Friday, January 20, 2006

Retired military officers push Bush on torture ban

Retired military officers push Bush on torture ban
By Vicki Allen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A group of retired military officers urged President George W. Bush on Thursday to spell out how he will enforce a ban on the torture of U.S.-held prisoners, complaining he muddied the issue in a statement last month.

Bush reluctantly accepted the ban, pushed by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, after scandals over abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, harsh interrogations at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and reports the CIA ran secret prisons abroad to hold terrorism suspects.

Retired military leaders including Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar, who was U.S. Central Command commander-in-chief, said Bush should clarify his stance after making a statement last month that some experts said signaled he would bypass rules for treatment of detainees when he saw fit, even after he signed them into law.

The 22 former military officers in their letter said Bush should ensure that "your administration speak with a consistent voice to make clear that the United States now has a single standard of conduct specified in law that governs all interrogations."

In a telephone news conference, Hoar said Bush's statement last month "diluted the impact of the McCain amendment" by indicating "that there were going to be exceptions and the president has the ability to do that."

McCain, who endured torture as a war prisoner in Vietnam, spearheaded the bill to set standards for detainees' treatment that won big majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives.

Bush's statement, issued on a Friday evening after he signed the bill putting the amendment into law, said the "executive branch shall construe (the law) in a manner consistent with the authority of the president ... as commander in chief."

The statement also said the White House's approach would be "consistent with the constitutional limitations on the judicial power, which will assist in achieving the shared objective of the Congress and the president ... of protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks."

Elisa Massimino, Washington director of Human Rights First, said Bush should "clarify the signing statement so there is no question that the commander-in-chief considers this law binding on all U.S. personnel."

Human Rights First held a news conference on the letter from retired generals and admirals.

Retired Rear Admiral John Hutson, a former Navy judge advocate general, said the McCain amendment reinstated long-standing U.S. policy on the treatment of prisoners. "Then to have a signing statement in which that becomes blurred again causes us great concern," he said.