Global Policy Forum

Prison Abuse Panel Doesn't Go Far Enough:

Human Rights Watch
August 24, 2004

A report by a panel reviewing Pentagon detention operations criticizes top officials, but fails to address government policy that may have led to the mistreatment and torture of detainees, Human Rights Watch said today.

The four-member panel, named by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, was headed by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger. It faulted Rumsfeld, as well as top military officials, for "errors of omission" in failing to adapt detention operations to changing conditions, and singled out Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq, for establishing a "confused command relationship" that contributed to the abuses.

"The report talks about management failures when it should be talking about policy failures," said Reed Brody, Special Counsel with Human Rights Watch. "The report seems to go out of its way not to find any relationship between Secretary Rumsfeld's approval of interrogation techniques designed to inflict pain and humiliation and the widespread mistreatment and torture of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo."

The report focuses on the actions of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade and the 800th Military Police Brigade, which operated in Abu Ghraib. It fails, however, to examine in detail other detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though most deaths of detainees in U.S. custody and many reported abuses occurred outside Abu Ghraib.

The report acknowledges that "augmented" interrogations techniques for Guantanamo Bay, which included the use of dogs, stripping detainees naked, and subjecting them to painful stress positions, "migrated to Afghanistan and Iraq where they were neither limited nor safeguarded" and accepts that these techniques went beyond what was permitted by the Army's traditional interrogation guidelines. It also confirms that following a visit to Iraq by General Geoffrey Miller, General Sanchez approved such techniques, including specifically the use of dogs, to aid interrogations. Yet the panel does not state that any of these techniques were inherently abusive or unlawful and does not hold the officials and general officers who approved them responsible for abuses.

The report discusses America's legal obligations to treat detainees humanely under the Geneva Conventions and the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment. But it does not analyze whether any interrogation techniques approved by the Pentagon violated these legal obligations. The panel apparently was unaware of an additional Pentagon policy, outlined in a letter from its General Counsel William Haynes to Senator Patrick Leahy on June 25, 2003, not to engage in any cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment that would be prohibited by the U.S. Constitution - a policy it applied to all detainees, whether they were considered lawful or "unlawful" combatants.

The report is heavily critical of the police and intelligence brigade commanders at Abu Ghraib prison, including Brigadier General Janis Karpinski for whom it recommends a reprimand, but states that it found "no evidence that organizations above [those brigades] were directly involved in the incidents at Abu Ghraib."

"But it was not Janis Karpinski who cast aside the Geneva Conventions," said Brody. "She was not the one who told the president he could commit torture or who approved illegal coercive interrogation tactics such as the use of guard dogs, stress positions and forced nudity."

Human Rights Watch also noted that the Schlesinger panel did not have the scope to get to the bottom of the widespread abuses committed at U.S. detention facilities. The report acknowledges that the "CIA's detention and interrogation practices contributed to a loss of accountability at Abu Ghraib," but fails to examine the issue further because investigating the CIA was not within its mandate. The report raises the issue of "unregistered detainees" held by the CIA, but states that the panel "did not have sufficient access to CIA information to make any determinations." It mentions, but fails to examine, the role of legal memos drafted at the Justice and Defense Departments justifying the use of torture. The panel based its findings almost entirely on information provided by internal Pentagon investigations. It did not conduct or take into account independent investigations of abuse which might differ from the findings of the military.

Human Rights Watch said that only an independent 9/11-style commission would be able to shed full light on U.S. treatment of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. Such a commission would hold hearings, have full subpoena power, and be empowered to recommend the creation of a special prosecutor to investigate possible criminal offenses. The commission would examine, among other things, the link between the administration policy discussions and memos and actual practices in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.

"What is needed is real accountability for these crimes," said Brody.

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