White House Losing Ground on Prisoner Treatment
by Jim Lobe
strong opposition from the Pentagon and the White House, the Republican
leadership in the U.S. Senate is coming under growing pressure to
set specific standards for the "humane" treatment of detainees
taken in Iraq and elsewhere in the George W. Bush administration's
"war on terror."
pressure is being focused on proposed amendments, first offered
last July by Sen. John McCain, a former combat pilot who was captured
and held as a prisoner of war (POW) at the infamous "Hanoi
Hilton" for most of the Vietnam War, and three other Republican
co-sponsors to the 2006 defense bill.
orders from the administration, which last week repeated its threat
to veto the entire $400 billion bill if the amendments are attached,
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has so far maneuvered to prevent
them from coming to the floor for a vote.
adopted, the proposed amendments, whose co-sponsorship has grown
to 11 Republican senators, would ban the use of "cruel, inhuman,
or degrading treatment or punishment" as defined by the U.S.
Constitution and any interrogation technique that is not authorized
by the U.S. Army Field Manual, which was drafted to comply with
the Geneva Conventions.
amendments have been endorsed by more than two dozen retired flag-rank
military officers, including a former chief of staff of the U.S.
armed forces, Gen. John Shalikashvili; the Bush administration's
first Iraq occupation head, Lt. Gen. Jay Garner; the highest-ranking
legal officers for each of the armed services; as well as another
former Vietnam POW and later U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Pete Peterson.
abuse of prisoners hurts America's cause in the war on terror, endangers
U.S. service members who might be captured by the enemy, and is
anathema to the values Americans have held dear for generations,"
the 28 retired generals and admirals wrote McCain this week.
called the Army Manual the "gold standard" for the "effective,
lawful, and humane" treatment of prisoners. "Had the Manual
been followed across the board, we would have been spared the pain
of the prisoner abuse scandal."
associates of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), perhaps the
Pentagon's single most enthusiastic defender of its refusal to apply
the Geneva Conventions to suspected "terrorists," added
their voice in support of the amendments in an article published
in the neoconservative Weekly Standard this week.
consequences of the failure to set a clear standard for the treatment
of detainees are plain to see," wrote Thomas Donnelly and Vance
Serchuk in an article entitled "One Code to Rule Them All."
"We're not only making it easier for our enemies to hate us,
but harder for our friends to love us."
the letter from the retired general officers, the two authors argued
that "the net effect of the current Pentagon policy is that
service members have been given conflicting instructions, then 'left
to take the blame when things went wrong.'"
growing support for the McCain amendments has heartened human rights
activists, who are confident that if they do in fact reach the Senate
floor, they are likely to be passed by a large margin. Most, if
not all Democrats are believed to favor the amendments, while some
Republicans who are not listed as co-sponsors have indicated privately
that they intend to vote for them, if given the chance.
think things are really turning on this," said Elisa Massimino,
Washington director of Human Rights First (HRF), which favors the
amendments and has worked closely with retired military lawyers
who have opposed the administration's decision during the 2001 campaign
in Afghanistan not to accord detainees there and at the U.S. naval
facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the protections of the Geneva
Pentagon had insisted that suspected "terrorists" captured
in Afghanistan and elsewhere did not qualify as POWs who warranted
the Convention's protections. While the administration insisted
that detainees would be treated "humanely," they also
authorized interrogation techniques that appeared to violate that
standard, as a succession of investigations and leaks has shown.
suspected terrorists, detainees arrested or captured in Iraq were
supposed to be entitled to the Convention's protections. But media
and rights groups' reports, leaks, declassified documents, administrative
hearings, and courts martial most recently the successful
conviction last month of Army Pfc. Lynndie England, the reservist
featured in the notorious photos from Abu Ghraib prison that set
off the prisoner-abuse scandal in April 2004 have shown that
many of the techniques used in Afghanistan and Guantanamo "migrated"
the failure to set clear standards for the treatment of prisoners
was the chief complaint of two anonymous sergeants and an army captain,
later identified as Capt. Ian Fishback. Their testimony about "routine"
abuses and often "severe" beatings of Iraqi detainees
at a forward operating base near Fallujah was the subject of a Human
Rights Watch (HRW) report 10 days ago.
subsequent release of a Sept. 16 letter from Fishback to McCain,
as well as a series of meetings between Fishback and congressional
staff, has clearly contributed to the current momentum behind McCain's
on his experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, a clearly troubled Fishback,
who is now enrolled in special forces training, had spent more than
17 months going up the chain of command in search of clear rules
about the treatment of detainees, only to be told "to keep
his concerns quiet," according to the HRW report.
approach for clarification provides clear evidence that confusion
over standards was a major contributor to the prisoner abuse,"
which included "death threats, beatings, broken bones, murder,
exposure to elements, extreme forced physical exertion, hostage-taking,
stripping, sleep deprivation, and degrading treatment" in both
Afghanistan and Iraq, he wrote to McCain.
was only when he approached Congressional offices last month that
the Army, which initially tried to keep him confined to base, finally
launched an investigation into his charges, although he has since
complained that army lawyers appear more interested in finding out
the identity of the two sergeants who also talked with HRW.
the offices Fishback initially approached was Frist's, which reportedly
failed to respond. That failure has made the majority leader, who
is widely believed to have presidential aspirations, particularly
sensitive to the pending amendments.
White House pressure, conveyed personally by Vice President Dick
Cheney, Frist pulled the 2006 defense authorization bill last July
to prevent a floor vote on the amendments. However, his options
are narrowing as McCain and his cosponsors have indicated they will
attach them to the appropriations bill the bill that provides
actual money to the Pentagon if necessary.
White House has continued to wield the veto threat, arguing, as
did spokesman Lawrence diRita recently, that establishing clear
standards for interrogations would "hamper the country's ability
to readily adapt and update interrogation methods from al-Qaeda
detainees who we know are trained to resist known interrogation
its persistent interest in "taking the gloves off" against
perceived U.S. enemies, the administration, especially Cheney, is
seen as determined to keep Congress from what it sees as the executive's
exclusive domain, despite the constitution's grant to Congress of
authority to "make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water."
it's understandable that the Defense Department would like to act
with maximum freedom of action," wrote Donnelly and Serchuk,
"it has created a Balkanized set of standards
plainly does not work. If ever there were an appropriate object
for congressional oversight, this is it."
Lobe [send him mail]
is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2005 Inter Press Service