On the heels of a bipartisan Congressional report blaming high-level officials of the Bush Administration for employing harsh interrogation techniques on detainees captured in the "global war on terror," many of the world's most respected civil libertarians are calling for the establishment of an independent commission to investigate the alleged abuses, and one of them, Amnesty International, has released a detailed plan to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Amnesty's four-part plan sets out recommendations for actions the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama should take during the current transition period, others immediately upon taking office, and still others to be taken during the first 100 days and in the first eighteen months of the new government.
Among the most problematic questions surrounding the issue is which U.S. courts will have jurisdiction to try alleged terrorists. The military tribunals set up by the Bush Administration are widely considered to be unfair and ineffective.
Another thorny issue is where to send prisoners the U.S. government admits were mistakenly taken into custody and those it no longer considers to be national security threats.
Among the latter is a group of Chinese Muslims who have been held at Guantanamo for seven years. A Federal judge recently ordered them immediately released into the U.S. after the government said it could not return them to China for fear they would be tortured and could find no other country willing to accept them. The government is currently appealing that court decision.
Amnesty's recommendations came as it was revealed that Bush Administration Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates - who has been nominated by President-elect Obama to remain in office - has also ordered the Pentagon to begin drawing up a plan to close the notorious Caribbean prison. During his presidential campaign, Obama said repeatedly that closing Guantanamo Bay would be a top priority of his administration.
In an interview with the television program "60 Minutes" last month, Obama declared "that America doesn't torture and I'm going to make sure we don't torture. Those are part and parcel an effort to regain America's moral stature in the world."
The Congressional report, issued last week by the Senate Armed Services Committee, concluded that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other high-ranking Bush administration officials were responsible for the harsh interrogations against captured terrorist suspects that took place at Guantanamo Bay and at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Rumsfeld had attributed such abuses to "a few bad apples" -- lower-level members of the military acting on their own. But the Senate report charged that Rumsfeld bears principal responsibility for the prisoner abuses. Most civil libertarians regard these abuses as torture.
"Attempts by senior officials to pass the buck to low ranking soldiers while avoiding any responsibility for abuses are unconscionable," committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, said in a statement. The committee's most senior Republican member is this year's candidate for the presidency, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who concurred in the committee's findings.
The committee concluded that the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib were "not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own." Most of those low-ranking soldiers were found guilty by military courts and are currently serving prison sentences.
Rumsfeld's "authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody," the report said. "What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely."
"The message from top officials was clear; it was acceptable to use degrading and abusive techniques against detainees," Levin said.
The report added that Rumsfeld's authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques for use at Guantanamo Bay was a direct cause of detainee abuse there."
Following release of the Senate report, Amnesty International joined many other human rights advocates in recommending a thorough investigation of prisoner abuses by a 9/11-type independent commission. Sentiment for such a body appeared to be growing, partly because many in Congress fear that an investigation by Congress could become mired in partisan politics and because some members appear reluctant to risk their political careers by becoming involved in such a divisive and controversial issue.
Amnesty's recommendations provide a timeline and conditions necessary to best attain truth and accountability.
"Closing Guantanamo, as President-elect Obama has pledged, is just the first step. For real change, the incoming administration and Congress must work together to fully expose the Bush administration policies as a step toward ensuring that the same abuses committed in the name of national security are not repeated," said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "Ending these shameful practices is not enough. To demonstrate that the United States is genuinely committed to human rights and to the rule of law, the new administration and Congress must end the secrecy that has obscured human rights abuses from public scrutiny and shielded those responsible from accountability. It is beyond time to finally shut down Guantanamo Bay and push the door open to truth."