House Committee Kills Torture Inquiries

By Brendan Coyne in The New Standard

Feb. 10 ‘ A key House of Representatives committee Wednesday put a quick stop to three resolutions to investigate the US government’s tactical use and support of torture in the “war on terror.” In a party line vote, the International Relations Committee turned back three proposals to demand information on extraordinary renditions and abusive treatment of detainees from the Executive Branch.

The resolutions called for the Bush administration to release unspecified documents pertaining to the use of extraordinary rendition, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s December trip to Europe, and current US policy relating international law.

In a group statement issued to members of the International Relations Committee last week, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, the US arm of Amnesty International, and Human Rights First urged committee members to adopt all three resolutions under consideration. The letter called into question the military’s use of proxy countries – especially those known for human rights violations -for interrogating suspects.

“There is still a strong perception in many parts of the world that the United States continues to facilitate or willfully ignore torture by rendering individuals to countries where they are likely to be tortured, and by holding detainees in secret locations closed to the International Committee of the Red Cross,” the groups wrote. “This perception harms America’s reputation and its ability to advance its interests abroad.”

Opening the hearing, Committee Chair Henry Hyde (R-Illinois) accused Democrats on the panel of playing politics. He also cited the Bush administration’s repeated insistence that the US does not condone torture as evidence that the resolutions were unnecessary.

In addition, Hyde said that past Department of Defense investigations into the issues raised by the three resolutions prove that it is committed to upholding “American values,” stating: “Given DoD’s dedication and vigilant oversight, it is not only unnecessary, but irresponsible, to demand reams of documents from the Executive Branch.”

But human rights groups – pointing to media reports and documents they themselves have obtained – say government branches cannot be trusted to investigate themselves and have called for external, more independent inquiries.

The twin issues of torture and extraordinary rendition have been widely discussed in the media, among humanitarian organizations and in Congress, most recently following last year’s revelation in the Washington Post that the Central Intelligence Agency operates a network of secret prisons around the world. The administration has not denied the existence of the so-called “black sites,” and rather than initiate an investigation into substance of the allegations, the CIA has called for an inquiry into the leak that led to the Post article.

Last year, both chambers of Congress passed and the president signed into law prohibitions against abusive interrogations. The law requires all interrogations to comport with military code, though that code – presented in the Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation – is currently under revision.

The administration had repeatedly threatened to veto the military spending bill due to the amendment, forcing supporters of the so-called “torture ban” to accept another amendment further restricting the rights of detainees and creating loopholes for some government agents.

In signing the measure at the end of last year, Bush issued a statement reserving the right to interpret the law “in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the president to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief.” This addendum has led to questions over how closely the administration would hew into to the spirit and letter of the torture ban.

Last month, Human Rights First and 22 retired military leaders joined in issuing a demand that the administration clarify the intent of the “signing statement” and calling for “clear and unambiguous implementation” of the ban.