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William Fisher: The Issue That Just Won't Go Away

The Issue That Just Won't Go Away

By William Fisher

As new reports detail further abuse by the U.S. military of its prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, a behind-the-scenes battle is being fought between the U.S. departments of State and Defense about whether a key section of the Geneva Convention should or should not be included in new rules governing Army interrogation techniques.

The Pentagon is pushing to omit from new detainee policies a central principle of the Geneva Convention that explicitly bans "humiliating and degrading treatment." Critics say such a step that would mark a further shift away from strict adherence to international human rights standards.

The State Department is opposing the decision to exclude Geneva Convention protections and has been pushing for the Pentagon and White House to reconsider.

Meanwhile, in the face of growing criticism over U.S. treatment of detainees, Pentagon officials have decided to make public all of the military's interrogation techniques. Military leaders had previously argued that making all of the interrogation tactics public would allow enemy combatants to train and prepare for specific techniques.

The Pentagon's decision came as two previously secret Army investigative reports on prisoner abuse were released to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) under a Freedom of Information request.

The more than 1,000 pages turned over to the ACLU include one report by Army Brig. Gen. Richard Formica on specials operations forces in Iraq and another by Brig. Gen. Charles Jacoby on Afghanistan detainees.

The Formica report reviewed only three allegations of abuse by special operations forces, but found that Iraqi detainees were held for up to seven days at a time with their eyes taped shut in tiny box-like cells so small that they had to sit with their knees to their chests while loud music blared, and detainees were fed only bread and water for up to a week.

One of the detainees said he was kept inside his tiny cell for two days, another for five days, and the third for seven days. The one kept for seven days alleged, " before he was placed in the box his clothes were cut off. He said that while held in the box, his captors duct-taped his mouth and nose, making it hard for him to breath." He charged that water was thrown on him, that he was beaten, kicked and electrocuted.

Formica concluded that overall conditions "did not comport with the spirit of the principles set forth in the Geneva Conventions," but dismissed allegations that prisoners were physically abused or humiliated. The general recommended no disciplinary action against any U.S. special operations personnel.

Formica faulted "inadequate policy guidance" rather than "personal failure" for the mistreatment, and cited the dangerous environment in which Special Operations forces carried out their counterinsurgency missions. He said that, from his observations, none of the detainees seemed to be the worse for wear because of the treatment.

The Jacoby report, carried out in May 2004, examined the treatment of detainees at facilities in Afghanistan. He found "no systematic or widespread mistreatment of detainees," but concluded that the opportunities for mistreatment and the ever-changing battlefield there demanded changes in procedures.

He said that there was "a consistent lack of knowledge" regarding the capture, processing, detention and interrogation of detainees and that policies varied at facilities across the country. Jacoby also concluded that the lack of clear standards created opportunities for abuse and impeded efforts to gain timely intelligence and that interrogation standards were "inconsistent and unevenly

The U.S. military facility at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan has come in for particular criticism for its detention practices, including keeping "ghost" prisoners whose presence is unrecorded, and denying access to prisoners by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations International Rapporteur.

Neither report recommended punishment of any military personnel.

Human rights groups were critical of the reports. Reed Brody, special counsel to Human Rights Watch, told IPS, "At long last, it is time for the administration to ask itself whether the humiliation, brutalization, and torture of Muslim detainees around the world is making us safer from terrorism or is in fact fanning the flames of resentment and making it easier for the jihadists to find recruits for their evil cause."

And Amrit Singh, an ACLU attorney, said, "Both the Formica and the Jacoby report demonstrate that the government is really not taking the investigation of detainee abuse seriously," She called the reports "a whitewash" and questioned why they only focused on a limited number of incidents, adding that there have been numerous documents showing that special operations forces abused detainees, and yet Formica only reviewed a few cases.

The reports were released as the military grappled with new allegations of war crimes in Iraq. Two Pennsylvania National Guardsmen were charged with killing an unarmed Iraqi man in Anbar province. Seven Marines and a Navy corpsman were charged in the shooting death of an Iraqi man in the town of Hamdania. And three soldiers and a noncommissioned officer were charged in the deaths of three unarmed Iraqis in military custody in Salahuddin province.

These charges follow allegations that in Haditha, a town in Anbar province, members of a Marine unit killed up to two dozen unarmed Iraqis in and outside their homes after a roadside bomb killed one of the troops.

The Bush administration has been criticized internationally, including by U.S. allies, for abusive treatment of terror war detainees.

The military's treatment of detainees has been under increased scrutiny since the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal in Iraq was revealed two years ago. Photographs made public at that time showed U.S. troops beating, intimidating and sexually abusing prisoners.

Human rights groups have also called for the Bush administration to close the detention center at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where three detainees recently committed suicide. Over the past weekend, 16 Saudi Arabian detainees were released to the government of their home country, continuing the Bush Administration's policy of gradually repatriating prisoners, either to freedom or for further custody by their home governments.

President Bush recently acknowledged that he would like to close the controversial prison at Guantanamo. He said the military is working to ensure that detainees released to their home countries are not subjected to torture in detention. It is believed there are now just under 500 prisoners being held at the facility in Cuba. Only ten have been formally charged with any crime and none has been tried. .

Late last year, the U.S. Congress passed an anti-torture amendment championed by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who was held and tortured in a North Vietnamese prison for years. McCain, along South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham - a former military judge - pressed Congress to establish the Army Field Manual as the standard for treatment of all detainees.

The administration of President George W. Bush initially opposed the amendment, but the measure passed and became law. However, in signing the law, Bush appended a statement saying, in effect, that he had the authority to over-ride it under a variety of circumstances involving military necessity and national security.

In 2002, Bush issued an executive order that suspended parts of the Geneva Convention for captured Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Bush's order superseded military policy at the time. Since then, U.S. obligations under the Convention have been the subject of an intense debate that became even more intense following reports of detainee abuses at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

The detention and treatment of U.S. detainees is clearly an issue that isn't going away any time soon. It has underlined the incompetence of the Bush Administration to craft a policy that is both effective and legal, and that failing has drawn scorn much many nations that have traditionally been America's friends and allies - and whom America needs now more than ever.


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