Monday, February 27, 2006


By William Fisher

A senior U.S. military commander has branded as ‘propaganda’ a new report from a major human rights advocacy group charging that of the 98 detainees who have died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan since August 2002, 34 are suspected or confirmed homicides, another 11 suggest that death was a result of physical abuse or harsh conditions, but only 12 deaths have resulted in punishment of any kind for any U.S. official.

The remark was made by Brigadier General Mark Kimmett, the Central Command deputy commander for planning and strategy in Iraq, regarding a report by Human Rights First, which charged that in close to half the deaths surveyed by the organization, the cause of death remains officially undetermined or unannounced. Overall, eight people in U.S. custody were tortured to death.

The report, entitled “Command’s Responsibility”, says that of the 34 homicide cases so far identified by the military, investigators recommended criminal charges in fewer than two thirds, and charges were actually brought (based on decisions made by command) in less than half.

While the CIA has been implicated in several deaths, no CIA agent has faced a criminal charge, the report says, adding, “Among the worst cases -- detainees tortured to death – only half have resulted in punishment and the harshest sentence for anyone involved in a torture-related death has been five months in jail.”

The exchange with Gen. Kimmett occurred at a press conference in Iraq. The question was:

“General Kimmett, there's a human rights organization today in the States called Human Rights First. They said that around 100 detainees from Afghanistan and Iraq have died in the prisons. What's your comment on this?”

The response from Gen. Kimmett was: Well, my comment is that's propaganda; it's not correct.”

Gen. Kimmett went on to say, “I would defer to the Department of Defense, who would more than happy to give you all the information regarding the number of situations inside the detention centers in which people have died and for whatever reason.”

HRF reports that Admiral John Hutson has sent Kimmett a personal letter with a copy of the report, urging that he rethink his public remarks

Among the report’s other findings: Commanders have failed to report deaths of detainees in the custody of their command, reported the deaths only after a period of days and sometimes weeks, or actively interfered in efforts to pursue investigations; investigators have failed to interview key witnesses, collect useable evidence, or maintain evidence that could be used for any subsequent prosecution; record keeping has been inadequate, further undermining chances for effective investigation or appropriate prosecution; overlapping criminal and administrative investigations have compromised chances for accountability; overbroad classification of information and other investigation restrictions have left CIA and Special Forces essentially immune from accountability; agencies have failed to disclose critical information, including the cause or circumstance of death, in close to half the cases examined; effective punishment has been too little and too late.

Charging that there is an “accountability gap”, HRF says closing it will require “a zero-tolerance approach to commanders who fail to take steps to provide clear guidance, and who allow unlawful conduct to persist on their watch.”

The report recommends that the President, as Commander-in-Chief, “move immediately to fully implement the ban on cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (known as the McCain Amendment) passed overwhelmingly by the U.S. Congress and signed into law on December 30, 2005”.

It also demands that “the President, the U.S. military, and relevant intelligence agencies should take immediate steps to make clear that all acts of torture and abuse are taken seriously – not from the moment a crime becomes public, but from the moment the United States sends troops and agents into the field”.

Congress, the report suggests, “should at long last establish an independent, bipartisan commission to review the scope of U.S. detention and interrogation operations worldwide in the ‘war on terror’. Such a commission could investigate and identify the systemic causes of failures that lead to torture, abuse, and wrongful death, and chart a detailed and specific path going forward to make sure those mistakes never happen again. The proposal for a commission has been endorsed by a wide range of distinguished Americans from Republican and Democratic members of Congress to former presidents to leaders in the U.S. military. Human Rights First urges Congress to act without further delay.”

In response to our question, Deborah Pearlstein, Director of HRF’s U.S. Law and Security Program, said the Pentagon’s detention policies have repeatedly been criticized by military lawyers and health officials, but their objections have largely been ignored.

Most recently, it was revealed that one of the Pentagon's top civilian lawyers repeatedly challenged the Bush administration's policy on the coercive interrogation of terror suspects, arguing that such practices violated the law, verged on torture and could ultimately expose senior officials to prosecution.

Mora's campaign underscores how contrary views were often brushed aside in administration debates on the subject.

"Even if one wanted to authorize the U.S. military to conduct coercive
interrogations, as was the case in Guantánamo, how could one do so without
profoundly altering its core values and character?" Mr. Mora asked the
Pentagon's chief lawyer, William J. Haynes II, in a 22-page memorandum.

The Pentagon has declined to comment on specific assertions in Mr. Mora's memorandum.

"Detainee operations and interrogation policies have been scrutinized under a microscope, from all different angles," a spokesperson said. "It was found that it was not a Department of Defense policy to encourage or condone torture."

The HRF report notes that “It is difficult to assess the systemic adequacy of punishment when so few have been punished, and when the deliberations of juries and commanders are largely unknown. Nonetheless, two patterns clearly emerge and are documented in Command’s Responsibility: (1) because of investigative and evidentiary failures, accountability for wrongdoing has been limited at best, and almost non-existent for command; and (2) commanders have played a key role in undermining chances for full accountability.”

It adds, “In dozens of cases documented in the report, grossly inadequate reporting, investigation, and follow-through have left no one at all responsible for homicides and other unexplained deaths. Commanders have failed both to provide troops clear guidance, and to take crimes seriously by insisting on vigorous investigations. And command responsibility itself – the law that requires commanders to be held liable for the unlawful acts of their subordinates about which they knew or should have known – has been all but forgotten.”

After dozens of cases of prisoner abuse over the past several years, including the deaths HRF is reporting, the Pentagon must be totally tone-deaf to think it can dismiss all these claims as “propaganda” and maintain any credibility whatever.

This is not just more spin. It is the Kabuki theater of the absurd.

Bush, Jews and Hamas

By William Fisher

On the heels of the surprise victory of Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary election, President George W. Bush is discovering just how difficult it is to try to herd a bunch of cats.

Some members of his ordinarily supportive Jewish-American pro-Israel constituency are distinctly unhappy that Bush insisted on holding on-time elections, producing what they consider to be disastrous results. Others are suspicious that, despite his rhetorical assurances not to have anything to do with terrorists, he has left the door a bit ajar and may be pressured by his European and Arab allies into resorting to realpolitik. Mirroring the sentiments of the Israeli right-wing, powerful groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Council (AIPAC) want that door slammed shut until Hamas agrees to recognize Israel’s right exist and renounces violence.

And U.S. fundamentalist groups on the Christian right, which have been strong supporters of Israel of late, take pretty much the same view as their more hawkish Jewish-American counterparts.

These groups are vital constituencies in Bush’s base. Both have lots of influence in the White House and in the House and Senate and, with Congressional elections due next November, could make the President’s life almost as complicated as dealing with Hamas.

A further complication is that the Jewish community in the U.S. is far from homogenous. As in Israel, American Jewry has a smaller, less well financed, but increasingly vocal left wing.

Emblematic of this faction is Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace. This national organization of American Jews is headed by Marcia Freedman, a former member of the Knesset. It is committed to a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It says many American Jews share this perspective, but are reluctant to express themselves for fear they may bring harm to Israel and the Jewish people. And it has rejected the knee-jerk “no play-no pay” approach of the U.S. House of Representatives.

While saying it is “deeply troubled” by the Hamas victory because its charter calls for the destruction of Israel, and its resort to terror and violence that target innocent civilians, it is urging the Bush Administration “to maintain a cautious approach to the new Palestinian government, so as to preserve the future possibility of bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.”
In a letter to President Bush signed by, at last count, 100 prominent rabbis, the group points out that the Palestinians conducted a free, fair, and democratic election, “something that is still too rare in this region”. It calls on Hamas to
"recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism, and work for lasting peace", but also calls on Bush to embark upon “constructive engagement” with the new Palestinian government, to encourage “moderates such as President Mahmoud Abbas and sustain the ceasefire that has allowed for relative calm over the past year”.

The rabbis caution that deterioration in the plight of Palestinians “only increases support for extremism, which, in turn, endangers Israel.” They urge “continued funding for indirect assistance to the Palestinian people via NGOs, with the appropriate conditions to ensure that it does not reach the hands of terrorists.” They exhort the President “to leave open the door for those Palestinians who are committed to working for a negotiated, two-state resolution of this conflict.”

The nightmare scenario for this branch of American Jewry is that if the U.S. and the E.U. shut off funding for the Palestinian Authority, the PA will turn to Iran and to other anti-Israel Muslim states for resources.

At a time when Bush is preparing to start broadcasting into Iran, reaching out to Iranian students to come to the U.S., and planning financial support for Iranian pro-democracy NGOs, the emergence of an Iranian hegemon in Palestine looms as a major migraine.

The Bush Administration is also concerned that rejecting a freely-elected Hamas government will confirm the widely held perception that the U.S. is all for elections, providing they produce the result it wants. That would do further damage to the credibility of America’s crusade to promote freedom and democracy in the Middle East – already in dangerously parlous condition in Iraq and elsewhere in the neighborhood. It is also likely to enhance the influence of Islamist political movements throughout the region and constrain America’s allies in the “Global War on Terror.”

The Bush Administration, along with the even more generous European supporters of “a new, improved” Palestinian Authority, clearly misread the temperature of Palestinian voters. But whether Palestinians voted for “terror” or for “change” is now irrelevant. The West is stuck with the facts on the ground. The election of Hamas was another stick in the eye of the Bush agenda.

Now, the so-called Quartet can move cautiously toward engagement or it can open the door for Iran to plant its flag deeply into Palestinian consciousness.

Which leaves the U.S. and its European friends with no good options at all. To implement a policy of “trust but verify”, Bush desperately needs all of American Jewry, plus the pro-Israel right-wing Christians, to present a supportive united front. This constituency is a major influence on the Government of Israel.

But, given the fractious rivalry of ideologies between these groups, it is far from a slam-dunk to think he’ll get it.