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Intelligence Agencies Come Under Fire for Alleged Rights Violations


It was one year ago when pictures surfaced from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq depicting U.S. soldiers humiliating and mistreating prisoners. Since then, fresh allegations have surfaced about the treatment of prisoners who are subject to intelligence interrogation.

At a recent conference at American University in Washington, Elisa Massimino, Washington director of the group Human Rights First, said that one year after the pictures from Abu Ghraib surfaced, the scope of prisoner mistreatment by U.S. military and intelligence officers is still murky.

"We have a torture problem here, right now," she said. "It started before Abu Ghraib, it goes beyond Abu Ghraib, and it continues today. The complete contours of the problem are not clear right now. But the photos from Abu Ghraib and the number of deaths in custody and the testimony of some former detainees provide us a window into that problem."

In the U.S.-proclaimed war on terror, information is the most prized commodity. But some of the methods interrogators have allegedly used - or sanctioned - to get information from detainees are controversial. They include sexual and religious humiliation, sleep deprivation, and other forms of physical and mental stress that some critics claim amount to torture. Some prisoners have died in custody.

U.S. officials, led by President Bush, have emphatically denied that senior officers, military or civilian, have ordered or condoned methods of torture.

"We do not condone torture," said President Bush. "I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture."

The Army's own field manual on interrogation, FM 34-52, states that the government neither authorizes nor condones what it terms the use of force, mental torture, threats, insults, or exposure to unpleasant and inhumane treatment of any kind. And, on more pragmatic grounds, is says such methods are poor interrogation technique because they yield unreliable results.

Nevertheless, memos have surfaced from various officials, including Alberto Gonzales, now the attorney general - the nation's top legal officer - indicating that there were pressures to relax constraints in the pursuit of terrorists.

The Central Intelligence Agency has also come under fire for its use of rendition, a process whereby a suspect is captured in one country and flown to another country to be interrogated by that country's intelligence service. Critics say the practice amounts to torture because many intelligence agencies in the Arab world are not so squeamish about utilizing harsh methods.

Former CIA officer Michael Scheuer, who headed the original rendition program to search for Osama bin Laden and his allies, says the program has had its successes, but because of its controversial nature, none of the policymakers who ordered the program will take public responsibility for it.

"The reason that we're being criticized for it is two things," he said. "First, the policymakers couldn't find a way to bring these people to the United States. And second, none of them who fully authorized and, indeed, were delighted with the results of the program have bellied up to the bar [admitted] and said, yes, this was authorized, this was approved, and this was legal as far as we're concerned."

Robert Goldman, an American University professor and consultant to the United Nations on international law and human rights, says there is no conflict between human rights law and laws governing armed conflict. He says that societies are ill-served through the use of methods such as torture and rendition.

"When the state in the name of security descends to the level of the non-state actor who employs terror itself, I frankly have not seen an outcome which is very satisfactory for the society, or that has made the society, at the end of the day, safer," he said.

Pentagon investigations have cleared top military officers of any wrongdoing over interrogations. An internal CIA investigation is reported to be under way. Senator John Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, has called for a congressional probe into intelligence interrogation methods. But the call was rebuffed by the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas, who said his committee is carrying out what he called "aggressive oversight" of the intelligence community. He said another investigation would be "impractical," as he put it, and would hurt morale at the CIA.

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