Sunday, June 05, 2005

A 9/11 Commission for Prisoner Abuse?

By William Fisher

On the heels of the dustup over the nomination of John Bolton to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, President Bush’s next congressional tsunami may well be a provision tucked away in a proposed anti-terrorist bill. That legislation would establish an independent 9/11-type commission to investigate U.S. abuse of prisoners throughout the world.

The legislation, introduced by Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, the ranking member of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, last January, attracted virtually no media attention. But Biden – often rumored to be a candidate for the presidency in 2008 -- said on a television program last Sunday, “This Week with George Stephanopoulos”, that he expects the bill to come before the committee in the next couple of weeks.

Not surprisingly, the legislation – titled “The Targeting Terrorists More Effectively Act of 2005” -- has wide support from Democrats. But some congressional sources indicate it may also find favor among a number of moderate Republican committee members.

In introducing the legislation, Biden appeared to go out of his way to downplay the commission proposal, instead emphasizing other anti-terrorist provisions.

But it is the empanelling of an independent commission – long resisted by President Bush – that is most likely to trigger fireworks on Capital Hill and at the Pentagon, the CIA and the White House.

Unlike prisoner abuse investigations carried out by the Pentagon, it would specifically investigate whether individuals may have played a policy-making role in setting conditions for detainees, and examine frequently-reported differences of opinion between the Pentagon’s civilian leadership and senior members of the armed forces.

The Biden legislation would establish a national commission to examine the role of policymakers in the development of intelligence related to the treatment of individuals detained during Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom, and the impact of the abuse of prisoners by the U.S. personnel on the security of the armed forces.

Its structure and mandate would be virtually identical to that of the 9/11 Commission.

The proposed bi-partisan 15-member body would consist of prominent U.S. citizens, with national recognition and significant depth of experience in intelligence, law enforcement, or foreign affairs, or experience serving the government, including service in the armed forces.

Three commission members each would appointed by the majority leader of the Senate, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the minority leaders of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Judge Advocates General of the Army, Navy, and Air Force would appoint one member each.

Armed with subpoena power and its own staff, it would investigate the development of policy relating to individuals detained during Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom, whether U.S. policy related to the treatment of detained individuals adversely affected the security of the members of the armed forces, whether incidences of abuse of detained individuals have affected the standing of the U.S. in the world, the extent to which leaders of the U.S. armed forces were given the opportunity to comment on and influence policy relating to treatment of detained individuals; and the extent to which policy relating to the treatment of individuals detained during Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom differed from the policies and practices regarding detainees established by the armed forces prior to such operations.

The commission’s report would be submitted to the President and Congress within nine months.

The legislation also attempts to clarify U.S. policy regarding prisoner treatment.

“It is the policy of the United States to treat all foreign persons captured, detained, interned, or otherwise held in the custody of the U.S. humanely and in accordance with the legal obligations under United States law and international law, including the obligations in the Convention Against Torture and in the minimum standards set forth in the Geneva Conventions,” the bill says.

It calls on the U.S.“to provide individualized hearings for all detainees for the purpose of expeditiously holding detainees accountable for violations of the law of war, to expeditiously conduct intelligence debriefings of such detainees, and to avoid the indefinite detention of any individual”.

Other provisions of the bill aim deal with the threat of terrorism on several
fronts -- military, intelligence, diplomatic and homeland security, and has an accountability measure to ensure that the broad range of anti-terrorism efforts are effective.

One provision would replenish the National Security Education Program to help address shortfall of trained foreign language experts in the U.S. government.

Others call for:

Expanding funding for basic education and democracy promotion overseas;

Establishing a “Middle East Foundation” located in the region for research and scholarship of democracy, civil society and rule of law;

Bolstering border and port security by adding 1,200 Immigration and Customs agents over a five year period;

Adding $3 billion over four years to ensure that maritime security standards are met and increases funds available for port security grants.

Creating a new, $5 billion Homeland Security grant program to which cities and counties across the U.S. can apply to directly for first responders, including equipment and training.

Restoring the funding for local law enforcement agencies that was dramatically cut by the Bush Administration; and

Reestablishing the Nuclear Cities Initiative in Russia, assisting the Russian government in its efforts to close down or downsize several of its nuclear weapons facilities. Also expands funding to accelerate non-proliferation programs throughout the former Soviet Union.

“We have to be smart when we it comes protecting our nation from terrorist attacks,” said Senator Biden. “We have to do all we can to drain the swamp and ensure that terrorism no longer has a breeding ground. It will take more than American military might. It will take a comprehensive national and international effort at every level; and it will take the collective strength of a nation united in its resolve to succeed.”