Facing the Big Guns
The Pentagon's new point man on detainee policy steps into the crossfire over inhumane treatment.
"Cully" Stimson doesn't seem the type to cut class. A wiry judge advocate general in the Naval Reserve and, until recently, an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, he has a litigator's fondness for precision and an officer's penchant for rigor: He brings a law journal article to an interview for an exact reference, and gently asks a reporter to ensure that his name is spelled correctly.
Nevertheless, in early December 2005, Charles D. Stimson, 42, cut his final day of class at the Naval Justice School detachment in Norfolk, Va., teaching effective courtroom communications. He had a good excuse: a job interview with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He got the post, and on Jan. 23 became the Pentagon's point man on detainee policy as the deputy assistant secretary for detainee affairs.
It's an odd position, established in 2004 in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, and it is subject to tugs from every direction. The Army is nominally in charge of the military's prisoners in the war on terrorism, but the mammoth operation, which has involved more than 90,000 detainees since Sept. 11, reverberates throughout the Pentagon and beyond-even at the Justice and State departments and the White House.
The Kenyon College graduate, who grew up in rural Maryland and earned his law degree from George Mason University, is accustomed to tug-of-war. He's a prosecutor with a passion for domestic violence cases. Aside from teaching at the Naval Justice School, Stimson is an adjunct law professor at George Mason and he serves on the executive committee of a Seattle family business. On top of all that, he has a wife and two children. "Family first," he says of trying to balance it all.
But balance might be harder to reach than he'd like. Two major policy documents on detainees are immersed in high-level interagency debates. They're scheduled for release this spring, and advocates-and Congress-are impatient.
Stimson's predecessor, Matthew Waxman, decamped to the State Department in December amid battles over Directive 2310, one of the documents that govern the Pentagon's overall care and custody of detainees. Waxman fought to insert language drawn from the Geneva Conventions barring cruel, humiliating and degrading treatment. He ran into overwhelming opposition from the Pentagon's general counsel, the undersecretary for intelligence and the White House, according to a February article in The New Yorker. After Waxman's departure, though, President Bush reluctantly signed the McCain amendment into law in December 2005, with similar language that forbade U.S. personnel from inflicting "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
The second policy document, the Army field manual, spells out the tactics that military interrogators can and cannot use. It's been revised to incorporate lessons learned in the past few years and the requirements of the McCain amendment, but nobody outside government knows yet exactly what the revision will allow and forbid.
The two documents are important, says Elisa Massimino, the Washington director for Human Rights First, because together they provide the new baseline for detainee treatment. None of the dozen-odd military investigations found that Pentagon policy condones abuse. But they didn't exactly find that the policy that prevents it, either. Instead, they reported widespread confusion over the rules.
The problem is that for most of the past century, detainees simply were prisoners of war, and policy was, by and large, the Geneva Conventions, which undergirded the Pentagon's labyrinthine system of directives, training and manuals. Article 3 of the Third Geneva Convention-which explicitly bars cruel treatment, torture and "outrages upon personal dignity," including "humiliating and degrading treatment"-was virtually all the guidance needed.
But when President Bush issued a February 2002 order declaring that prisoners from the Afghanistan conflict were not entitled to the Geneva Conventions, he replaced the well-established baseline with a vague and qualified one. It said the United States would treat detainees "humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva." Later, prisoners in Iraq were entitled to Geneva protections, but communications about what that meant exactly weren't clear. Tactics devised under the "humane" standard used for detainees at Guantanamo migrated to Iraq, where there was less oversight. The resulting photographs of treatment at Abu Ghraib angered the world in April 2004.
Stimson declined to comment on the pending documents. He did, however, say he perceived an enormous gap between the diligence with which the Pentagon has sought to improve its detainee operations and the public's impression that "we're not really giving it a lot of thought." Stimson handles the department's communications with the International Committee of the Red Cross-the only group allowed frequent and unfettered contact with detainees and he c0-chairs a department-wide committee that meets quarterly to review the implementation of more than 400 recommendations that have come up in the investigation.
"When we say umpteen investigations and umpteen recommendations, I don't think people grasp the millions of personnel hours that have gone into investigating, recommending, holding accountable, correcting and moving forward to make the appropriate changes where necessary," he says.
But outside observers say piecemeal fixes alone can't do it, and they're waiting for a more coherent policy to prevent abuses. In late February, Human Rights First released a damning report documenting the deaths of 98 detainees while in U.S. custody, including 34 officially suspected or confirmed homicides and eight to 12 men who were tortured to death. "One such incident would be an isolated transgression; two would be a serious problem; a dozen of them is policy," retired Rear Adm. John D. Hutson, the Navy's former top lawyer and currently dean of Franklin Pierce Law Center in New Hampshire, wrote in the report's introduction.
"I wish Cully every good wish and hope that he's effective and gets it straightened out," Hutson says, but "I'm not wildly enthusiastic about the job that's being done." The fundamental problem, according to Hutson, is a failure of congressional oversight. In 2004, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., said Defense was leaving no stone unturned in its investigations. But, "There are lots of stones, and they're still sunny-side up," Hutson says. "They're afraid of what's going to crawl out if they turn them over."
Stimson has some leverage that Waxman lacked. He's a military JAG, and the combination of the McCain amendment and the ongoing Abu Ghraib trials, in which the former commander of military intelligence recently admitted that he should have established "some definitive rules and put out clear guidance," gives the newcomer a stronger platform. "If he's inclined to see this as an opportunity to get the Pentagon's interrogation policies back on track, he has the tools," says Massimino of Human Rights First.