Senate Prepares for Abuse Files

Posted May 10, 2004 at 6:54pm

Senate leaders reached a bipartisan decision Monday evening to hold off on receiving new photos from the Pentagon documenting alleged abuse of Iraqi prisoners, opting instead to ensure that all legal safeguards are met before they take possession of the controversial documents.

After a meeting of Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), along with the top two members of the Armed Services Committee, the quartet decided to hold off on receiving the material until the chamber’s top lawyers review the matter in its entirety.

That decision came as a growing number of Senators on Monday called for the public release of the documents, which will likely include photographs and video tapes chronicling the alleged mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison.

The allegations of abuse at the prison have eroded U.S. credibility in the Arab world and prompted calls for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation.

Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) directed the Defense Department to continue serving as the custodian of this new evidence until the Senate leadership decides whether every Senator or just members of the Armed Services panel should be able to view the material.

“My own view is I think all Senators have a right if they come up here” to view the photographs and videotape, Warner said.

Warner predicted a decision could come “in the next day or two.”

“I decided this was an institutional problem and should be shared with the leadership before we make a decision,” Warner said.

The matter was being reviewed late Monday night by the Senate’s legal counsel, as well as the counsels to Frist, Daschle, Warner and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), ranking member of Armed Services. “Those five lawyers are going to look at all applicable law,” said John Ullyot, Warner’s spokesman.

In particular, the leaders want to avoid doing anything that would “compromise an ongoing investigation” of potential criminal charges and any privacy violations, Ullyot said.

Frist, emerging from a late-afternoon meeting with Warner and other Republicans, said he was not sure how the photographs and videotapes would be handled.

“I am not even sure what I am deciding yet,” he said. “I haven’t seen the photos, and I have not specifically asked for them.”

It appears, though, that Warner’s endorsement of making the material available to every Senator makes it likely that every lawmaker will be able to view the material that has been a primary topic of conversation in the media since initial photographs depicting alleged abuse surfaced last month.

A more controversial decision about whether the photographs should be publicly released will be made by the Pentagon. Pentagon officials have deemed the material classified, meaning that it would be a crime for any Member to release information about the documents.

However, lawmakers in both parties urged the full release of the photographs — where lawful — in order to demonstrate to the international community that the United States is committed to full disclosure.

“I believe they should be released, unless they involve conduct that comes under the Code of Military Justice and people may be prosecuted for the acts that are depicted,” said Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). “That is a matter of really protecting the rights of those who may be accused under the Code of Military Justice.”

But Stevens added, “I do not favor keeping this secret just because this might cause further damage. We have already been damaged almost beyond repair.”

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said if the U.S. does not release the photographs then it will appear as though they are “hiding something and sweeping it under the rug.”

Noting that similar photographs of alleged abuse of Iraqi prisoners have been published in newspapers and aired on television, Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) — a member of the Armed Services panel — said that he favors releasing the new material to the public.

“They are going to get out anyhow, apparently,” Allard said. “I just think newspapers got to use their discretion about what they are going to show. They are out there and people know they are there and I don’t see any reason for holding back.”

Pentagon officials informed the committee Monday that it was ready to release more material, but Warner urged holding off until a final decision could be reached. With the workweek just getting started — Daschle, for instance, was flying back from Kansas — no decision was ready by late Monday afternoon.

Warner is hoping that his four-way negotiation will hammer out a method to determine who can view the material, how they can view it and where they can view it. One idea is for only members of the Armed Services panel to see the new photos. Another option is to make the documents available to all Senators.

Ullyot indicated that if the leaders decide that only Armed Services members get to view the documents, then Pentagon officials would in all likelihood deliver them to the committee’s offices in the Russell Senate Office Building.

If the entire Senate is to be able to view them, then the documents would almost certainly be delivered to Room S-407 in the Capitol — the most structurally and technologically secured room in the Capitol, which some Members refer to as “The Tank.”

Indecision about the Abu Ghraib material also prevails on the House side, with officials there saying that they don’t expect a decision until mid-week.

On Thursday, members of the House Armed Services Committee will receive a closed-door briefing from Army officials about the status of the prisoner-abuse investigation.

That session will be the first in what the Armed Services Committee expects to be a regular series of updates on the investigation for Members of Congress, many of whom remain angry that the Pentagon did not alert them to the issue when it first arose several months ago.

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.