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When the Abu Gharib prison photogaphs emerged one year ago the Bush Administration said now the Iraqis will see that there is justice in the United States. Leading Republican Senators, John Warner, Lindsay Graham and John McCain, promised that everyone culpable would be held accountable, no matter how senior.
Hopefully, the Iraqis were not watching too closely.
The Army Inspector General recently announced that they have completed their investigations, all the senior officers investigated were exonerated except for one Brigadier General who received an administrative reprimand. There was no investigation of senior administration officials for whom there is evidence of complicity including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former CIA Director George Tenet, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez. And, of course no one asked what President Bush knew and when he knew it or whether he signed documents authorizing the abuse of prisoners as well as the related rendition policy where suspects are sent to other countries to be tortured. Punishment was limited to lowly scapegoats.
Even before the photos were made public newspaper articles, reports from human rights groups, the International Red Cross, Red Crescent and other human services agencies had claimed that torture, degradation and inhuman treatment had become the mode of operation under the Bush Administration in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and Iraq. This has included repeated reports of deaths and suicides of people being held in US military custody.
General Antonio Taguba, who first investigated the Abu Ghrarib prison scandal found "numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses" constituting "systematic and illegal abuse of detainees" at Abu Ghraib. When he testified on May 11 before the Senate Armed Services Committee he said that what happened was the result of a rampant failure of leadership "from the brigade commander on down, lack of discipline, no training whatsoever and no supervision."
There is no doubt that officials at the highest levels of the Bush administration knew about the ongoing torture:
* The International Committee of the Red Cross issued reports concerning prisoner abuse based on private interviews with prisoners of war and civilian internees. As far back as May 2003, the Red Cross reported to the military about 200 allegations of abuse. The Red Cross stated that the organization’s president, Jakob Kellenberger, complained about the prison abuses directly to top administration officials during a two-day visit to Washington in mid-January when he met with Secretary of State Colin Powell, then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in May 2003.
* In July 2003, Amnesty International sent the Administration a Memorandum on Concerns Relating to Law and Order in Iraq. The Memorandum included allegations of torture and ill-treatment of Iraqi detainees by US and Coalition forces.
* A May 7, 2004 letter to President Bush signed by nine leading human rights organizations states: "For over a year, the undersigned organizations and others have repeatedly asked you and senior officials in your Administration to act promptly and forcefully to publicly repudiate the statements of intelligence officials and to assure that the treatment of detainees is consistent with international humanitarian law." They concluded: "Extraordinary action on your part is now required to begin to repair this damage and, at long last, bring an end to this pattern of torture and cruel treatment."
* Amnesty International also alleged torture and degradation in the treatment of prisoners and detainees resulting from the war in Afghanistan held in that country as well as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Since the photographs became public evidence of widespread and ongoing abuse of prisoners has become indisputable. Subsequent investigations by the media, human rights groups and the military itself revealed hundreds of cases of torture and abuse of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Guantanamo Bay prison. A paper trail including documents show that abuses such as the use of dogs and painful shackling, had been approved by senior military commanders and the secretary of defense, while the CIA approved extreme practices including simulated drowning and the withholding of pain medication at White House meetings where President Bush’s counsel presided.
Among the facts that have come out are that the top general in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez signed an order on Sept. 14, 2003, authorizing the use of attack dogs as seen in the Abu Gharib photographs. This an other aspects of "interrogation" more aptly described as torture, violate the Geneva Conventions. Similarly, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller who commanded the Guantanamo Bay prison interrogated prisoners in ways that the Red Cross described as "tantamount to torture." And, when Gen. Miller visited Abu Ghraib in 2003 dogs were introduced to interrogation at his suggestion. Other generals in Iraq did not respond to complaints of torture being used at Abu Gharib.
The leadership of the Department of Defense and the Bush Administration at the highest levels cannot reasonably claim they were unaware of these allegations.
Sadly, despite the damage the Abu Gharib prison abuse photographs have done to U.S. efforts in Iraq, U.S. respect in the world and efforts to stem the expansion of terrorism, it is evident that the United States had not stopped the use of illegal coercive interrogation. As Human Rights Watch points out, "in January 2005, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales claimed in a written response during his confirmation hearings that the prohibition on cruel, inhuman, or degrading (CID) treatment does not apply to U.S. personnel in the treatment of non-citizens abroad, indicating that no law would prohibit the CIA from engaging in CID treatment when it interrogates non-Americans outside the United States." Doesn’t Gonzalez care whether the United States and its agents are torturing people? Is he unawar of the negative consequences these policies have on our reputation, security and safety?
In order to restore public confidence around the world an independent investigation is needed by a special prosecutor appointed by the Congress. The Department of Defense investigating itself, or investigation by a White House appointed commission will not be sufficient to restore confidence. In an editorial on April 26 The Washington Post asked whether Senators John McCain, Lindsay Graham and John Warner have forgotten their words of one year ago? They have the power to lead the United States to holding an independent investigation on the Abu Gharib scandal. Will they show the leadership necessary?
Human Rights Watch called this week for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the culpability of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and ex-CIA Director George Tenet, as well as Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, formerly the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the former commander of the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba in cases of crimes against detainees. Democracy Rising joins in the call for a special prosecutor, however, the trail of torture should not be limited to those mentioned by Human Rights Watch. The U.S. government needs to make public documents involving the treatment of detainees including directives reportedly signed by President Bush. The special prosecutor should also investigate the rendition of suspects to countries where torture is used.
If the United States is to recover from the embarrassment of Abu Ghraib and the use of torture in other locations, it needs to investigate those at the top who ordered or condoned these practices and hold them accountable. Only by bringing out all of the facts can the United States repudiate the mistreatment of detainees. Then Iraqis and others can see that the United States really stands for fair and equal justice and that no one, even a Secretary of Defense or President of the United States, is above the law.
Human Rights Watch, U.S.: Abu Ghraib Only the "Tip of the Iceberg,"
Washington Post, Impunty, April 26, 2005, www.washingtonpost.com
KEVIN ZEESE is director of Democracy Rising. You can comment on this column by visiting his blogspot at www.DemocracyRising.US.