Congress Sends Mixed Signals on Detainee Rights

As U.S. President George W. Bush’s poll numbers plummet, questions about how his administration "sold" the invasion of Iraq to the public and its treatment of prisoners seized in the "war on terror" continue to dog the beleaguered president, stalling his second-term agenda.

In the Senate, Democrats have mounted a spirited campaign to insist that its Intelligence Committee complete an investigation of whether the administration exaggerated or lied about intelligence relating to Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) prior to the invasion of Iraq.

The Committee completed part one of its probe last year, and unanimously found that there had been a massive failure of intelligence about WMD in Iraq. But part two – how the administration used or abused intelligence – was never finished. Senate Democrats secured a pledge from the chairman of the committee that the report would now go forward.

The renewed calls for further investigations were strengthened by an investigative article published by the Washington Post, asserting that shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) set up clandestine jails for al-Qaeda suspects in at least eight countries, including Thailand, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The paper said some were also located in Eastern Europe, although it withheld the specific countries involved at the request of "senior U.S. officials." But Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organization, said independent investigation suggests that the secret CIA installations in Eastern Europe are in Poland and Romania.

The disclosure again focused media and public attention on where and how the U.S. treats prisoners captured in the "war on terror."

The Senate had recently voted 91-9 in favor of a measure championed by Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and a former prisoner of war tortured in Vietnam, that would ban all torture and "cruel, degrading, or inhumane" treatment of detainees.

But McCain is locked in a struggle with Vice President Dick Cheney, who has been lobbying the Senate intensely to exempt the CIA from the ban. The White House has hinted that President Bush would veto the measure if the exception were not granted. The legislation is attached to a larger defense bill to fund military operations in Iraq. If the president vetoes it, it would be the first time he has used his veto power.

"Every day, the administration is telling us in its own words and deeds that it believes it should be exempt from laws and morals that prohibit lying the nation into war, torturing people, and imprisoning people on its own whim, without any meaningful court review," Brian J. Foley, a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, told IPS.

"What more do ‘We the People’ need to motivate us to use our laws to restrain this dangerous cabal?" he asked.

The Senate also passed an amendment to the defense bill that mandates Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to inform Congress about U.S.-run secret prison facilities in foreign countries.

At the same time, the Republican-led Senate rejected a Democratic effort to establish an independent commission to investigate the U.S. military for its interrogation practices. The 55 to 43 vote was split largely along party lines. The Democrats were trying to set up a panel along the lines of the 9/11 Commission to investigate how the U.S. has been treating detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo.

The Bush administration also won another victory in the Senate. The body endorsed a plan introduced by Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican of South Carolina and a former military lawyer, to limit suspected foreign terrorists’ access to U.S. courts. The measure is an effort to reverse a 2004 Supreme Court ruling that has allowed hundreds of detainees held by the military at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to challenge their detentions.

But a number of constitutional scholars see the Graham measure as a serious threat to the U.S. justice system. Prof. Ed Herman of the University of Pennsylvania told IPS the suspension of habeas corpus is "a real step on the road to a totalitarian state." He also called attention to "the brazen illegality of U.S. prisoner abuse, its gross violation of the rule of law that the cabal pretends to be bringing everywhere."

The Graham proposal would give Congress some oversight of the military process set up to review whether Guantanamo Bay detainees are terrorists and should continue to be held. It would subject those tribunal decisions to limited review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

The Bush administration has argued that suspected enemy combatants overseas cannot challenge their confinement in U.S. courts and that all matters related to the detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists should be left to President Bush.

The amendment to a defense authorization bill was endorsed three days after the Supreme Court announced it would rule on the legality of military commissions to try Guantanamo Bay detainees. Constitutional authorities say this could be one of the most important rulings on presidential war powers since World War II.

The White House indicated it would support the plan, but civil liberties groups called it a step backward and complained it had not received meaningful debate.

The United States would "be free to hold people indefinitely without a hearing and beyond the reach of U.S. law and checks and balances," said a statement by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which has helped many detainees challenge their confinement and treatment in court.

About 260 of the more than 750 prisoners currently or previously held at Guantanamo Bay have filed habeas corpus petitions in U.S. courts, alleging various kinds of abuse, wrongful detention, and inadequate medical care.

A large number of detainees at Guantanamo Bay have been on a hunger strike for several months, and many are being nourished through feeding tubes.

Further fueling the debate are allegations that torture and inhuman treatment persist. Last week, five members of an elite U.S. Army Ranger unit in Iraq were charged with kicking and punching detainees while awaiting movement to a detention facility.

And the Pentagon has still not released the "second round" of photos showing detainee mistreatment at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, despite a court order to do so under a Freedom of Information Act suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.

At least 108 people have died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of them violently, according to government data provided to the Associated Press. Roughly a quarter of those deaths have been investigated as possible abuse by U.S. personnel. There have been 21 homicides.

The toll paid by the administration for war-related and other issues has been high. According to a new poll, almost six in 10 people – 57 percent – say they do not think the Bush administration has high ethical standards, and the same proportion says President Bush is not honest.

The Associated Press/Ipsos survey found that just over four in 10 say the administration has high ethical standards and that Bush is honest.

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.