WASHINGTON — The Bush administration maintained Wednesday that the U.S. does not torture prisoners despite a claim to the contrary from the military judge in charge of trying Guantanamo Bay detainees.
Susan. J. Crawford is the top Bush administration official overseeing the military trials of terrorist suspects held at the U.S. prison in Cuba. She told The Washington Post that the United States tortured a Saudi man in 2002. The legal implications of the treatment prevented her from bringing him to trial, Crawford said.
The case of Mohammed al-Qahtani, whom officials have claimed was to have been the "20th hijacker" on 9/11, illustrates the legal and logistical trouble ahead for President-elect Barack Obama, who plans to order the closure of the stigmatized prison his first week on the job.
"We tortured Qahtani," Crawford said, making her the first senior Bush administration official to say that aggressive interrogation techniques had crossed the line.
"His treatment met the legal definition of torture, and that's why I did not refer the case" for prosecution, she said.
Al-Qahtani in October 2006 recanted a confession he said he made after he was tortured and humiliated at Guantanamo.
The alleged torture, which he detailed in a written statement, included being beaten, restrained for long periods in uncomfortable positions, threatened with dogs, exposed to loud music and freezing temperatures and stripped nude in front of female personnel.
Through a spokeswoman, Crawford declined a request for an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press.
Crawford was named to her job by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in February 2007.
White House press secretary Dana Perino defended the president's anti-terrorism policy, without directly addressing Crawford's assessment.
"Let me just make sure it's clear _ and I'll say it on the record one more time _ that it has never been the policy of this president or this administration to torture," Perino said.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman also had no direct comment on Crawford's comments as quoted in the newspaper's Wednesday editions.
"We have always taken allegations of abuse seriously," Whitman said. "We investigate all allegations, all credible allegations, of abuse," and have done some dozen investigations of interrogation methods, Whitman said.
The investigations concluded that special interrogations techniques briefly used for a small number of detainees shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were legal at the time, Whitman said. That includes techniques used on al-Qahtani in 2002, he said.
Whitman would not speculate on whether Crawford's action in the al-Qahtani case has any effect on other cases or the whole of the Bush administration legal structure for so-called enemy combatants.
Obama is expected to change that structure as part of a promised overhaul of anti-terrorism policies that brought the Bush administration repeated reversals in federal court and that other countries have called out of bounds.
Obama has said he will close the Navy prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where al-Qahtani is held. He has not said what he will do with the estimated 250 terror suspects or others housed there, but his comments suggest at least some could be tried in U.S. civilian courts.
Information collected under torture would be tainted and probably unusable in U.S. courts.
It's unlikely that Guantanamo could be closed quickly, as Obama acknowledged Sunday.
"It is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize," he said on ABC's "This Week" program.
"We are going to get it done, but part of the challenge that you have is that you have a bunch of folks that have been detained, many of whom may be very dangerous, who have not been put on trial or have not gone through some adjudication. And some of the evidence against them may be tainted, even though it's true."
About 520 Guantanamo detainees have been released from custody or transferred to prisons elsewhere in the world.