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Pentagon Still Won't Hold Top Brass Responsible For Abuses

by Jim Lobe

U.S. Hiding Info On Guantanamo Abuse, ACLU Charges

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Human rights groups and some senators are expressing growing frustration over the Pentagon's failure to hold senior officers or civilian leaders accountable for widespread abuses by U.S. forces against detainees in Washington's "war on terror."

The latest report on abuses, released at a Senate hearing Thursday, drew new calls for Congress or the administration to set up an independent commission. Also, calls were made for the appointment of a special prosecutor to carry out a comprehensive investigation that would include the responsibility, if any, of senior officers and officials.

"There's been no assessment of accountability of any senior officials, either within or outside of the Department of Defense, for policies that may have contributed to abuses of prisoners," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"I can only conclude that the Defense Department is not able to assess accountability at senior levels, particularly when investigators are in the chain of command of the officials whose policies and actions they are investigating," he added.

Levin was joined by criticism from several human rights and civil liberties groups who said the latest investigation, which was headed by Vice Adm. Albert Church, had ignored the question of command responsibility for the abuses, even as it raised new questions about the role of civilian officials, in particular.

"The gaps in the Church Report underscore the need for an independent investigation into our nation's policy on treatment of detainees," said Michael Posner, executive director of Human Rights First (HRF), previously known as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.

Last week HRF joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in filing a lawsuit against Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld for his role in the abuse scandal and particularly in failing to stop the alleged abuses once they came to his attention. The report, Posner added, "reveals an ongoing unwillingness by the civilian leadership of the military to examine the full scope of the problem or assign responsibility for what went wrong in order to prevent further abuse."

For his part, Church, the Navy's Inspector General, defended the report as a "thorough, exhaustive look" at 71 confirmed cases of criminal abuse that took place in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

He concluded that Pentagon policies "did not authorize or condone abusive treatment" of detainees and that there was "no single overarching explanation" for the abuse. He blamed the general pressure on the military to acquire more intelligence, a breakdown in discipline caused in part by the demoralization of U.S. troops in Iraq, and the failure to establish clear interrogation policies as contributing factors.

At the same time, the report states that senior officers failed to react to early reports by the International Red Cross, among others, of abuses. As a result, opportunities to address the problem were missed over a fairly lengthy period of time, according to Church, who stressed to lawmakers that "I was not tasked to assess personal responsibility at senior levels."

Rights groups assailed Church's testimony and his report not only for their failure to address command responsibility, but also for their superficiality -- particularly in light of recent revelations, made possible by the release of thousands of e-mail messages and other documents obtained by the ACLU in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. This concerned the much more widespread and serious abuses, including at Guantanamo -- that had yet to be disclosed by any Pentagon investigation.

"While the Church findings help shed further light on policy failures that led to hundreds of cases of abuse and torture in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond, substantial gaps in the investigations to date remain -- gaps that make it difficult to identify who bears responsibility for the widespread torture and abuse, and make it impossible to ensure that such abuse never happens again," said Posner.

He added that Church never interviewed a single detainee or other key officials connected to detainee interrogations. He also ignored interrogations and detentions carried out by the CIA.

Posner and several senators also expressed incredulity that Church had not interviewed Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) from July, 2003, until late June, 2004, and that, during his testimony Thursday, he admitted that he was not aware that Bremer reported to the Pentagon, rather than the State Department.

Church had also failed to interview officers of the FBI who witnessed and complained about abuses at Guantanamo, in particular. The FBI's complaints were disclosed by the ACLU, which obtained FBI e-mails from its lawsuit. Church said his investigation had concluded before the e-mails came to light in December.

"These are stunning omissions," said Democratic Sen. Jack Reed. "This is not the thorough, complete, no-holds-barred report that many of us expected."

Of particular interest was the disclosure in the report of the existence of a previously undisclosed March 2003 memo, apparently on interrogation policy, by Assistant Attorney General John Yoo in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). Yoo has been identified previously as a key advocate for using aggressive methods against detainees.

According to Church's testimony, the Pentagon's general counsel, William Haynes -- like Yoo, a political appointee -- forbade military lawyers from applying their own analysis of domestic and international laws against torture and insisted that they rely entirely on Yoo's still-classified memo. Haynes is currently awaiting Senate confirmation for an appeals court judgeship.

Rights groups and others have called for the release of all memos bearing on the development of the Bush administration's detention and interrogation policies as part of an independent comprehensive investigation that would have the power to compel current or former officials, like Yoo, to testify about their roles. Those appeals have thus far been rejected.

Even the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. John Warner, showed some frustration over the failure of any investigation to date to examine the responsibility of senior officers and officials.

"There has not been finality as the assessment of accountability," he said Thursday. "More work has to be done by this committee."

"The Church report appears to continue the cover-up of high-level involvement in the abuses and torture that were carried out from Afghanistan to Iraq to Guantanamo," the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which represents more than 500 detainees currently and formerly held at Guantanamo.

The U.S. section of Amnesty International echoed that charge, calling for the Church Report to be "published in full, and the record of senior officials thoroughly examined by an independent commission of inquiry, empowered to investigate all aspects of the U.S. detention and interrogation policies and practices."

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Albion Monitor March 9, 2005 (

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