WASHINGTON – As the political battle over how to interrogate terror suspects grows, a Washington-based advocacy group of former military members used the Veterans Day holiday to call on the Bush administration to further probe reports of detainee abuses during the War on Terror.
"We're not talking about frat party hijinks here. We're talking about torture, and in some cases, we're talking about murder," Veterans For Common Sense Executive Director Charles Sheehan-Miles said during a press conference Friday.
"These aren't acts that are being carried out by Saddam Hussein's regime. These aren't acts that are being carried out by Cuba or the KGB. ... These are acts that are being carried out in the name of the United States of America. ... Torture puts our own troops at risk," said Sheehan-Miles, who is also a Gulf War veteran.
Sheehan-Miles said his group — which has publicly opposed some American tactics used in the War on Terror, including President Bush's policy of preemptive action — is seeking an independent panel, similar to the Sept. 11 commission probing intelligence failures surrounding the 2001 attacks, that would investigate abuses by U.S. forces in interrogating detainees and clear the name of United States.
Bush has consistently said the use of torture or cruel and inhumane treatment goes against U.S. policy.
"We are gathering information about where the terrorists may be hiding. We are trying to disrupt their plots and plans. Anything we do to that effort, to that end, in this effort, any activity we conduct is within the law," Bush said earlier this week. "We do not torture."
The veterans who spoke Friday decried a lack of U.S. actions after abuses have been uncovered at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, as well as reports of others in Afghanistan.
Some of the former military officers and enlisted members said they personally had witnessed an increase in violence due directly to the reports of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, where military police photographed their abuse of prisoners and sexual humiliation.
The veterans said that after many missteps, and as word began to filter through Iraq about Abu Ghraib, intelligence sources quickly began drying up as violence spiked.
Dave DeBatto, a former Army intelligence officer, said he participated in thousands of interrogations that did not use torture, and they were still productive.
"We never tortured anybody. We never laid hands on anybody. In fact, that's the cardinal rule in interrogation," DeBatto said.
From March through June 2003, DeBatto said, "We got a lot of intelligence," including one of the 55 "playing cards" — a listing of the most-wanted Iraqis — as well as weapons caches and secret police hideouts.
But in mid-June, he said intelligence-gathering activities changed, and the Iraqi people changed, too.
"People didn't want to do it. I mean they were already afraid of being marked as a traitor and being assassinated by talking to us. Now they had to be afraid of us," DeBatto said.
Frank Ford, who said he was a counterintelligence officer in Iraq, said he saw a sharp decrease in the ability to gather intelligence after a U.S. airstrike hit a wedding in 2004. Before the bombing, he said his group was receiving more than 100 walk-in sources a day. Afterward, it soon trickled to zero and attacks against his group escalated.
Garrett Repenhagen, who was a sniper in Operation Iraqi Freedom, said when U.S. forces first marched on Baghdad, there was a willingness by Iraqis to surrender, but he watched that erode and blamed it on mistreatment by American forces.
Repenhagen said his group fired on an Iraqi force that soon dwindled to one Iraqi fighter, who refused to give up and continued firing. The U.S. forces had to kill that fighter.
"They would rather die than end up in Abu Ghraib," Repenhagen said. "It strikes fear into the Iraqi people."
Veterans for Common Sense also supports a new proposal that would ban cruel or inhumane treatment of detainees.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has reinvigorated the battle against tough interrogation tactics used in military investigations with an amendment that would ban cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment of any prisoner in U.S. custody, including military prisoners, enemy combatants and those under control of the CIA. McCain was tortured while a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
McCain's bill also would require all Defense Department officials to follow the Army Field Manual. McCain says the amendment is necessary to protect the country's image as well as soldiers fighting overseas.
The Bush administration opposes McCain's amendment because it believes the language will hamper interrogators' abilities to glean potentially important national security information from terror suspects. Bush has threatened a veto over the bill.
The Pentagon also released a directive on interrogation this week banning torture and the use of dogs to intimidate witnesses. Defense Department officials said the directive is a restatement of standing policies.
McCain's bill has gained traction, first being added to the defense appropriations bill in October by a 90-9 vote, and then to the defense authorization bill this month.
"What we're doing now is killing us, literally, and our image around the world," McCain told FOX News in an interview this week. "The American — the people of this world think that we sanction torture. We can't do it. It ought to be against the law."
When asked if the president should have an exemption in the measure that allows the use coercive techniques when it's of the utmost importance to America's national security, McCain argued that that would lead to misuse of the provision.
"The fact is that if we carve out an exemption, we knows what happens to exemptions throughout history. That exemption will be used with abandon," the senator said, adding that Congress will override any White House attempt to include such a carve-out. "Torture does not work, and that's another aspect of this. It doesn't work."
Vice President Dick Cheney is leading the administration's opposition to the bill because they say it could inadvertently prevent the military from gaining information in the most dire of circumstances.
"I think that Dick Cheney is a loyal, patriotic American. He's been a friend of mine for 25 years. And I think he has the best interests of America at heart. We just have a disagreement here," McCain said.
This week, Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, voiced support for the administration's stance, The Associated Press reported.
Hatch said the administration is only trying to do "everything in their power to make sure that our citizens in the United States of America are protected."
Roberts, who voted against the ban, said he does not favor torture, but there is value to fear of the unknown, and writing down specific measures on what techniques interrogators are allowed to use could tell detainees too much about what to expect.
"As long as you're following the Constitution and there's no torture and no inhumane treatment, I see nothing wrong with saying here is the worst of the worst. We know they have specific information to save American lives in terrorist attacks around the world. That's what we're talking about," Roberts said.