Congress drops ball on torture charges
By ROBYN E. BLUMNER
Published March 20, 2005
According to Congress, investigating whether Mark McGwire was pumped up with steroids when he made baseball home run history is a question of vital public concern. But what the CIA and our military are doing to prisoners during overseas interrogations, well, that doesn't merit the same interest. After all, what's at stake isn't our national pastime, it's only our national soul.
As human rights groups continue to compile evidence that prisoners held under U.S. control have been brutalized, and as new reports emerge that at least 26 prisoners have died at the hands of our military or intelligence services, Congress twiddles its thumbs.
Here, for example, is a look at how two Afghan prisoners were treated in American custody at the Bagram Control Point, about 40 miles from Kabul, as detailed in internal Army reports obtained by Human Rights Watch. Both men had been chained to the ceiling and beaten to death by American soldiers in December 2002.
One prisoner was beaten and killed over five days by "destroying his leg muscle tissue with repeated unlawful knee strikes." The other had also been beaten by "multiple soldiers" and suffered "blunt force trauma to the legs." Apparently this was a favored approach because bruises on legs are less visible.
According to a New York Times story reporting these findings, American military officials initially pronounced that the two prisoners had died of natural causes.
Eventually Army investigators found reason to implicate 28 soldiers and reservists in the deaths, but so far only two have been charged.
This account is just one of hundreds coming from detainees held in American prison camps in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, not to mention the victims of rendition who say they were held and tortured by foreign governments at our behest. There is more than enough smoke.
But beyond a few cursory passes by the Senate Armed Services Committee and a little heat generated at Alberto Gonzales' confirmation hearings, there has been decided congressional disinterest. Ignore, distract and stonewall is the way Republican leaders have responded to calls for probes into how policy changes at the top levels of government had an impact in the field. Either they support the administration's smash-'em-in-the-mouth-if-they-won't-talk approach to eliciting information, or they don't want to challenge the extralegal methods employed by an administration of their own party. It's a disgrace, either way.
Not that the Democrats have been vocal enough. They've made far more noise over Social Security than protecting this republic's moral authority. But at least some are trying. For years - even before the revelations at Abu Ghraib - Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has been working to call the administration to account for the mistreatment of prisoners, demanding hearings and independent investigations.
And my hat's off to Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., for leading efforts to press the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to open an investigation into the CIA's interrogation practices and rendition activities. On Thursday, Porter Goss, director of central intelligence, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, certainly seemed to suggest that brutal practices have been used by the CIA when he categorized "waterboarding" - where a prisoner is strapped to a board and made to believe he will drown - as a "professional interrogation technique" as opposed to what the rest of us would call it: torture.
But Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has CIA oversight responsibilities, refuses to consider an investigation. In a recent speech, he declared flatly that the CIA is "not torturing detainees," and blamed documented abuses on "a small group of individuals" acting outside the rules.
Isn't this always how it is? First deny that any abuse took place, then, when the evidence is overwhelming and incontrovertible, blame it on a handful of rogue individuals on the bottom rungs of the hierarchy.
Roberts says Congress doesn't have to look into this issue since the CIA is doing its own internal probe. And we know how thorough government agencies are at honestly evaluating their own misconduct - almost as exhaustive as lawyers and doctors are at policing theirs.
The varnished results of the recent Pentagon report by Navy Vice Adm. Albert Church III looking into prisoner abuse are a case in point. Church cited only six abuse-related deaths of prisoners, failing to include numerous cases where Army and Navy investigators made findings that criminal homicide had occurred. And, following the well-trod script, he refused to point any fingers above the lowest ranks.
How convenient it is to have forgotten that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and top military commanders had, at various times, approved the use of hoods, stress positions, sleep deprivation, temperature extremes and intimidation by dogs. How handy it is not to bother with the impact of legal opinions from the Justice Department essentially giving the green light to torture.
There is something deeply amoral in our national priority list when Congress cares more about the rules of baseball than those of humanity. When the full story is told on Americans' complicity in torture, future generations will wonder, where was the outrage and where were our leaders?
[Last modified March 20, 2005, 01:08:30]
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