HOW HE SEES IT Independent counsel should probe torture

The White House's call on Newsweek to help "repair the damage" to America's reputation in the Muslim world rings hollow in light of the administration's unwillingness to deal with the torture and abuse scandal that has rocked the American military in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo.
Indeed, if the Bush White House were earnest in wanting to "repair the damage" it would appoint a special, independent counsel to look into the many cases of alleged torture and abuse of detainees at the hands of U.S. military and security personnel. After all, we had independent counsels such as Kenneth Starr spend taxpayer resources on scandals of much smaller significance.
To be clear, there is no question that Newsweek's reporting on the defiled Koran in Guantanamo had real-life implications. But whatever the outcome of the particular Newsweek story, there is plenty of evidence that U.S. soldiers used desecration of the Islamic religion as an interrogation tool.
In their purported outrage, Karl Rove and Scott McClellan ought not cover up that the true seed of Muslim concern about America stems from the torture and abuse of detainees and the arrogant manner in which we have prosecuted the war on terror in a fashion that has largely scapegoated Muslims and Arabs. That is the true genesis of the backlash we are now witnessing against America.
Torture, abuse
The story about the defiled Koran seemed perfectly plausible to a Muslim world that has seen America take prisoners without charge or access to lawyers, only to be subjected to torture and abuse in some instances. In fact, allegations of Koran defilement have also appeared in other media outlets, such as the Washington Post on March 26, 2003, story. These reports are corroborated by the experiences of two of the ACLU's clients in a pending lawsuit against the secretary of defense. Our clients personally witnessed U.S. soldiers stepping on the Koran and ordering a guard dog to pick up the Koran.
The source documenting the torture and abuse of detainees is none other than the U.S. government itself. In more than 30,000 pages obtained by the ACLU in litigation with the U.S. government, allegation after allegation of the torture and abuse becomes painfully clear. A father is forced to watch the mock execution of his 14-year-old son. Lit cigarettes are placed in the ears of detainees. Devout Muslim men are smeared with the mock menstrual blood of their female interrogators in an effort to make them religiously unclean. Dogs, nudity and sexual harassment were routinely used by soldiers to make prisoners religiously unclean. Tens of cases of suspicious deaths -- even homicides -- were not followed up or adequately investigated.
The various investigations of the torture and abuse scandals -- from the Schlesinger report, the Church Commission, and the Army inspector general -- have been woefully inadequate. All of them lacked the independence to follow the allegations of the wrongdoing where they would lead them -- even if right to the very top of the Bush administration.
The inability to look up the chain of command is also evident in the recent prosecutions. The administration has tried to pin the blame on low-level soldiers, while officers like Janis Karpinski and Ricardo Sanchez received the equivalents of slaps on the wrist.
Anemic answers
Through all this, the public and Congress have received anemic answers to questions about Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's roles in creating the legal framework and the permissive climate that led to the torture and abuse.
That is why the ACLU, along with Human Rights First and retired military officers, has filed suit against Rumsfeld and high-ranking officers to hold them accountable for the policies they adopted and their undisputed failures to take aggressive and effective action against abuse when it first came to light rather than authorizing, encouraging or tolerating it.
But an independent counsel is also necessary. Otherwise, revelation after revelation of the torture scandal (including the future release of additional photos and videos, as well as documents from the CIA) will only continue the slow bleeding of America's standing in the Muslim world.
So, Mr. McClellan, let's indeed "repair the damage" to America's standing. Take the bull by the horns and own up to the Bush administration's own complicity in the loss of our moral authority: appoint an independent counsel and prosecute those who have tortured in our name, no matter how high-ranking they may be.
X Anthony D. Romero is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services

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