A full accounting

May 06, 2004

AT ONE POINT in his detention, Saif-ur Rahman says he was ordered to remove his clothes, doused with icy water and forced to lie naked before his U.S. captors. Before his interrogation, prisoner Mohammad Naim also says he was forced to undress, photographed naked and then given other clothes. Their alleged treatment, as reported by Human Rights Watch, occurred not in Iraq, but in Afghanistan. They were held at Bagram air base for more than two weeks last year and in 2002, respectively, and eventually freed. Their accounts, among many others, led the human rights group to challenge the U.S. military's treatment of prisoners.

Mr. Rahman and Mr. Naim were just two of the 1,000 prisoners detained by American forces in Afghanistan, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The two groups raised questions about alleged mistreatment of prisoners as far back as December 2002 and continued to do so last year, long before a handful of American military police were accused of humiliating and assaulting Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.

Were those concerns taken seriously by the military? Did the Pentagon suspect it might have a problem on its hands? Or has the quest for intelligence in the war on terrorism taken precedence over U.S. adherence to international codes of conduct? Those questions remain unanswered, but they remain pertinent to a discussion of the administration's response to the incidents at Abu Ghraib.

As the controversy over the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners continued yesterday, President Bush sought to convince television viewers in the Arab world of the United States' abhorrence of the incidents. He pledged a full investigation of prison operations in Iraq and vowed changes if a "systemic problem" exists. That's the very least the administration should do.

If the Bush administration has "nothing to hide," as the president said in his address, then the Pentagon must disclose the outcome of its investigations into the deaths of and assaults upon 20 other detainees as soon as its work is completed. If its findings call for criminal prosecutions, then charges should be filed.

And its review of detention facilities shouldn't begin and end in Iraq. The prison at Guantanamo Bay also should be on the list. When Mr. Rahman was in U.S. custody in Afghanistan, he claims that his American interrogators threatened to ship him to the facility in Cuba. Was that just a wartime scare tactic?

All the president's promises may be too late to restore America's standing. The administration's credibility is pretty low. Let's remember that, as of last weekend, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had not read the Army's investigative report on the abuses at Abu Ghraib, dated Feb. 26.

And, last year, in a June 25 letter, an administration lawyer assured at least one U.S. senator that U.S. policy prohibits the "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment of detainees.

President Bush's personal condemnation of the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners won't put this issue to rest. Regrettably, a full accounting of U.S. detention policies may not either.

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