White House Losing Ground on Prisoner Treatment

Despite strong opposition from the Pentagon and the White House, the Republican leadership in the U.S. Senate is coming under growing pressure to set specific standards for the “humane” treatment of detainees taken in Iraq and elsewhere in the George W. Bush administration’s “war on terror.”

That pressure is being focused on proposed amendments, first offered last July by Sen. John McCain, a former combat pilot who was captured and held as a prisoner of war (POW) at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” for most of the Vietnam War, and three other Republican co-sponsors to the 2006 defense bill.

Under orders from the administration, which last week repeated its threat to veto the entire $400 billion bill if the amendments are attached, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has so far maneuvered to prevent them from coming to the floor for a vote.

If adopted, the proposed amendments, whose co-sponsorship has grown to 11 Republican senators, would ban the use of “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” as defined by the U.S. Constitution and any interrogation technique that is not authorized by the U.S. Army Field Manual, which was drafted to comply with the Geneva Conventions.

The amendments have been endorsed by more than two dozen retired flag-rank military officers, including a former chief of staff of the U.S. armed forces, Gen. John Shalikashvili; the Bush administration’s first Iraq occupation head, Lt. Gen. Jay Garner; the highest-ranking legal officers for each of the armed services; as well as another former Vietnam POW and later U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Pete Peterson.

“The abuse of prisoners hurts America’s cause in the war on terror, endangers U.S. service members who might be captured by the enemy, and is anathema to the values Americans have held dear for generations,” the 28 retired generals and admirals wrote McCain this week.

They called the Army Manual the “gold standard” for the “effective, lawful, and humane” treatment of prisoners. “Had the Manual been followed across the board, we would have been spared the pain of the prisoner abuse scandal.”

Two associates of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), perhaps the Pentagon’s single most enthusiastic defender of its refusal to apply the Geneva Conventions to suspected “terrorists,” added their voice in support of the amendments in an article published in the neoconservative Weekly Standard this week.

“The consequences of the failure to set a clear standard for the treatment of detainees are plain to see,” wrote Thomas Donnelly and Vance Serchuk in an article entitled “One Code to Rule Them All.” “We’re not only making it easier for our enemies to hate us, but harder for our friends to love us.”

Quoting the letter from the retired general officers, the two authors argued that “the net effect of the current Pentagon policy is that service members have been given conflicting instructions, then ‘left to take the blame when things went wrong.'”

The growing support for the McCain amendments has heartened human rights activists, who are confident that if they do in fact reach the Senate floor, they are likely to be passed by a large margin. Most, if not all Democrats are believed to favor the amendments, while some Republicans who are not listed as co-sponsors have indicated privately that they intend to vote for them, if given the chance.

“I think things are really turning on this,” said Elisa Massimino, Washington director of Human Rights First (HRF), which favors the amendments and has worked closely with retired military lawyers who have opposed the administration’s decision during the 2001 campaign in Afghanistan not to accord detainees there and at the U.S. naval facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the protections of the Geneva Conventions.

The Pentagon had insisted that suspected “terrorists” captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere did not qualify as POWs who warranted the Convention’s protections. While the administration insisted that detainees would be treated “humanely,” they also authorized interrogation techniques that appeared to violate that standard, as a succession of investigations and leaks has shown.

Unlike suspected terrorists, detainees arrested or captured in Iraq were supposed to be entitled to the Convention’s protections. But media and rights groups’ reports, leaks, declassified documents, administrative hearings, and courts martial – most recently the successful conviction last month of Army Pfc. Lynndie England, the reservist featured in the notorious photos from Abu Ghraib prison that set off the prisoner-abuse scandal in April 2004 – have shown that many of the techniques used in Afghanistan and Guantanamo “migrated” to Iraq.

Indeed, the failure to set clear standards for the treatment of prisoners was the chief complaint of two anonymous sergeants and an army captain, later identified as Capt. Ian Fishback. Their testimony about “routine” abuses and often “severe” beatings of Iraqi detainees at a forward operating base near Fallujah was the subject of a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report 10 days ago.

The subsequent release of a Sept. 16 letter from Fishback to McCain, as well as a series of meetings between Fishback and congressional staff, has clearly contributed to the current momentum behind McCain’s two amendments.

Based on his experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, a clearly troubled Fishback, who is now enrolled in special forces training, had spent more than 17 months going up the chain of command in search of clear rules about the treatment of detainees, only to be told “to keep his concerns quiet,” according to the HRW report.

“My approach for clarification provides clear evidence that confusion over standards was a major contributor to the prisoner abuse,” which included “death threats, beatings, broken bones, murder, exposure to elements, extreme forced physical exertion, hostage-taking, stripping, sleep deprivation, and degrading treatment” in both Afghanistan and Iraq, he wrote to McCain.

It was only when he approached Congressional offices last month that the Army, which initially tried to keep him confined to base, finally launched an investigation into his charges, although he has since complained that army lawyers appear more interested in finding out the identity of the two sergeants who also talked with HRW.

Among the offices Fishback initially approached was Frist’s, which reportedly failed to respond. That failure has made the majority leader, who is widely believed to have presidential aspirations, particularly sensitive to the pending amendments.

Under White House pressure, conveyed personally by Vice President Dick Cheney, Frist pulled the 2006 defense authorization bill last July to prevent a floor vote on the amendments. However, his options are narrowing as McCain and his cosponsors have indicated they will attach them to the appropriations bill – the bill that provides actual money to the Pentagon – if necessary.

The White House has continued to wield the veto threat, arguing, as did spokesman Lawrence diRita recently, that establishing clear standards for interrogations would “hamper the country’s ability to readily adapt and update interrogation methods from al-Qaeda detainees who we know are trained to resist known interrogation techniques.”

Besides its persistent interest in “taking the gloves off” against perceived U.S. enemies, the administration, especially Cheney, is seen as determined to keep Congress from what it sees as the executive’s exclusive domain, despite the Constitution’s grant to Congress of authority to “make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.”

“Although it’s understandable that the Defense Department would like to act with maximum freedom of action,” wrote Donnelly and Serchuk, “it has created a Balkanized set of standards … which plainly does not work. If ever there were an appropriate object for congressional oversight, this is it.”

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.