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U.S.: Bush Challenged By Opposition Democrats On Prison-Abuse Scandal

The U.S. administration is working hard to counter concerns about American soldiers and contract workers abusing or possibly torturing prisoners at U.S.-run detention facilities. This week, for example, it released documents indicating that President George W. Bush personally insisted that prisoners be treated humanely, even if they are not covered by international laws of war. But that is not enough for Bush's opponents in Congress, who hope to create an independent committee to investigate the scandal.

Washington, 24 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Amid growing concern over how U.S. soldiers have treated detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, President George W. Bush has tried to make clear the U.S. does not condone torture.

Bush made that point again this week while talking to reporters on 22 June.

"Let me make very clear the position of my government and our country," Bush said. "We do not condone torture. I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul."

This week, the U.S. Defense Department released hundreds of pages of memos in order to reject criticism the Bush administration allowed the use of highly questionable interrogation techniques on prisoners held in the war on terror. The documents include a directive from Bush arguing that American values demand that detainees be treated humanely.

But this has not satisfied the president's critics among the minority Democrats in the House of Representatives. Yesterday, the party's leader in the chamber, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (Democrat, California), announced an effort to set up a special bipartisan committee to hold public hearings into the abuse and torture scandal.

Pelosi said members of Bush's Republican Party have largely ignored the prisoner-abuse scandal. She said the United States' reputation is becoming tarnished as details of the problem trickle out, indicating that responsibility for the mistreatment may go higher than the soldiers immediately involved.
"We do not condone torture. I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul." -- President Bush

"The issue [of prisoner abuse] grows more urgent each day as new revelations suggest possible authorization and involvement up the chain of command at the Pentagon and at the White House," Pelosi said. "And memos from the Department of Justice, written at the request of the president's counsel and the Department of Defense, articulate a breathtaking sweep of the president's powers without any restraints."

The United States has been on the defensive since photographs emerged this year from Baghdad's Abu Ghurayb prison showing U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees. The images have raised concern the United States is violating international norms on inhumane treatment and that this mistreatment may extend to other U.S.-run detention facilities.

Congressman Henry Waxman (Democrat, California) is sponsoring a resolution in the House that would call for a special panel to investigate the abuses. He said it was not enough for the White House and the Defense and Justice departments to conduct their own investigations because they cannot be expected to be impartial about themselves.

"I think we're looking at a classic case of abuse of power. This administration has been involved [in] and has been knowledgeable about what has happened to prisoners in Abu Ghurayb, Afghanistan, and [the U.S. detention facility at] Guantanamo Bay [in Cuba]," Waxman said. "And we don't want them to just be investigating themselves. Congress needs to do that."

Waxman's effort may not succeed. Republicans, who control the chamber, have been reluctant to investigate the scandal. Some say such a probe would be inappropriate during a time of war -- and during an election year, when Bush faces a strong challenge from Democratic Senator John Kerry.

Despite the difficulties, the Democrats should push hard for the creation of the panel, according to Congresswoman Jane Harman (Democrat, California), who serves as the vice chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence.

Harman said it is important to scrutinize the way lawyers in the Bush administration explored how much pressure U.S. military personnel could bring against captured fighters during interrogations.

"The tortured legal reasoning of these lawyers, senior in the Justice Department and [Department of Defense], is absolutely shocking," Harman said. "It creates an environment in which they are not preparing opinions for the policymakers, they are advocates for a course of actions that, it seems, must have been decided at some senior level of our government. We will find out by whom and where, eventually."