Wednesday, August 17, 2005


By William Fisher

A retired Army major general is throwing fuel on the hot issue of religious discrimination at the U.S. Air Force Academy by writing to commanders there to urge their backing a Christian evangelical rally for military personnel sponsored by Rev. Billy Graham's ministry – and signing his letters “Your Partner in the Gospel”.

The academy, which has been dogged by allegations of harassment against non-Christian cadets, charged that Bob Dees has sent promotional literature to commanders at the Academy, saying the event “will spiritually refresh you and equip you to share your faith in Jesus Christ with your brothers and sisters in arms.”

In his letter, Dees, wrote, “We wholeheartedly recommend that you give (the event) the widest possible distribution within your command…This seminar is designed to provide assistance to chaplains and other military personnel who are followers of Jesus Christ to enable them more effectively serve their religious faith groups while serving their country…Your support in making this known to your chaplains for dissemination.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), an advocacy group that has played a leading role in exposing religious bias at the Academy, warned military officials not to promote a Christian evangelistic rally for military personnel sponsored by Billy Graham's ministry, now run by Rev. Graham’s son, Franklin Graham.

AU said it took action after learning that Dees, who is now executive director
of the Military Ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ International, had sent
e-mails to installation commanders nationwide, not only at the Air Force Academy, informing them of a Sept. 9-11 “Serving God and Country” seminar in Asheville, N.C.

Promotional material for the event says other speakers will include U.S. Army
General Robert Van Antwerp, who will speak about how “to lead and influence others with the character and life of Jesus Christ.”

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, AU’s executive director, said, “The military must never favor one faith over others. The Graham Ministries' event is intended to teach Christian evangelism, and that's not something the military should be involved in.”

In a letter sent to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and base
commanders nationwide today, AU's Lynn pointed out that the Constitution forbids government to promote religion.

Lynn’s letter said that promoting this Christian event to members of the military “could convey an unconstitutional message of governmental endorsement
of religion, and to therefore urge you to ensure that military leaders do not encourage members of the military or their spouses to attend the event or
otherwise promote it in any way.”

Lynn’s letter says it would be “highly inappropriate for the military to
endorse a rally sponsored by Franklin Graham, a harsh and controversial
critic of Islam, at a time when the nation is fighting a war in a Muslim region
of the world.”

The 4000-cadet Air Force Academy, which trains future officers, is located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a town that is also home to a number of the nation’s
most high-profile Christian evangelical organizations.

In response to recent accusation of religious discrimination at the Academy, a military task force led by Lt. Gen. Roger Brady reported that the Academy
failed to accommodate the diverse religious needs of cadets and staff.

“Religious slurs and disparaging remarks have no place at the Air Force Academy”, Gen. Brady said.

Retired Chaplain Jack C. Williamson told legislators that the current problems
at the academy were result of “years of practice that have gone unchallenged”,
adding that the problem “goes far beyond tolerance”.

Dr. Christian Leslie, an ordained minister who is a professor at the Yale University Divinity School, said she was concerned about the power relationship between teachers and students.

“There is a problem when a chaplain defends saying ‘Jesus will be with you, Jesus will save you’ with the response ‘That’s the way we do it here – we promote Jesus’.”
Patrick Mrotek, founder of the new Christian Alliance for Progress, told IPS in an email, “Separation of church and state has been a fundamental American value that both protects us from the government imposing a particular religion while also guaranteeing our freedom from that government in our place of worship. The Christian Right seeks to institutionalize and impose their beliefs on all Americans when our country’s political and religious traditions honor precisely the opposite values.”

The Alliance is a religious organization advocating moderation and the separation of church and state.

The furor exploded this summer when a chaplain at the academy, Capt. Melinda Morton, charged that the religious problem at the academy was "pervasive."

Captain Morton was given an unwanted transfer, but resigned from the Air Force saying she did not believe her superiors genuinely wanted her to stay on to help resolve the problem. Before she resigned, she lodged a formal complaint, which is currently being investigated by the Air Force Inspector General.

Among the incidents highlighted in the task force report were fliers that advertised a screening of "The Passion of the Christ" at every seat in the dining hall, more than 250 people at the academy signing an annual Christmas message in the base newspaper that said, "Jesus Christ is the only real hope for the world" and an atheist student who was forbidden to organize a club for "Freethinkers."

The commandant of cadets, Brig. Gen. Johnny A. Weida, came in for particular
scrutiny by the Air Force panel. He sent an academy wide e-mail message to announce the National Day of Prayer, instructed cadets that they were "accountable to their God" and invented a call-and-response chant with the cadets that went, "Jesus ... Rocks."

Brian J. Foley, a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, told IPS, “We are often told that the reason we spend more than any other country on our armed forces is because our military exists to 'protect our freedoms.' If the allegations about the Air Force Academy are true, then the Air Force must immediately move to protect its own future officers' constitutional right to freedom of religion. These brave and talented young men and women, who have committed to risk their lives to defend their country, deserve the ability to practice their religion, or no religion at all, free from government pressure and coercion, and free from the government's supporting one religion over other religions.”


By William Fisher

Civil libertarians and the Pentagon appear headed for yet another trainwreck in the ongoing dispute over the so-called ‘second batch’ of photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

In response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and a number of medical and veterans groups demanding release of 87 new videos and photographs depicting detainee abuse at the now infamous prison, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, said the release would result in "riots, violence and attacks by insurgents.”

In court papers filed to contest the lawsuit, Gen. Myers said he consulted with Gen. John P. Abizaid, head of the United States Central Command, and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the commander of the American forces in Iraq. Both officers also opposed the release, General Myers said.

Gen. Myers said he believes “release of the photos would “incite public opinion in the Muslim world and put the lives of American soldiers and officials at risk”, according to documents unsealed in federal court in New York.

"The situation on the ground in Iraq is dynamic and dangerous," Myers added,
with 70 insurgent attacks daily. He also said there was evidence that the
Taliban was gaining ground because of popular discontent in Afghanistan.

General Myers cited the violence that erupted in some Muslim countries in May
after Newsweek published an item, which it later retracted, saying that a Koran had been thrown in a toilet in the United States detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He also said the images could fuel terrorist disinformation campaigns.

"It is probable that Al Qaeda and other groups will seize upon these images and
videos as grist for their propaganda mill, which will result in, besides violent
attacks, increased terrorist recruitment, continued financial support and
exacerbation of tensions between Iraqi and Afghani populaces and U.S. and
coalition forces," he said.

The 87 “new” photos and four videotapes taken at Abu Ghraib were among those turned over to Army investigators last year by Specialist Joseph M. Darby, a reservist who was posted at the prison.

In legal papers unsealed last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and its allied groups urged the court to order the release of photographs and videos, and also asked the court to reject the government's attempt to file some of its legal arguments in secret.

It said that until the first photos of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib were made public in April 2004, the government had consistently denied that any wrongdoing had taken place despite news reports to the contrary. Since then, the ACLU has obtained, through a court order, more than 60,000 pages of government documents regarding torture and abuse of detainees.

At a court hearing on Monday, the judge said he generally ruled in favor of public disclosure and ordered the government to reveal some redacted parts of its argument for blocking the release of pictures and videotapes.

U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein said his rulings pertained to arguments by Gen. Myers. "By and large, I ruled in favor of public disclosure," he said.

The judge said he believes photographs "are the best evidence the public can have of what occurred" at the prison.

He scheduled arguments on the question of whether the photographs and videos should be released for Aug. 30, saying a speedy decision is important so the public's right to know isn't compromised.

The ACLU has also called for an independent counsel with subpoena power to investigate the torture scandal, including the role of senior policymakers, and has filed a separate lawsuit to hold Secretary Rumsfeld and high-ranking military officers accountable.

Reed Brody, head of international programs for Human Rights Watch (HRW), told IPS, "The problem is not the photos but the policy of abuse. The release of the first photos last year led us to the revelations that senior U.S. officials had secretly sidelined the Geneva Conventions, re-defined ‘torture’, and approved illegal coercive interrogation methods. The release of new photos showing crimes perpetrated on detainees could create new impetus to expose and prosecute those ultimately responsible and hopefully prevent these practices
from being repeated."

Michael Ratner, President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, told IPS,
“The administration's response to the release of the photos is to kill the messenger, rather then to investigate and prosecute the real culprits: Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Generals Miller and Sanchez, and others.”

He agreed that “the photos will be upsetting to anyone who cares about humane treatment and particularly to those in the Muslim world, but the photos reflect the reality of the type of treatment detainees were subjected to. Rather than suppress the best evidence of widespread torture of Muslim detainees, the Administration ought to launch a fully independent investigation and ought to see that an independent prosecutor is appointed.”

He added, “Ensuring accountability for the torture conspiracy is the best way of demonstrating to the Muslim world that this outrage has come to an end and will not be repeated”.

The government initially objected to the release of the images on the grounds that it would violate the Geneva Conventions rights of the detainees depicted in the images. That concern was addressed by court order on June 1 directing the government to redact any personally identifying characteristics from the images. The ACLU did not object to those redactions.

The ACLU said the government has repeatedly taken the position that the detainees themselves cannot rely on the Geneva Conventions in legal proceedings to challenge their mistreatment by American personnel.

In a court declaration, former U.S. Army Colonel Michael E. Pheneger, a retired military intelligence expert, responded to the government's "cause-and-effect" argument that release of the images would spark violence abroad.

“Our enemies seek to prevent the United States from achieving its objectives in the Middle East," he said. "They do not need specific provocations to justify their actions."

Attacks by insurgents “will continue regardless of whether the photos and tapes are released, " he added.

The case arose from a lawsuit filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans for Peace.