Sunday, April 24, 2005


By William Fisher

Rejecting the conclusions of previous investigations, a major civil rights organization is calling for appointment of a special counsel and creation of an independent commission to investigate all issues of prisoner abuse by the US.

Human Rights Watch, a Washington-based advocacy group, said in a new report, “a wall of impunity surrounds the architects of the policies responsible for the larger pattern of abuses.”

“Evidence is mounting that high-ranking US civilian and military leaders — including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former CIA Director George Tenet, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, formerly the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Major General Geoffrey Miller, the former commander of the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — made decisions and issued policies that facilitated serious and widespread violations of the law.”

The group recommended that the US Attorney General, Alberto onzazales, “appoint a special counsel to investigate any US officials — no matter their rank or position — who participated in, ordered, or had command responsibility for war crimes or torture, or other prohibited ill-treatment against detainees in U.S. custody.”

HRW said the special counsel “is necessary because the prospect for accountability through ordinary avenues is severely compromised.” The Attorney General, “who, as head of the Department of Justice, sits atop the prosecutorial machinery, was himself deeply involved in the policies leading to these alleged crimes, and thus may not only have a conflict of interest but also he, himself, may have a degree of complicity in those abuses.”

Similarly, the group charged, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “sits atop the military justice system, thus all but ruling out accountability though that channel for policies he set in motion.”

HRW also recommended that Congress create a special commission, along the lines of the 9/11 Commission, to investigate prisoner abuse. “Such a commission would hold hearings, have full subpoena power, and be empowered to recommend the creation of a special prosecutor to investigate possible criminal offenses, if the Attorney General had not yet named one”, HRW said.

It said a special commission “could also compel evidence that the government has continued to conceal, including President Bush’s reported authorization for the CIA to set up secret detention facilities and to ‘render suspects to other countries, and details on Secretary Rumsfeld’s role in the chain of events leading to the worst period of abuses at Abu Ghraib.”

U.S. Department of Justice regulations call for the appointment of a “special counsel” when a conflict exists and the public interest warrants a prosecutor from outside the government.

In its report, HRW said, “Circumstances strongly suggest that (senior military and administration officials) either knew or should have known that such violations took place as a result of their actions. There is also mounting data that, when presented with evidence that abuse was in fact taking place, they failed to act to stem the abuse.

“The coercive methods approved by senior U.S. officials and widely employed over the last three years include tactics that the United States has repeatedly condemned as barbarity and torture when practiced by others. Even the U.S. Army field manual condemns some of these methods as torture.

“Although much relevant evidence remains secret, a series of revelations over the past twelve months, brought together here, already makes a compelling case for a thorough, genuinely independent investigation of what top officials did, what they knew, and how they responded when they became aware of the widespread nature of the abuses.”

The group charged that “coercive interrogation methods were approved by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for use on prisoners at Guantánamo — including the use of guard dogs to induce fear in prisoners, “stress” techniques such as forced standing and shackling in painful positions, and removing their clothes — “migrated to Afghanistan and Iraq, where they were neither limited nor safeguarded,” and contributed to the widespread and systematic torture and abuse at U.S. detention centers there.

It added, “We know that some detainees…have even been ‘disappeared after entering U.S. custody: the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) continues to hold al-Qaeda suspects in prolonged incommunicado detention in “secret locations,” reportedly outside the US, with no notification to their families, no access to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or oversight of any sort of their treatment, and in some cases no acknowledgement that they are even being held.”

HRW’s report is also critical of the practice of ‘rendition’. It says, “100-150 detainees have been ‘rendered’ by the US for detention and interrogation by governments in the Middle East such as Syria and Egypt, which, according to the U.S. State Department, practice torture routinely.” It called this practice “a violation of U.S. and international law. In an increasing number of cases”, adding that “there is now credible evidence that rendered detainees have in fact been tortured.”

“Despite these revelations and findings, the United States has not engaged in a serious process of accountability. Officials have denounced the most egregious abuses, rhetorically reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to uphold the law and respect human rights, and belatedly opened a number of prosecutions for crimes committed against detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq. To date, however, with the exception of one major personally implicated in abuse, only low-ranking soldiers — privates and sergeants — have been called to account.”

HRW said that, “While it is true that the Pentagon established no fewer than seven investigations in the wake of Abu Ghraib, not one has had the independence or the breadth to get to the bottom of the prisoner-abuse issue.

“All but one involved the military investigating itself, and was focused on only one aspect or another of the treatment of detainees. None took on the task of examining the role of civilian leaders who might have had ultimate authority over detainee treatment policy. None looked at the issue of renditions. The CIA has reportedly also initiated a number of self-investigations, but no details have been made public.

“What is more, these investigations effectively defined detainee abuse as any treatment not approved by higher authorities. To the Pentagon’s investigators, treatment that followed approved policies and techniques could not, by definition, have been torture. With this logical sleight of hand, they thus rendered themselves incapable of finding any connections between policies approved by senior officials and acts of abuse in the field. But that does not mean such connections did not exist,” HRW’s report said.