Friday, July 23, 2004


What ever happened to the Pentagon’s multiple investigations into prisoner abuse?

And where is Donald Rumsfeld?

The Secretary of Defense, once the irrepressible song and dance man of the Bush Administration, has obviously been in an ‘undisclosed location’ under the radar for the past few weeks. Rehearsing a new act, no doubt.

Even is less visible are any results of the ‘thorough investigations’ promised to Congress by the Defense Department. The military says it has opened 41 death investigations; 15 are still pending. Of the 135 inquiries into other abuses, 54 are still pending. Investigations cover Iraq, Afghanistan, and other military detention facilities elsewhere.

Also gone underground are the Pentagon’s frequent references to ‘a few bad apples’ as the culprits. As Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican told the New York Times, "The idea that only five or six privates and sergeants are legally exposed is unacceptable.” Graham is a former military judge and a member of the Republican-controlled US Senate Armed Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over the prisoner abuse issue.

The Chairman of that committee, Republican Senator John Warner of Virginia – a former Secretary of the Navy – has not held any hearings on the issue since May. He says he would like to hold further hearings, but has his hands tied until the Pentagon completes its own investigations. Mr. Warner has said he would hold off calling any more witnesses until several criminal prosecutions and seven pending Pentagon inquiries were completed. But many of these investigations are way behind schedule, and Warner has estimated that no hearings can be held until autumn at the earliest. Congress will soon recess until September.

This has led Democrats, and some Republicans, to conclude that the Pentagon is dragging its feet, and that the consequent delay in convening Congressional hearings is an attempt to keep prisoner abuse from campaign ammunition for the Democrats in the run-up to the Presidential elections in November.

The Senate Committee, and its counterpart in the House of Representatives, were briefed by the Red Cross and Pentagon officials last week. The Red Cross has given Congress most of its previous reports, but has said that as early as May 2003, it had complained to military officials about abuses. The Pentagon also provided senators with updated figures on investigations of the death or abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democratic Committee Member, said the Pentagon seems to have "slowed things down rather than speed things up." He said the Senate is in the position of having to wait for reports it needs as the basis for further hearings. Senator Reed said there might be some parties with an incentive to release some of the military reports when Congress is in recess. This would substantially lessen their media attention.

It is not known whether the Pentagon’s investigations will look into the practice of ‘prisoner rendition’ – taking detainees in the custody of the US or third countries to countries known to torture prisoners. This widespread practice is reportedly a CIA operation, and thus would fall outside the jurisdiction of the Defense Department.

While many continue to speak out about the issue, they are not getting much ink. Prisoner abuse has pretty much disappeared from US media, which is preoccupied with the Iraq transition, the report of the September 11th Commission, and the scathing findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which followed by two days the departure of CIA chief George Tenet.
 It will certainly return to front pages sooner or later. But, if the Republicans get lucky, not until the election is over.