US Moral Authority in ‘Free Fall,’ Senators Warn

As Amnesty International urged the George W. Bush administration to "close Guantánamo and disclose the situation in the USA’s shadowy network of detention centers around the globe," a subsidiary of Halliburton, the oil services group once led by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, won a $30 million contract to help build a new permanent prison for terror suspects at the U.S. Navy’s controversial detention center in Cuba.

The Pentagon said that Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root would be building a two-story jail with air conditioning and exercise and medical facilities.

The plan is seen as a sign that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld plans to keep the jail in operation, despite a growing chorus of criticism and mixed signals from the White House.

Amnesty International, the human rights advocacy group, drew world attention to the Guantanamo facility in its recently released annual report, which referred to the detention facility as "the gulag of our times."

The organization said keeping the prison open was the "wrong decision and will fuel worldwide concern over the stories of torture and ill-treatment, religious humiliation, and arbitrary detention that are seeping from the facility."

Amnesty said the Bush administration "plans to memorialize in bricks and mortar its decision to operate outside of the law," according to Curt Goering, senior deputy executive director.

The group called for "an independent investigation into U.S. policies and practices on detention and interrogation, including torture and ill-treatment, [which] would reassure the world that the U.S. administration has nothing to hide."

Key lawmakers have said they will press Congress to intervene in detainee policies despite the administration’s claim that running the detention camp is the province of the executive branch and the military.

"This has become the greatest propaganda tool that exists for recruiting of terrorists around the world," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has proposed that an independent 9/11-type commission investigate Guantánamo Bay and make recommendations.

Former president Jimmy Carter has also added his voice to those urging the U.S. to close the camp. "The U.S. continues to suffer terrible embarrassment and a blow to our reputation … because of reports concerning abuses of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo," Carter said.

Last week, at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, some Republicans agreed that Congress has been too passive in allowing detainees to be held for years without trials or consultations with lawyers.

Some senators objected when an administration official said detainees could be held at the prison forever. But others said criticisms of the prison camp might endanger U.S. military morale.

The U.S. Constitution "explicitly confers upon Congress" the power to define appropriate treatments for captured foreign suspects, said Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a conservative Republican from South Carolina and former military judge, suggested that Congress develop "some statutory provisions defining enemy combatant status and standardizing intelligence-gathering techniques and detention policies."

Pentagon and Justice Department officials have defended the administration, saying the approximately 520 detainees are not covered by legal protections afforded criminal defendants or prisoners of war. Most of the detainees at Guantanamo were captured in Afghanistan, although some were apprehended in Bosnia, the United States, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

Pressure has mounted on Congress in recent weeks to address allegations of detainee abuse at the prison, opened in January 2002 at a Navy base in Cuba leased by the U.S.

Some detainees have complained about physical abuse and religious humiliation, though many claims are unverified. Rights groups have assailed the government for holding some prisoners for more than three years without trial.

President Bush has left open the possibility of closing the facility, but he and Rumsfeld also have defended treatment of Guantanamo Bay captives and said the government must have a facility where it can hold terrorism suspects.

Several senators said U.S. detention policies are undermining the nation’s moral authority and inflaming the Islamic world. The situation "is an international embarrassment to our nation and to our ideals, and it remains a festering threat to our security," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said abuses at Guantanamo Bay "have shamed the nation in the eyes of the world and made the war on terror harder to win. Our moral authority went into a free fall."

Several prominent Republicans – among them Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, a former Bush cabinet member – also have publicly argued that the damage to Washington’s image caused by the prison now outweighs any practical benefits it might have.

And Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska has warned that Guantanamo is "going to end in disaster if we don’t wake up and smell the coffee."

Other observers think closing the base would not go nearly far enough. Beau Grosscup, professor of international relations at the University of California, told IPS, "Closing Gitmo is the easy thing to do but has only symbolic value if the torture is not ended."

And Brian J. Foley, a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, told IPS, "At this stage, closing Gitmo would be an empty gesture unless the abhorrent policies of torture, rendition, and imprisoning people without appropriate evidentiary hearings to determine guilt or innocence are changed."

"Otherwise it’s just a shell game, and these activities will simply be offshored elsewhere," he said.

Like Guantanamo, Halliburton has become a magnet for critics of the Iraq war. It is among a small group of U.S. companies awarded no-bid contracts, and its work has been criticized for massive cost overruns and inflated billing.

Edward Herman, emeritus professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, told IPS, "The combination of looting and conflict-of-interest makes the selection of Halliburton for construction of the new Guantanamo prison something you might expect to see in Doonesbury, not in a real world supposedly democratic state."

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.