Prisoners’ deaths add new furor

USA TODAY
May 5, 2004, Wednesday, FINAL EDITION
BYLINE: John Diamond and Tom Squitieri
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 1A
LENGTH: 637 words
DATELINE: WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON — The Army is investigating the deaths of 10 prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan and has declared two others homicides as part of a growing probe of abuse by military prison guards. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday he is expanding investigations of prisoner abuse to include alleged incidents at bases in Cuba and the USA.

Amid a mushrooming scandal that threatens to undercut U.S. credibility in the Arab world, Rumsfeld himself faced scrutiny from senators Tuesday. They accused him of concealing the full scope of an investigation that began with leaked photos of U.S. military guards humiliating naked Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.

President Bush, meanwhile, will conduct 10-minute interviews today with the U.S.-sponsored Al-Hurra Arabic television network and the Arab network Al-Arabiya.

“This is an opportunity for the president to speak directly to the people in Arab nations and let them know that the images that we all have seen are shameless and unacceptable,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday night.

Rumsfeld expanded the inquiries in the past week to include alleged abuse at detention centers for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the Navy prison at Charleston, S.C. Maj. Gen. Don Ryder said the Army is investigating 10 suspicious deaths of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan and has already ruled that two others were homicides.

“There certainly are allegations of abuse in various other locations” beyond Iraq, Rumsfeld said. He called the photos taken last fall of naked Iraqi prisoners being forced to stand or kneel in humiliating poses before smiling American guards “troubling . . . disturbing . . . (and) clearly unhelpful.” An Army report on the incident cited “blatant and wanton criminal abuses.”

A total of 25 prison deaths have been investigated. An Army soldier was convicted of one homicide and a CIA contract employee accused of another. In addition to the 10 cases still under review, 12 prisoners died of natural or undetermined causes and one while trying to escape, Army officials said. Ten other cases of prisoner abuse also are being probed.

In response to the denunciations, the U.S. military command in Baghdad said Iraqi prisoners will no longer have bags placed over their heads. Instead, they will be blindfolded or made to wear goggles sealed with duct tape. The population at Abu Ghraib will be cut in half, to fewer than 2,000, to relieve overcrowding and free those held without cause.

The Pentagon has charged six soldiers with criminal conduct in connection with the Abu Ghraib episode; seven others were severely reprimanded. One goal of the inquiry is to determine whether guards were ordered to “soften up” their prisoners for interrogation.

Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee lambasted Rumsfeld for not telling them about the probe earlier. In some of the harshest criticism leveled at the Pentagon chief to date, they demanded that Rumsfeld come to Capitol Hill to explain the situation.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the committee chairman, called the alleged abuses “as serious a problem of breakdown in discipline as I’ve ever observed.” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former Vietnam POW, called Rumsfeld’s failure to inform Congress “egregious.” Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said, “There’s got to be some heads that fall.”

Rumsfeld said the slow pace of reporting the allegations up the chain of command was “perfectly proper.” Asked why he did not demand to see photographs of the alleged abuses that his top general was trying to keep from being broadcast by CBS, Rumsfeld said, “I think I inquired about the pictures and was told we didn’t have copies.”