ACLU Calls for Independent Investigation of Detainee Mistreatment, Extent of 'Enemy Combatant' Abuse Remains Unknown

June 16, 2004 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Saying that the Bush Administration has demonstrated that it is unwilling and unable to investigate itself, the American Civil Liberties Union today called on President Bush and other top government officials to appoint an independent commission to review the mistreatment of detainees.

“To regain our credibility as a nation, we must review the procedures that allowed the abuse to occur, and prevent it from happening again,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Only an independent investigation – removed from political obligations – can help assure the world that the President’s apology for the Abu Ghraib abuses was a sincere expression of regret for appalling conduct, and not a calculated effort at damage control for appalling images.”

In letters addressed to President George Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft, the ACLU called for the establishment of an independent commission to review current policies, including the Geneva Conventions and their application on detainees, to examine the extent of abuse, mistreatment and torture, and to recommend reforms. The commission would investigate all prisoners – prisoners of war, civilian internees and ‘enemy combatants’ – held by any government agency, military branch or private contractor.

The letters also called for the appointment of a special counsel to determine the extent of criminal wrongdoing, including violations of federal law prohibiting torture and breaches of the Geneva Conventions, in the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere.

The ACLU pointed to memoranda drafted by top Administration officials that provided justification for disregarding the Geneva Conventions and for using extraordinary interrogation practices, adopting what the memoranda acknowledge was a controversial, and highly restrictive, definition of torture and outlining possible defenses from criminal prosecution. The memoranda also take the extraordinary position that the President, as Commander-in-Chief, has the authority to disregard the commands of federal criminal laws prohibiting torture if necessary to obtain information from enemy prisoners.

At a recent Senate Oversight hearing, Attorney General Ashcroft repeatedly refused to provide information on the memoranda, or provide senators with copies, prompting Senator Joe Biden (D-CT) to quip, “You are not allowed, under our Constitution, not to answer our questions, and that ain’t constitutional.” The refusal of the Administration to comply with Congressional requests for information, the ACLU noted, demonstrates the need for an independent review of the abuses scandal.

The ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights and others have also filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, charging that the Department of Defense and other government agencies illegally withheld records concerning the abuse of detainees in American military custody. The initial FOIA request expressed concern – now validated by the Abu Ghraib photographs – that detainees in U.S. custody were being subjected to abuse and even torture.

“Congress has a constitutional mandate to review these policies, and still the Administration stonewalls such efforts,” said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “The public has a right to know why these abuses were allowed to take place and who was ultimately responsible. The failure to appoint a credible, independent investigator will be perceived as part of an attempt to pin the blame for the scandal on a few privates and sergeants, and shield high level Administration officials from responsibility.”

The ACLU’s letter to President Bush is online at:

The ACLU’s letter to Attorney General Ashcroft is online at:

An ACLU feature on the FOIA request is online at:

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