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Adding their voice to a steadily growing clamour, eight retired generals and admirals have called on President George W. Bush to appoint a bipartisan, independent commission to conduct a comprehensive investigation of U.S. detention and interrogation practices in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
In a letter to Bush, the former flag officers, most of whom reached the top ranks of their services' legal divisions, said investigations to date, including those headed by two former Pentagon chiefs that released their findings last month, were too limited in their mandate and could not be considered truly independent.
"If we are to get to the truth of what happened -- and to make sure this treatment is never repeated -- we need a comprehensive investigation and conducted by those whose actions are not at issue," said Rear Admiral John D. Hutson (ret.), who served as the Navy's Judge Advocate General from 1997 to 2000 and now heads the Franklin Pierce Law Center in New Hampshire.
"The investigations to date have failed to address senior military and civilian command responsibility and in doing so separate culpability from responsibility," he said. "This is antithetical to the way the military operates."
Other signers included Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Hoar, formerly head of the U.S. Central Command; Gen. James Cullen, who served as former Chief Judge of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals; Gen. David Brahms, senior legal adviser to the Marine Corps, 1983-88; Maj. Gen. John Fugh, the U.S. Army's former Judge Advocate General; and Vice Adm. Lee Gunn, a former Inspector General of the Navy.
The letter, which was released at a press conference sponsored by Human Rights First (HRF), formerly known as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, marks the latest in a string of calls by outsiders for an independent investigation of the alleged abuses that first came to light in April when news media published photos of the abuse and humiliation of Iraqi detainees held at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.
Since then, successive Pentagon-ordered inquiries, including the courts-martial of seven soldiers who were allegedly involved in those abuses, have uncovered a much broader pattern of abuses and violations of the Geneva Conventions, stretching from the detention facility at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Afghanistan.
In August, 130 prominent jurists, including 12 former federal judges and a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), released a blistering statement against government lawyers -- virtually all political appointees -- who had drafted memos that appeared designed to justify torture and other ill-treatment in the "war on terrorism".
Some analysts believe the memos, which have since been explicitly disavowed by the administration, laid the groundwork for many of the abuses that followed.
"The most senior lawyers in the Department of Justice, the White House, Department of Defense, and the vice president's office sought to justify actions that violate the most basic rights of all human beings," according to the jurists, who also included eight past presidents of the American Bar Association (ABA).
The statement was itself followed up by the approval by the ABA, which represents some 400,000 U.S. attorneys, of a resolution that condemned the government's treatment of detainees which "has brought shame on the nation and undermined our standing in the world".
The resolution also noted that the public had still not been adequately informed about the extent of prisoner abuse despite clear indications of "a widespread pattern of abusive detention methods".
"We do not yet know who is being detained, where they are, what are the conditions of their detention and interrogation," the lawyers charged.
Since approval of the resolution, two other investigations -- one by the Army and a second chaired by former Pentagon chief James Schlesinger -- have concluded that abuses were more widespread than the administration had previously admitted and that top civilian leaders, including Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, bore at least indirect responsibility through what the latter called a "leadership failure."
In fact, analysts who pored through the two documents, particularly the Schlesinger report, found that the administration's memos and its initial determination that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to suspected members of al Qaeda and the Taliban did indeed help set the stage for subsequent abuses in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Those two reports in turn prompted the flag officers' letter, which stressed that none of the some 100 criminal, military and administrative inquiries launched so far, including the Schlesinger panel, were sufficiently broad and independent to paint the kind of comprehensive picture of the abuses and their causes that would be needed to ensure that they do not happen again.
"Investigations that are purely internal to the military, however competent, cannot examine the whole picture," the letter stated, adding that "by their nature (they) also suffer from a critical lack of independence. But that has been exactly the case in many of the abuse inquiries to date, including the investigative (Schlesinger) 'panel' that released its report in late August 2004.
"That panel was comprised of four members of the Secretary's own Defense Policy Board -- members selected by ... Secretary (Rumsfeld) himself," the letter noted, adding that it also lacked subpoena powers.
Democrats in Congress have also called repeatedly for an independent bipartisan investigation on the level of the 9/11 Commission inquiry, but they have been rebuffed by their Republican colleagues, as well as the administration which had also opposed the creation of the 9/11 Commission and subsequently fought efforts to expand its powers to gain classified information and question top officials under oath.
HRF, which, along with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW), has also called for an independent commission, reiterated that position Wednesday in a new report called "Getting to Ground Truth: Investigating U.S. Abuses in the 'War on Terror'".
The 28-page report notes that the various investigations to date have revealed striking contradictions which need to be resolved. The Army's Inspector General, for example, was "unable to identify system failures that resulted in incidents of abuse", while, in the latest Army report, Maj. Gen. George Fay found that "leader responsibility and command responsibility, systemic problems and issues ...contributed to the volatile environment in which the abuse occurred".
Similarly, two Army investigations found that the alleged abuses in Abu Ghraib resulted from the acts of a small number of soldiers and individuals and in some cases failures of a few leaders to enforce discipline.
The Schlesinger panel, on the other hand, reached the opposite conclusions, noting that "the abuses were not just the failure of some individuals to follow known standards, and they are more than the failure of a few leaders to enforce proper discipline. There is both institutional and personal responsibility at higher levels" -- which, however, the panel was not empowered to investigate.
Without resolving these issues, said HRF's Washington director, Elisa Massimino, the relevant agencies will not be able to ensure that the abuses will not recur.
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