Saturday, October 08, 2005

US Senate votes to ban torture (Washington Post)

In a very rare piece of good news, the Senate overwhelmingly passed John McCain's amendment mandating a ban on torture and other forms of abuse of prisoners by the US military. The record on these matters since 2001 has been appalling, with results that have been morally obscene and politically catastrophic. If there were ever any illusions that the current administration deserved any trust or discretion in this area, the time for such illusions is long past.

(Lest anyone think that these judgments come only from "anti-war" circles ... the article below from the neo-conservative Weekly Standard, which has strongly supported both the "war on terror" and the Iraq war, makes the argument very strongly and cogently.)

The measure just passed by the Senate represents the very minimum that decency and political sanity (not to mention respect for the principle of constitutional government) require, so it's heartening that it passed overwhelmingly, despite the intense opposition of the Bush administration. Unfortunately, it could still be scuttled in the House, and Bush has threatened to veto any bill that contains it (this from a President who, if I remember correctly, has not vetoed a single bill since he came to office). With luck, these efforts will be unsuccessful.

--Jeff Weintraub

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Washington Post
October 6, 2005

Senate Supports Interrogation Limits
90-9 Vote on the Treatment of Detainees Is a Bipartisan Rebuff of the White House

By Charles Babington and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 6, 2005; A01

The Senate defied the White House yesterday and voted to set new limits on interrogating detainees in Iraq and elsewhere, underscoring Congress's growing concerns about reports of abuse of suspected terrorists and others in military custody.

Forty-six Republicans joined 43 Democrats and one independent in voting to define and limit interrogation techniques that U.S. troops may use against terrorism suspects, the latest sign that alarm over treatment of prisoners in the Middle East and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is widespread in both parties. The White House had fought to prevent the restrictions, with Vice President Cheney visiting key Republicans in July and a spokesman yesterday repeating President Bush's threat to veto the larger bill that the language is now attached to -- a $440 billion military spending measure.

Senate GOP leaders had managed to fend off the detainee language this summer, saying Congress should not constrain the executive branch's options. But last night, 89 senators sided with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former prisoner of war in Vietnam who led the fight for the interrogation restrictions. McCain said military officers have implored Congress for guidelines, adding that he mourns "what we lose when by official policy or by official negligence we allow, confuse or encourage our soldiers to forget . . . that which is our greatest strength: that we are different and better than our enemies."

The vote came hours after Senate Democratic leaders blasted Republicans for canceling a classified briefing on anti-terrorism matters by the director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte. Senate Democrats also sent Bush a letter demanding more information about how he intends to succeed in Iraq.

The president, who defended his Iraq policies at a news conference Tuesday, plans to deliver "a significant speech on the war on terrorism" today, spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters. He said Bush will "talk in unprecedented detail about the nature of the enemy we face" and "about our comprehensive strategy for defeating" that enemy.

The Senate's 90 to 9 vote suggested a new boldness among Republicans to challenge the White House on war policy. The amendment by McCain, one of Bush's most significant backers at the outset of the Iraq war, would establish uniform standards for the interrogation of people detained by U.S. military personnel, prohibiting "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment while they are in U.S. custody.

McCain's allies included Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a former military lawyer, and Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.). They said new detainee standards are needed to clear up confusion among U.S. troops that may have led to the mistreatment alleged at the Navy's Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba and to the abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

The military came under condemnation throughout the world two years ago upon the release of photos showing U.S. troops humiliating and terrifying inmates at Abu Ghraib. Some low-ranking soldiers have been sentenced to prison for the abuse, but many lawmakers and others said they continue to worry about tactics that border on torture in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay.

In his closing speech, McCain said terrorists "hold in contempt" international conventions "such as the Geneva Conventions and the treaty on torture."

"I know that," he said. "But we're better than them, and we are the stronger for our faith."

In its statement on the veto threat, the White House said the measure would "restrict the president's authority to protect Americans effectively from terrorist attack and bringing terrorists to justice."

But as new allegations of abuse surface, the chorus of McCain supporters is broadening. McCain read a letter on the Senate floor from former secretary of state Colin L. Powell, who endorsed the amendment and said it would help address "the terrible public diplomacy crisis created by Abu Ghraib." Powell joins a growing group of retired generals and admirals who blame prison abuse on "ambiguous instructions," as the officers wrote in a recent letter. They urged restricting interrogation methods to those outlined in the U.S. Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation, the parameters that McCain's measure would establish.

McCain cited a letter he received from Army Capt. Ian Fishback, who has fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Over 17 months, he struggled to get answers from his chain of command to a basic question: What standards apply to the treatment of enemy detainees?" McCain said. "But he found no answers. . . . The Congress has a responsibility to answer this call."

Despite his victory last night, McCain has two major obstacles remaining: House GOP leaders object to attaching it to a spending bill, and Bush could veto it. However, senior GOP Senate aides said they believe the differences could be bridged, either by tweaking the measure or by changing the field manual.

The Maryland and Virginia senators voted for the McCain amendment.

Earlier in the day, tension over Iraq triggered an unusually testy exchange between the chamber's top Republican and top Democrat. Negroponte had accepted yesterday a Sept. 22 invitation from Democrats to brief all senators privately on intelligence matters. But Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said in a floor speech that he had told Negroponte to stay away. Frist said the invitation was a partisan ploy and unnecessary because of periodic briefings to Congress conducted by Negroponte and other administration officials.

"I have been offended" by the Democrats' move, Frist told Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). Reid replied that canceling Negroponte's planned appearance was another example of the administration and its congressional allies refusing to provide information about progress and challenges in the Iraq war and the broader battle against terrorism.

Reid and at least 39 other Democratic senators sent a letter to Bush saying it was unclear whether "your administration has a strategy for success that will preserve our fundamental national security interests and permit us to bring our troops home." The letter called on Bush "to provide direct answers" to several questions, including the number of adequately trained Iraqi security forces that will be needed to allow U.S. troops to begin withdrawing.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) was among several senior Democrats who told reporters that Bush risks a further erosion in public support unless he talks more openly about the challenges in Iraq and realistic plans to overcome them. "It's time the president tell us how he plans on getting us out of the hole he's dug us so deeply into," Biden said.


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Weekly Standard
October 4, 2005

One Code to Rule Them All
Congress owes it to America, our allies, and our soldiers to set clear standards for the treatment of detainees.

by Tom Donnelly & Vance Serchuk

FOOL ME ONCE, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. When it comes to detaining prisoners seized in Iraq, Afghanistan and on the other fronts of the terror war, the Pentagon's "just-trust-us" mentality continues to undercut American strategy. Thankfully, Congress is at last on the verge of doing what the administration clearly cannot: set clear standards for the treatment of detainees.

One of the clearest lessons of the Abu Ghraib scandal--as we were reminded this past weekend by the macabre tell-all television appearance of Army Pfc. Lynndie England--is that poorly-trained soldiers make poorly-behaved prison guards. Without standards and without supervision, such stressful situations are a disaster waiting to happen.

Nor is it just an Iraq problem: the weekend before Afghan president Hamid Karzai's visit this past May to the United States, where he was to sign a Strategic Partnership agreement with President Bush, the New York Times ran a front page article detailing the grisly deaths of two Afghan civilians at the hands of U.S. soldiers at Bagram Air Base. The story--based on the Army's own 2,000-page confidential criminal investigation--details repeated incidents of abuse by soldiers at Bagram, clouding what should have been a moment of triumph in U.S.-Afghan relations.

Reviewing even the most cursory history of these incidents, it's apparent that confusion and lack of training--more than premeditated malice or moral failing--have been the determining factors in the misconduct of American soldiers. "They asked many, many times," says one former Bagram interrogator. "The lack of guidance was a source of frustration for them. My own feeling is that it was never given because nobody wanted to put themselves on the line."

NOT SO, says the Pentagon, which in its prosecution of the soldiers, argues that they should have been aware of the methods codified in the Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation (FM 34-52) and used these standards to guide their treatment of detainees.

This line of reasoning, however, is more than a little ironic, given that the Pentagon is itself currently in the midst of a drag-out fight on Capitol Hill to stop Congress from enshrining the same Army Field Manual as the uniform standard for its interrogations. The relevant legislation--proposed by Senator John McCain and supported by a who's who of retired military and intelligence officers--would go a long way toward ending the climate of confusion and uncertainty that has contributed to abuses at Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere.

In opposing the legislation, the Pentagon argues that it is not Congress's place to be arbiter of the rules for treatment of detainees, insisting that it alone should wield that power. It also warns, as spokesman Lawrence DiRita put it in a recent op-ed in USA Today, that by establishing a clear standard for interrogations, the amendment would "hamper the country's ability to readily adapt and update interrogation methods from Al Qaeda detainees who we know are trained to resist known interrogation techniques."

NEITHER OF THESE ARGUMENTS ARE PERSUASIVE. First, as supporters of the bill have pointed out, the amendment would do nothing to stop the Defense Department from revising and updating the field manual however and whenever it sees fit. In fact, this is precisely what the Pentagon is already in the midst of doing, adding a new classified annex. Contrary to the E-Ring's dire predictions, the notion that congressional oversight will somehow help terrorists study up and adapt to new interrogation techniques is just wrong.

Second, and more broadly, the well-documented pattern of abuses from Afghanistan to Iraq reveals the intellectual bankruptcy of the Pentagon's prized "ambiguity." Despite the unique challenges posed by the war on terror, the Congress--and Republican conservatives, in particular--should be skeptical when the executive branch says, in effect, "Just trust us." Although it's understandable that the Defense Department would like to act with the maximum freedom of action, it has created a Balkanized set of standards in which different rules apply in different places, which plainly does not work. If ever there were an appropriate object for congressional oversight, this is it.

The consequences of the failure to set a clear standard for the treatment of detainees are plain to see. Again, set aside the obvious impact of Abu Ghraib and consider the less-publicized deaths at Bagram, which created a dangerous irritant in U.S.-Afghan relations. President Karzai, for instance, spent his trip to the United States on the defensive, forced to justify why he was calling for a long-term strategic partnership with Washington--including long-term access by the U.S. military to Afghan bases--in light of the murder of Afghan citizens by American soldiers. We're not only making it easier for our enemies to hate us, but harder for our friends to love us.

Further, the issue of detainee abuse has been a critical factor in the erosion of American support for these distant and frustrating wars here at home. There is broad consensus that the political status quo in the greater Middle East poses huge dangers, but there is equal uncertainty about our ability to achieve long-term reform in the region. Nothing undercuts our moral position here at home more than the issue of abuse.

Lastly, confusion on detainee treatment is also bad for America's soldiers, who deserve clear guidance from their commanders. As a collective letter by several dozen retired general officers noted, the net effect of the current Pentagon policy is that service members have been given conflicting instructions, then "left to take the blame when things went wrong."

Given its management of this issue to date, the Defense Department's sniping at the McCain amendment is off the mark. The proposed legislation is not congressional micro-management, but an entirely proper demand that the Pentagon itself set a clear policy--as it should have done long ago.

Tom Donnelly and Vance Serchuk are resident fellow and research fellow, respectively, at the American Enterprise Institute.

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