The logjam of denials about the torture and abuse of prisoners in U.S. detention sites in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo has finally been broken. Capt. Ian Fishback’s letter in September to Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, has cleared the way for steps that may at last establish strict guidelines for the humane treatment of prisoners detained by American military forces on foreign soil. In his letter, Captain Fishback, a veteran of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, describes in detail the frustration he experienced over 17 months as he tried to determine what specific standards governed the treatment of detainees by consulting my chain of command. His superiors not only offered little positive guidance; they all but stonewalled him as he tried to get clear, consistent answers from my leadership. Indeed, at one point he was told by his commanding officer that he was being naïve and risking harm to his career. For a time he was even denied permission to visit with staff members of Senator McCain. Not surprisingly, the deliberate lack of clarification, he told the senator, leaves me deeply troubled.
Given the abuses of prisoners that have already come to light over the past few years, the reaction of his superiors should leave not just Captain Fishback, but all of us deeply troubled, because it shows that in the name of combating the war on terror, human rights implicit in the Geneva Conventions on torture have continued to be trampled upon. Just how much of this there has been is revealed not only by the captain’s letter, but also by extensive interviews with him by Human Rights Watch.
The organization also interviewed two sergeants who were stationed with Captain Fishback at Camp Mercury, near Fallujah in Iraq, when numerous abuses were taking place from 2002 to March 2004. All three men are members of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, 1st Battalion, and had served in Afghanistan prior to Iraq. The H.R.W. report, available on its Web site, quotes extensively from the interviews. All three, it notes, expressed confusion on the proper application of the Geneva Conventions on the laws of armed conflict in the treatment of prisoners.
The two sergeants described in graphic detail the kinds of abuses that took place. It was like a game, one said, a bizarre form of stress-relief. We would give them blows to the head, chest, legs and stomach, pull them down, kick dirt on them. This happened, he added, every day, along with what was termed smoking prisoners, forcing them to hold five-gallon water cans with outstretched arms and then making them do pushups until they get muscle fatigue and pass out. Sleep deprivation for days at a time before interrogations was also common, a really big thing. Even more brutal was an incident in which an army cook broke the legs of a prisoner with a baseball bat.
Captain Fishback’s letter produced results. Senator McCain has proposed an amendment to the huge defense appropriations bill needed to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The amendment would forbid the cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners held by the U.S. military. The amendment is supported by Senator John Warner (Republican of Virginia), who is the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican of South Carolina). Both are backers of the war in Iraq. Early in October, the Senate approved the amendment by a vote of 90 to 9. In addition, over two dozen senior retired military officers have endorsed it, along with two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of StaffColin Powell and John Shalikashvili.
Despite this overwhelming show of support for the amendment, President Bush pressed Republican House members to soften or even kill it, and went so far as to threaten a veto. Vice President Dick Cheney suggested changing the amendment so it would not apply to the C.I.A. in its interrogation of prisoners. But this would be tantamount to condoning the torture that has been taking place. In documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through a Freedom of Information lawsuit, F.B.I. agents visiting Guantánamo have themselves referred to torture techniques there. You won’t believe it! one agent said about what he had seen.
A veto of the McCain amendment would seriously tarnish any aspirations Mr. Bush might have to be viewed as a defender of human rights. Instead of a veto, a 9/11-type commission should be appointed to investigate detainee abuse by military and civilian personnel abroad. And most of all, Congress should enact the legislation proposed by Senator McCain that would prohibit coercive methods of interrogation not authorized by the U.S. Field Manual on Intelligence and Interrogation. The manual’s guidelines are consistent with the conventions against torture. We cannot win the war on terror by becoming terrorists ourselves.