Brass Tacks | The Nation


Brass Tacks

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The flaws in the investigations on the ground and in the sweeping reports about the military branches reflect a larger problem: namely, the Bush Administration has done a poor job of sorting out what has happened to detainees at Abu Ghraib and in other US-run detention facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo--despite its public statements to the contrary.

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Tara McKelvey
Tara McKelvey, a 2011 Guggenheim fellow, is the author of Monstering: Inside America’s Policy of Secret...

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Part of the problem, at least with the on-the-ground investigations, may lie within the Army Criminal Investigation Command. The military command was founded in 1918 as the Criminal Investigation Division and is still known by its original acronym, CID. Its motto, as presented on its website, is, DO WHAT HAS TO BE DONE. Some observers are skeptical about the billing.

"When the Army CID set out to really investigate, they can," says John Sifton, a Human Rights Watch researcher in New York. "They have the tools to look at forensic evidence and so on. But what we see are inconsistencies. Sometimes they push hard. Sometimes they don't."

The more rigorous investigations into detainee abuse, he says, tend to happen after human rights activists and journalists have released details of the abuse to the public. As Sifton explains, nobody seemed to care when Capt. Ian Fishback of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division started talking about how he'd seen military personnel inflict daily beatings on detainees, smear chemicals on their skin and stack them in human pyramids at Camp Mercury, a forward operating base in Iraq, in 2003 and 2004.

For seventeen months Fishback approached military superiors and tried to talk about the abuse and ask for their help in sorting out international laws that protect detainees--and got nowhere. It wasn't until he spoke with human rights activists and members of Congress that the military snapped to attention.

Even then, CID agents had a troubling reaction.

"What did they investigate first?" asks Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, at a discussion on "America and the Rules of War: What Next After Abu Ghraib?" sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Washington on October 27. "What they wanted from Captain Fishback was the names of the two sergeants who had spoken to us and what his relationship was with us."

Gary Solis, visiting director of West Point's Law of War program, had the same concerns about the investigation into the allegations of Fishback, a West Point graduate who had cited Solis's work (though not by name) in Congressional testimony. Solis was interviewed by two investigators, including a CID agent, after Fishback spoke out publicly. "Perhaps somebody else is looking into Fishback's allegations," says Solis. "But the questions asked of me were ones that looked into his actions."

Ultimately, the Human Rights Watch report, based on Fishback's revelations, led to a military investigation, Congressional hearings and an amendment proposed by Senator John McCain that would clarify rules on interrogations.

A Defense Department spokesman, Lieut. Col. Mark Ballesteros, says all credible allegations of detainee abuse--whether they're from military officers like Fishback or from detainees themselves--are investigated.

"We've conducted more than 500 investigations into detainee abuse since 2002, and approximately 250 of the cases have resulted in some form of punishment, either judicial or non-judicial," Ballesteros says. "We have first-class investigators.... And the CID has one of the highest solve rates in the nation for a federal law-enforcement agency."

Ballesteros says he and his colleagues are proud of the investigations, especially considering the working conditions in Baghdad. "The investigations are done in austere and sometimes dangerous environments," he explains. "Some of the agents have literally been shot at during the course of the investigations."

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