9/11 Commission for Prisoner Abuse?

On the heels of the dustup over the nomination of John Bolton to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, President George W. Bush’s next congressional tsunami may well be a provision tucked away in a proposed anti-terrorist bill. That legislation would establish an independent 9/11-type commission to investigate U.S. abuse of prisoners throughout the world.

The bill, introduced last January by Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the top Democrat on the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has attracted virtually no media attention.

But Biden – often rumored to be a candidate for the presidency in 2008 – said on a television program Sunday, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, that he expects the bill to come before the committee in the next couple of weeks.

Not surprisingly, the legislation, titled "The Targeting Terrorists More Effectively Act of 2005," has wide support among Democrats. But some congressional sources indicate it may also find favor among a number of moderate Republican committee members.

In introducing the legislation, Biden appeared to go out of his way to downplay the commission proposal, instead emphasizing other anti-terrorist provisions.

But it is the impaneling of an independent commission – long resisted by President Bush – that is most likely to trigger fireworks on Capitol Hill and at the Pentagon, the CIA, and the White House.

Many civil libertarians and human rights groups have repeatedly called for such a commission. Typical is David Cole, author of Enemy Aliens and a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.

"An independent commission is critical, both in terms of getting to the bottom of this issue, and in terms of showing the world that we are serious about ending such abuse," he told IPS.

Unlike prisoner abuse investigations carried out by the Pentagon, it would specifically investigate whether individuals may have played a policymaking role in setting conditions for detainees, and examine frequently reported differences of opinion between the Pentagon’s civilian leadership and senior members of the armed forces. Its scope would be government-wide, thus including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The Biden legislation would establish a national commission to examine the role of policymakers in the development of intelligence related to the treatment of individuals detained during Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom, and the impact of the abuse of prisoners by the U.S. personnel on the security of the armed forces.

Its structure and mandate would be virtually identical to that of the 9/11 Commission.

"We should have an independent commission to go take a look at this, not only Guantanamo, but Abu Ghraib, the rest of the prison system, make a recommendation to the United States Congress, and let’s deal with this openly," Biden said recently on the news show This Week, adding that he wants the prison at Guantanamo Bay – recently called "the gulag of our times" by Amnesty International – to be "shut down."

"This has become the greatest propaganda tool that exists for recruiting of terrorists around the world, and it is unnecessary to be in that position," he said.

Armed with subpoena power and its own staff, the proposed bipartisan 15-member commission would consist of prominent U.S. citizens, with national recognition and significant depth of experience in intelligence, law enforcement, or foreign affairs, or experience serving the government, including service in the armed forces.

Three commission members each would appointed by the majority leader of the Senate, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and the minority leaders of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The judge advocates general of the Army, Navy, and Air Force would appoint one member each.

The commission’s report would be submitted to the president and Congress within nine months.

The legislation also attempts to clarify U.S. policy regarding prisoner treatment.

"It is the policy of the United States to treat all foreign persons captured, detained, interned, or otherwise held in the custody of the U.S. humanely and in accordance with the legal obligations under United States law and international law, including the obligations in the Convention Against Torture and in the minimum standards set forth in the Geneva Conventions," the bill says.

It calls on the U.S. "to provide individualized hearings for all detainees for the purpose of expeditiously holding detainees accountable for violations of the law of war, to expeditiously conduct intelligence debriefings of such detainees, and to avoid the indefinite detention of any individual."

Other provisions of the bill aim deal with the threat of terrorism on several fronts – military, intelligence, diplomatic, and homeland security – and provide an accountability measure to ensure that the broad range of anti-terrorism efforts are effective.

For example, one provision would replenish the National Security Education Program to help address the shortfall of trained foreign language experts in the U.S. government.

Others call for establishing a "Middle East Foundation" located in the region for research and scholarship of democracy, civil society, and rule of law; bolstering border and port security by adding 1,200 immigration and customs agents over a five-year period; and adding $3 billion dollars over four years to ensure that maritime security standards are met.

The bill would reestablish the Nuclear Cities Initiative in Russia, assisting the Russian government in its efforts to close down or downsize several of its nuclear weapons facilities, and expand funding to accelerate nonproliferation programs throughout the former Soviet Union.

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Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.