by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials Nov. 30 insisted that detainees held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba have been treated "humanely," despite a Red Cross report that concluded interrogators were using psychological and physical techniques that were "tantamount to torture."
"We strongly disagree with any characterization that suggests the way detainees are being treated is inconsistent with the policies the president has outlined," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who insisted that the Bush administration takes the Red Cross's concerns seriously.
"We certainly don't think it's torture," Gen Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an audience in Indianapolis a short time later. "Let's not forget the kind of people we have down there," he added. "These are the people that don't know any moral values."
But human rights groups said the latest disclosure, which was featured in a front-page 'New York Times' story Tuesday, should cause renewed alarms over U.S. detention and interrogation practices, bolstering their long-standing calls for a comprehensive independent investigation.
The allegation was made in a confidential report sent to U.S. officials last July by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Noting that the ICRC report covered practices that continued after the disclosure of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in April, Deborah Pearlstein of Human Rights First (HRF) said the information was particularly worrisome.
"It tells us two things," she said, "that the abuse at Abu Ghraib was only a small piece of a much larger, systematic failure to uphold U.S. and international laws against torture, and that even after that abuse was revealed and condemned as unlawful and immoral by leaders of both political parties, the government failed to act on its moral certainty."
According to a memo based on the ICRC report that was obtained by the Times, U.S. detention and interrogation operations at Guantanamo Bay "cannot be considered other than an intentional system of cruel, unusual and degrading treatment and a form of torture."
Among the report's findings, the Red Cross, which is able to carry out the visits in exchange for maintaining confidentiality, described the participation of physicians and other medical staff in providing information about detainees' mental health and their weaknesses to interrogators, as well as the use of "humiliating acts, solitary confinement, temperature extremes, use of forced positions," exposure to loud and continuous noise and beatings.
The report, according to the Times, was received in July and distributed to lawyers at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department, as well as the commander of the detention facility at Guantanamo, Gen Jay Hood. The newspaper said it had recently obtained the memo that quotes the report's major findings at length.
According to the Times, ICRC investigators who visited Guantanamo in June found a system carefully designed to break the will of prisoners held there. They also reported the techniques were "more refined and repressive" than those they had learned about during previous visits.
The ICRC team reportedly found a far greater incidence of mental illness produced by stress, much of it caused by prolonged solitary confinement, and that the fact that medical staff was cooperating fully with interrogators had resulted in a breakdown in trust between inmates and their doctors.
The ICRC report was found by the Times to be consistent with recent interviews it had conducted with military guards and intelligence agents knowledgeable about Guantanamo's operations.
It cited one common practice at Camp Delta, the main prison facility, which was applied to uncooperative detainees. They were forced to strip to their underwear, sit in a chair while shackled hand and foot to the floor, and then subjected to strobe lights and loud rock and rap music while the air-conditioning was turned to maximum levels.
Reed Brody, counsel for Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has also called for an independent probe of U.S. detention and interrogation practices, said the accounts were also consistent with the findings of his group.
The report also corroborated the complaints of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, whose military commission trial was stopped Nov. 8 by a federal court and is now pending before the Supreme Court. He had reported months-long solitary confinement that, according to a psychiatrist, "placed him at significant risk for future psychiatric deterioration" and may significantly impair "his ability to assess his legal situation and assist defense counsel."
In an interview with IPS, Scott Horton, a prominent New York attorney and expert on the Geneva Conventions who has been in frequent contact with career attorneys at the Pentagon, said the practices apparently detailed by the ICRC are consistent with a lengthy report on detention and interrogation policies by a working group appointed by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld in 2003.
That report, which was drafted without the input of senior career military attorneys or the State Department, drew heavily on controversial memoranda prepared by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel and approved by White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, who President George W Bush has just been nominated to be attorney general.
One of those memos concluded that Bush, as commander-in-chief during wartime, was not bound either by the United Nations Convention Against Torture or by a federal anti-torture statute. Another memo found that an interrogation tactic would not provide sufficiently "severe harm" to constitute torture unless it produced pain associated with organ failure or death.
The opinions expressed in the memos have been widely condemned as immoral, unconstitutional and unprofessional by many of the country's most prominent jurists, including the past seven presidents of the American Bar Association, as well as by the 400,000-member group itself.
Horton said most of the career attorneys with whom he has been in contact agreed with the administration that the techniques described in the ICRC report did not constitute "torture," but that they do amount at least to "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment," which is also banned under the Geneva Conventions.
"Remember that the Red Cross is saying this is 'tantamount to torture,' which means it may not meet the strictest definition of the word, but it certainly amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment," he said.
"To say it's torture, we'd have to know more detail about this. But the Red Cross is THE authority on this issue, and if they say it's tantamount to torture, it's going to take a long time to convince me otherwise," added Horton.
"When DoD (the Department of Defense) puts out these blanket denials, they have a serious credibility problem because of those (Justice Department) memos," he added, noting that military lawyers who have complained about the Pentagon's attitude are now increasingly concerned about the future of the U.S.' relationship to the ICRC.
"They think that the relationship of trust that has been built up over many years has been badly damaged," said Horton. "The Pentagon's political leadership, on the other hand, just thinks this is a public relations problem."
HRF pointed out that, despite more than 300 reported instances of torture committed by U.S. personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantanamo, less than two dozen individuals -- all of them low-ranking -- have been charged with a crime.
Moreover, despite a finding by one Pentagon investigation commission last summer that there was "both institutional and personal responsibility at higher levels" for the abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, no institutions or senior commanders have been held responsible.
December 2, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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