Calls Mount for Prisoner Abuse Commission

New allegations of prisoner torture in Iraq are likely to add urgency to pending legislation that would create a 9/11-type commission to investigate detainee treatment and ensure that the U.S. operates within the law on interrogations.

The charges are the subject of a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW), which claims that U.S. Army troops subjected Iraqi detainees to severe beatings and other torture at a base in central Iraq from 2003 through 2004, often under orders or with the approval of superior officers, according to accounts from soldiers.

"The administration demanded that soldiers extract information from detainees without telling them what was allowed and what was forbidden. Yet when abuses inevitably followed, the leadership blamed the soldiers in the field instead of taking responsibility," said Tom Malinowski, HRW’s Washington director.

According to the Rev. Tim Simpson of the recently-formed Christian Alliance for Progress, a national movement that advocates tolerance and diversity, "What is so disheartening about these latest revelations is that they demonstrate the seared moral conscience of our government and its supporters."

"Our government reacted to this disclosure with hardly a yawn," he told IPS. "Rather than moving to see to it that such atrocities are halted immediately, the president is instead moving to ensure that the prospects for repeating these acts remain open to future generations by promising to veto legislation targeted at prevention."

"And from the ‘champions of virtue’ on the Christian Right we hear nothing but silence, as they continue to lend their support to the administration’s policy of torture."

The new charges come as the U.S. Senate is poised to debate two amendments to the Defense Department’s funding bill. These amendments were introduced by Senators John McCain, an Arizona Republican and former Vietnamese prisoner of war, and Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, along with three other Democrats – Sens. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, John Rockefeller of West Virginia, and Jack Reed of Rhode Island.

The amendments are designed to correct policies that led to hundreds of allegations of abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody. The McCain amendment would help ensure the United States operates within the law on interrogations. The Levin Amendment would create an independent commission to examine past abuses and make policy recommendations for the future.

Sen. Lindsay Graham, a conservative South Carolina Republican who has served for many years as a military judge, has said he supports the McCain proposal. And more than a dozen high-ranking military officers have also endorsed the amendment.

In a letter to President Bush and Sen. McCain, the military leaders called torture and cruel treatment "ineffective methods, because they induce prisoners to say what their interrogators want to hear, even if it is not true, while bringing discredit upon the United States."

"It is now apparent that the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and elsewhere took place in part because our men and women in uniform were given ambiguous instructions, which in some cases authorized treatment that went beyond what was allowed by the Army Field Manual."

"Administration officials confused matters further by declaring that U.S. personnel are not bound by long-standing prohibitions of cruel treatment when interrogating non-U.S. citizens on foreign soil. As a result, we suddenly had one set of rules for interrogating prisoners of war, and another for ‘enemy combatants’; one set for Guantanamo, and another for Iraq; one set for our military, and another for the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency]," the letter said.

The McCain proposal would mandate that all branches of the U.S. military use only the U.S. Army’s Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation (FM 34-52), which prohibits use of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment by any U.S. government agency, to define the limits of prisoner custody.

Both the McCain and Levin proposals have been opposed by the White House, which has said an independent investigatory commission is unnecessary since the military’s own investigations of prisoner abuse have led to charges against a number of soldiers.

President Bush has threatened to veto any Defense Department funding bill that contains the McCain amendment. The Pentagon’s funding legislation was taken off the Senate calendar and has been on hold since the introduction of the McCain amendment.

Sen. Levin’s proposed commission would be modeled after the 9/11 Commission. It would report on its findings regarding the causes of detainee abuse, determine who should be held responsible for such abuses, and make recommendations for changes in U.S. policy and law relating to the treatment of detainees.

"We are calling for an independent commission on the treatment of detainees because the Defense Department has shown that it is not capable of investigating itself," said Levin. "The most serious scandal in recent military history needs an objective investigation."

That view was echoed by Jumana Musa, Amnesty International USA’s advocacy director for International Justice.

She told IPS, "The time for an independent, comprehensive investigation of this matter is long overdue. By continuing to insist that these were isolated acts that bore no reflection on the policies designed and implemented at the highest levels of government, the administration has shown itself either incapable or unwilling to address the depth and scope of torture and ill-treatment of detainees in U.S. custody and control."

"Court-martialing low-level enlisted servicemen and servicewomen while silencing commanders who attempt to expose systemic abuses serves to perpetuate the abuse," Musa said.

The senators said the various Defense Department reviews to date were "highly inadequate." In calling for an independent commission, they voiced concern that "there has been no accountability at senior levels for policies, actions, and failures to act that may have contributed to widespread abuse of detainees. The responsibility of civilian leaders, in particular, remains essentially unexamined."

They added, "A full, objective, and independent inquiry into the treatment of detainees would serve to restore the United States’ credibility and leadership in the world."

Kenneth D. Hurwitz, senior associate with the U.S. Law & Security and International Justice Programs of Human Rights First, agrees.

"That it took 17 months and a trip to Congress to prod commanders into investigating severe abuses conducted routinely and openly for months shows yet again the need for an independent 9/11 type commission that is free of command influence," he told IPS.

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.