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December 20, 2008

'Bad Apples' Didn't Fall Far From the Tree

by William Fisher

On the heels of a bipartisan Congressional report blaming high-level officials of the George W. Bush administration for employing harsh interrogation techniques on detainees captured in the "global war on terror", many of the world's most respected civil libertarians are calling for the establishment of an independent commission to investigate the alleged abuses.

One of them, Amnesty International, has also released a detailed plan to close the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Amnesty's four-part plan sets out recommendations for actions the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama should take during the current transition period, others immediately upon taking office, and still others to be taken during the first 100 days and in the first 18 months of the new government.

Peter Shane, a law professor at Ohio State University law school, supports the idea. He told IPS, "I think it is critical to the health of American democracy that the historical record of 2001-2009 be set forth accurately and comprehensively with regard to the use and abuse of executive power by the Bush administration."

"A congressionally authorized investigation, whether conducted within Congress or by an independent commission with subpoena power and adequate investigative resources is essential," he said.

Amnesty's recommendations came as it was revealed that Bush administration Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates – who has been nominated by President-elect Obama to remain in office – has also ordered the Pentagon to begin drawing up a plan to close the notorious Caribbean prison. During his presidential campaign, Obama said repeatedly that closing Guantánamo Bay would be a top priority of his administration.

The Congressional report, issued last week by the Senate Armed Services Committee, concluded that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other high-ranking Bush administration officials were responsible for the harsh interrogations against captured terrorist suspects that took place at Guantánamo Bay and at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Rumsfeld had attributed such abuses to "a few bad apples" – lower-level members of the military acting on their own. But the Senate report charged that Rumsfeld bears principal responsibility for the prisoner abuses. Most civil libertarians regard these abuses as torture.

"Attempts by senior officials to pass the buck to low ranking soldiers while avoiding any responsibility for abuses are unconscionable," committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, said in a statement.

The committee concluded that the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib were "not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own." Most of those low-ranking soldiers were found guilty by military courts and are currently serving prison sentences.

Rumsfeld's "authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in US military custody," the report said.

The report added that Rumsfeld's authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques for use at Guantánamo Bay "was a direct cause of detainee abuse there."

Following release of the Senate report, Amnesty International joined many other human rights advocates in recommending a thorough investigation of prisoner abuses by a 9/11-type independent commission. Sentiment for such a body appeared to be growing, partly because many in Congress fear that an investigation by Congress could become mired in partisan politics and because some members appear reluctant to risk their political careers by becoming involved in such a divisive and controversial issue.

Amnesty's recommendations provide a timeline and conditions necessary to attain truth and accountability.

"Closing Guantánamo, as President-elect Obama has pledged, is just the first step. For real change, the incoming administration and Congress must work together to fully expose the Bush administration policies as a step toward ensuring that the same abuses committed in the name of national security are not repeated," said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA.

The Amnesty plan urged that, in the transition period and before taking the oath of office, President-elect Obama and his team should examine the options for establishing a comprehensive, independent commission to investigate US detention policies and practices in the war on terror and consider either establishing a task force in the Attorney General's office or appointing an independent prosecutor to take action on pressing individual cases. These tasks should be completed during Obama's first 100 days in office, Amnesty says.

The commission's investigation should include activities conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other agencies, as well as the secret transfer of detainees – known as rendition – between the United States and other countries. It should have access to classified material, subpoena power to compel the appearance of witnesses, and a mandate to make recommendations as to criminal investigations.

The Amnesty plan calls on the president to present a progress report to the nation within 18 months of taking office, and to provide a full report of the commission's findings and recommendations by 2010.

In introducing its plan, Amnesty president Larry Cox said, "President-elect Obama has a mandate from the American people for change and that begins with restoring the United States' reputation as a country guided by the rule of law and human rights."

"The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees," the Senate report said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted for the first time in September that she led high-level discussions beginning in 2002 with other senior Bush administration officials about subjecting suspected al-Qaeda terrorists detained at military prisons to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, according to documents released by Levin.

"Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority," the Senate report said.

The committee's report said Pres. Bush opened the door to "considering aggressive techniques" by signing a memorandum on Feb. 7, 2002 stating that the Third Geneva Convention did not apply to the conflict with al-Qaeda and concluding that Taliban detainees were not entitled to prisoner of war status or the legal protections afforded by the Third Geneva Convention, the report said.

Last April, President George W. Bush told an ABC News reporter that he had approved of meetings of a National Security Council's Principals Committee, on Feb. 7, 2002 where these officials discussed specific interrogation techniques the CIA could use against detainees. This committee's advisers included Vice President Dick Cheney, then National Security Adviser Rice, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, former CIA Director George Tenet and former Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Civil libertarians are pressing President-elect Obama to make good on his pledge to close Guantánamo Bay and investigate the prisoner abuses that occurred there, at Abu Ghraib and at other locations, including the CIA's "black sites" – secret prisons believed to have been located in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

One such advocacy organization, Human Rights First (HRF), prepared a plan to close Guantánamo some months ago. Many other groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch, have long advocated the closing of Guantánamo.

Geneve Mantri, Amnesty International USA's terrorism and counterterrorism director, told IPS, "Amnesty International is urging President-elect Obama's transition team to immediately examine the options of a Congressional Select Committee, a Presidential Commission of Inquiry or legislative enactment of a Commission of Inquiry."

"The transition team should ensure that an inquiry is a priority on the agenda and build consensus toward a strong, independent, and nonpartisan approach," she said. "Our organization then calls on President-elect Obama to appoint this commission of inquiry and ensure its independent operation within his first 100 days in office."

(Inter Press Service)

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  • William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.

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