NEW YORK — Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorized the expansion of a secret program that encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners to obtain intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq, the New Yorker reported Saturday.
The Defense department strongly denied the claims made in the report, which cited unnamed current and former intelligence officials and was published on the magazine’s Web site. Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita issued a statement calling the claims “outlandish, conspiratorial, and filled with error and anonymous conjecture.”
The story, written by reporter Seymour Hersh, said Rumsfeld decided to expand the program last year, broadening a Pentagon operation from the hunt for al Qaeda 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 newsstands Monday, the initial operation Rumsfeld authorized gave blanket approval to kill or capture and interrogate “high value” targets in the war on terrorism. The program stemmed from frustrating efforts to capture high-level terrorists in the weeks after the start of U.S. bombings in Afghanistan.
The program got approval from President Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and Bush was informed of its existence, the officials told Hersh.
Under the program, Hersh wrote, commandos carried out instant interrogations — using force if necessary — at secret CIA detention centers scattered around the world. The intelligence would be relayed to the commanders at the Pentagon.