Reform on Detentions; Democrats Will Now Have The Chance to Curtail The Bush Administration's Human Rights Abuses
The Washington Post
November 19, 2006
EARLIER THIS fall congressional Democrats made only a token effort to stop passage of deeply flawed Bush administration legislation on the detention, interrogation and trial of "enemy combatants" in the war on terrorism. First they hid behind a group of Republican moderates who tried to modify the law's worst aspects; when that resulted in a bad compromise, they gave up serious opposition rather than risk being accused of being weak on terrorism in the run-up to an election. Having won that election, the Democrats now have a second chance to temper the administration's excesses and to insist on accountability for past crimes. It ought to be at the top of their agenda.
So far several Democrats in each chamber are taking up the matter. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) has prepared a bill correcting the worst problems in the Military Commissions Act, including its overly broad definition of enemy combatants. Incoming Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) will support a renewed effort to restore the right of detainees to bring lawsuits over their imprisonment; an amendment sponsored by outgoing Republican Chairman Arlen Specter (Pa.) failed in September by just three votes. Proponents of reform will have to take into account the possibility of a veto by President Bush -- or the Senate filibuster they themselves declined to employ. But the restoration of the ancient right of habeas corpus is essential to bringing the United States back into conformance with international norms of human rights. It ought to be something a strong majority in Congress can agree on.
Democratic committee chairmen in the House and Senate can accomplish much more by using their investigative power. For several years Sens. Leahy and Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) have bitterly lamented the refusal of the administration to provide Congress with documents vital to understanding the treatment of detainees. These include a Justice Department memo spelling out what interrogation techniques were judged to be legal by administration lawyers. There should also be guidance about whether harsh techniques such as simulated drowning are considered legal under the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, which prohibited cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment for all prisoners. As incoming chairmen of the Judiciary and Armed Services committees, Sens. Leahy and Levin should have more leverage to obtain these memos; Mr. Leahy has already asked for them. Incoming Intelligence Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) can investigate how the CIA's secret prisons are run, who has been held in them and whether detainees have been improperly treated.
Democratic leaders have been saying they intend to use their new power to "look forward" and not investigate every Bush administration act of malfeasance. Still, future House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recently named three priorities for investigation, including private contracting in Iraq, the handling of Hurricane Katrina and the administration's formulation of energy policy. It's hard to understand why Democrats would insist on examining Vice President Cheney's first-term energy task force but would not seek to determine -- at last -- how senior military commanders and defense officials may have contributed to the prisoner abuse scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. No one but low-ranking soldiers has been criminally prosecuted for the shocking abuse at Abu Ghraib, despite evidence that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and several top generals played a role in sanctioning practices such as sexually humiliating prisoners and threatening them with dogs. Democrats now will have the opportunity -- and the duty -- to insist on accountability