Serious Lapses Taint Probes of Detainee Deaths

Despite repeated vows by the Pentagon to fully investigate the deaths of all detainees in U.S. custody in Iraq and elsewhere in the “war on terror,” a major human rights group has found a pattern of “grossly inadequate and flawed investigations” that have made it difficult or impossible to hold perpetrators accountable.

Human Rights First (HRF), a 25-year-old lawyers’ group, said record-keeping of detainee deaths, of which Pentagon has reported 108 since 2002, has been “grossly inadequate” and that criminal investigators have routinely failed to interview key witnesses or collect and maintain usable evidence, such as body parts or basic ballistics evidence, for possible prosecution.

In addition, commanders have often either repeatedly failed to even to report deaths of detainees in the custody of their command, or delayed reporting them for days or even weeks after they occurred, greatly complicating efforts to collect relevant evidence. In one case, a death of an Iraqi detainee was not reported until a year later, and the case was closed without any determination of the cause of death.

In some cases, the military has launched serious investigations, but only after the case was reported in the media. In others, deaths that clearly resulted from foul play were initially attributed to natural causes, according to HRF, which said it is preparing a soon-to-be-released report on detainee deaths.

Of the Pentagon’s estimate of 108 deaths in custody, the Army has identified 27 cases of suspected or confirmed homicides and at least seven cases in which detainees were tortured or beaten to death.

The report, which features case studies reconstructed from military records, comes on the eve of a series of meetings by a Congressional committee that will decide whether to include in next year’s defense appropriations bill an amendment by Republican Sen. John McCain. If passed, it would ban all abusive treatment of detainees in compliance with U.S. Army Field Manual, which generally conforms to the Geneva Conventions.

Republican senators earlier this month deserted the George W. Bush administration, which had opposed the McCain amendment, en masse, joining all Democrats in approving the amendment by a surprising 90-9 margin. The House of Representatives, however, has no such provision in its version of the defense bill, and so a “conference committee” must meet to decide which version will be presented for final approval and sent to the White House for signature.

The administration, which has insisted that suspected terrorists were not entitled to Geneva protections, has warned repeatedly that it will veto the underlying bill if the amendment is retained.

But the administration, besieged by record-low public approval ratings and preoccupied with the growing likelihood that top White House officials may be criminally indicted next week in connection with their role in disclosing the identity of a covert CIA operative whose husband had accused it of taking the country to war in Iraq under false pretenses, may decide to quietly acquiesce if the amendment is included in the final bill.

The Pentagon’s announcement Wednesday that the Army had started an investigation into reports, aired by Australian television, that U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan burned the bodies of two dead Taliban fighters and then used the charred remains as part of a psychological operation to taunt the insurgents and their supporters in a nearby village may add pressure on the administration to go along.

“This alleged action is repugnant to our common values,” a Pentagon spokesman at the U.S. base in Bagram, Afghanistan, said Thursday. “This command takes all allegations of misconduct or inappropriate behavior seriously and has directed an investigation into circumstances surrounding this allegation.”

HRF’s findings will also fuel the impression promoted by McCain and a growing number of retired senior military officers, who have publicly urged Congress to pass his amendment, that the administration’s decision not to apply the Geneva Conventions against suspected terrorists in Afghanistan resulted in an environment where abuses have been effectively condoned.

Some three dozen retired general-rank officers have signed a letter in support of the amendment, and former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell has lent his name to the effort.

In a widely-noted talk this week, Powell’s chief of staff, ret. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, charged that Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld were responsible for “telling our troops essentially … ‘You should not have any qualms because this is a different kind of conflict.'”

“[W]e knew that things weren’t the way they should be,” Wilkerson said in reference to his and Powell’s reaction to the abuses as they became known, “and as former soldiers, we knew that you don’t have this kind of pervasive attitude out there unless you’ve condoned it.…”

“And whether you did it explicitly or not is irrelevant. If you did it at all, indirectly, implicitly, tacitly – you pick the word – you’re in trouble because that slippery slope is truly slippery, and it will take years to reverse the situation, and we’ll probably have to grow a new military.”

The failure to adequately investigate deaths in detention was yet another result of the administration’s decision not to apply the Geneva Conventions, according to Deborah Pearlstein, who oversaw HRF’s new study.

“These flawed inquiries are part of the larger effects of sending troops into the field with unlawful guidance on interrogations and detention or no guidance at all, and about the effects of allowing incidents of wrongdoing to pass with relative impunity,” she said.

“Those engaged on the front lines every day in the fight against terror need and deserve a clearer message from command about what American leadership really means.”

“There is an old Army aphorism,” said Gen. David Irvine, a retired Army Reserve strategic intelligence officer who taught prisoner interrogation and military law for 18 years. “The unit does what the commander checks. If any commander actually cared that Geneva was followed, you can be sure that it would have been followed – and that goes right up the chain of command.”

“If rigorous adherence to humane treatment had been deemed important,” he said, “someone wearing stars would have required a thorough, impartial investigation of every death of a detainee.”

A Pentagon spokesman insisted that circumstances beyond the control of military investigators often made it impossible to perform meticulous investigations.

“These investigations cannot be compared to criminal investigations conducted in a typical American city,” said Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros. “It is very important to understand that the majority of these death investigations are being conducted in very austere and dangerous environments.”

(Inter Press Service)

Read more by Jim Lobe

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.