as his audience has a right to measure the apologia against the record, and find it wanting.

Posted by: Zathras | May 26, 2008 12:15 AM

Torture occurred in the United States. Sanchez did not conduct torture in the United States. Everyone wants to blame the troops and the military. But it's not the troops that need to be put on trial. Of course the troops are required to defy Bush's evil. But Pat Tillman showed what happens to those who stand up for America. Heck, they could even have a New Pearl Harbor and blame it on the mighty Afghan Navy, or on someone who owned something they coveted, like oil. You could even use the power of the military to come up with dirty tricks to create a casus belli or a justification for all kinds of crimes. And torture is just the tip of the iceberg. We know that they have conducted an assassination spree in the United States. If they would do something like that at home, chances are they would also do something like that in Iraq.¤tPage=all

Posted by: Singing Senator | May 27, 2008 7:50 AM

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