Friday, July 23, 2004


I never realized my words would have such impact!

Just as I completed an op-ed article wondering about the lack of progress of the Pentagon’s investigations of prisoner abuse, and the low profile being kept by the usually ubiquitous Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, lo and behold, the Army’s Inspector General materialized to deliver part of his report.

He did so before a hastily convened meeting of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, whose chairman, Republican Senator John Warner, has been under immense pressure to call the first hearings on the prisoner abuse scandal since May. The hearing took place Thursday, July 22 – the same day as the September 11 Commission delivered its final report to the Congress and the President. Congress went into recess for the summer on the following day.

The Inspector General, Lt. Gen. Paul Mikolashek, had this to say:

The U.S. military has found 94 cases of confirmed or alleged abuse of prisoners by U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan since the autumn of 2001. That number is significantly higher than all other previous estimates given by the Pentagon, which had refused until now to give a total number of abuse allegations.

Equally important, the IG found no systemic problems. In some cases, the report found, the abuse was abetted or facilitated by officers not following proper procedures. This view is sharply in contrast to a February report from the International Committee for the Red Cross, which found that  “methods of ill treatment'' were “used in a systematic way'' by the U.S. military in Iraq.

Most of the alleged abuses -- 45 of the 94 -- happened at the point where the detainee was captured. Of those 45 cases, 20 involved allegations of physical abuse and the rest were allegations of theft or other crimes. Twenty-one cases of alleged abuse happened at detention centers such as Abu Ghraib. Another 19 happened at collection points where prisoners are gathered between their capture and their transfer to long-term prisons. Eight cases happened during or surrounding interrogations.

Since autumn of 2001, overall the United States had held more than 50,000 prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq, a number never before made public.

The Committee raised questions about prisons in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the deaths of detainees, as well as whether abuse was part of interrogations. Acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee, testifying at the hearing, said he accepted responsibility for the abuses committed by soldiers. But ranking Committee member Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan said it was “difficult to believe there were not systemic problems with our detention and interrogations operations.''

Seven members of the 372nd Military Police Company, an Army Reserve unit from Cresaptown, Maryland, were charged in the prisoner abuse scandal, which unfolded this past spring with the release of pictures of abuse and sexual humiliation of prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

As I wrote in my earlier article, it may not be until after the presidential election that the world gets the full story of US prisoner abuse. Or, it may be never. Because there is still a nagging question of whether the military is prepared to investigate their own, and let the chips fall where they fall, or whether an independent commission – like the 9/11 Commission – is needed to be credible.






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.