Republicans defeat effort to subpoena Justice documents on torture
by SUMANA CHATTERJEE
WASHINGTON – (KRT) – Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday defeated a Democratic-sponsored effort to subpoena documents on torture and interrogation practices from the Justice Department. [“23 documents, including an Aug. 1, 2002, memo that argued that the president wasn’t bound by U.S. and international prohibitions against torture. Attorney General John Ashcroft refused last week to surrender the memo to the committee.” –BL]
The 10 to 9 vote reflected the mounting partisan rancor over the abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison and whether U.S. officials condoned harsh interrogation practices on prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The vote came a day after the Senate unanimously voted, without debate, to add a provision to a defense spending bill that the United States should abide by anti-torture laws and international treaties. But even that vote reflected the controversy over what practices are acceptable.
The voice vote without debate allowed lawmakers to keep to themselves their views on whether torture is justified and when. In interviews, though, some senators said torture may sometimes be acceptable.
“I think it is unwise for us to try to announce in concrete the absolute limits of the military in wartime,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who taught refresher courses on the Geneva Convention to military police.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he was grappling with what interrogation techniques, including torture, are acceptable in wartime. “We are in a brave new world,” he said.
Thursday’s Judiciary Committee vote was aimed at subpoenaing 23 documents, including an Aug. 1, 2002, memo that argued that the president wasn’t bound by U.S. and international prohibitions against torture. Attorney General John Ashcroft refused last week to surrender the memo to the committee.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who sponsored the request for a subpoena, said he was outraged by Ashcroft’s refusal and concerned that U.S. officials had changed how prisoners are treated and interrogated without open discussion. Leahy’s subpoena request also asked for copies of “any and all orders, directives, instructions, findings or other writings signed by Bush or on his behalf … relating to the treatment or interrogations” of prisoners.
“We need to know what license those lawyers provided and why they went about redefining legal and international obligations in ways that have contributed to exposing Americans around the world to greater dangers,” Leahy said. “The president has said we need to get to the bottom of this scandal. But how can we get to the bottom of it when there is stonewalling at the top?
“Hiding these documents from view is the brazen sign of a cover-up, not of cooperation.”
But committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, countered that White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, to whom the August 2002 memo was addressed, had promised to cooperate. Hatch said Gonzales hasn’t said when the memo, which has been posted on the Internet, would be given to the committee.
He accused the Democrats of partisanship, saying they were trying to “score cheap political points.” He called voting on a subpoena “a dumb-ass thing to do.”
But Hatch and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said they might support subpoenas if Ashcroft continued to withhold the documents.
Democrats have been eager to explore what role senior military and civilian officers’ view of acceptable interrogation practices might have had in the abuses at Abu Ghraib and how widespread incidents of prisoner abuse were in Afghanistan and at the U.S. prison camp for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
On Thursday, the Justice Department announced that a civilian contractor hired by the CIA had been charged with two counts of assault with a dangerous weapon and two counts of assault in the death a prisoner in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon has said that it’s investigating 37 cases in which prisoners died while in custody in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Leahy has long been concerned with U.S. treatment of detainees. Last June, Pentagon General Counsel William J. Haynes III had written Leahy in response to a letter that “it is the policy of the United States to comply with all of its legal obligations prohibiting torture. … The United States does not permit, tolerate or condone any such torture by its employees under any circumstances.”
But three months earlier, Haynes ordered a legal analysis that offered a justification for harsh interrogation techniques and concluded that laws or treaties against torture don’t bind the president. The analysis drew heavily on the August 2002 memo.
The Bush administration also is facing congressional criticism for not providing other documents related to prisoner treatment that lawmakers have requested. The Pentagon hasn’t sent all the paperwork related to the Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba’s investigation into the Abu Ghraib cases.
Also outstanding are reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross that detailed abuses in Iraq dating from May 2003. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the ICRC didn’t want to share the confidential memos. But the ICRC told lawmakers that it’s willing to share the documents with the Pentagon’s approval and in a closed-door setting, said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, however, said he isn’t ready to issue subpoenas. “If you ratchet this up to be even more controversial, I am not sure that is helpful,” he said.