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Top General Rebuts Abuse Claims

Times Staff Writer

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Sunday strongly defended the military’s treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, calling the prison, which has been harshly criticized by human rights organizations and others, a “model facility.”

Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers rejected criticism leveled last week by Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organization, in its annual report on abuses across the globe.

Amnesty called Guantanamo’s prison camp “the gulag of our time” and urged the Bush administration to shut down the facility, which was opened after the Sept. 11attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Since those attacks, the U.S. has taken 68,000 suspects into custody, Myers said, and has held them in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He said the military had investigated 325 cases of alleged abuse and found 100 of them to have merit.

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In an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” the general said 100 “individuals” had been court-martialed or had administrative action taken against them as a result of abuse allegations.

Myers called Amnesty’s likening of U.S. treatment of Guantanamo prisoners to the former Soviet government’s abuse of inmates in the gulag “absolutely irresponsible.”

The general said the military spent $2.5 million annually to ensure that the meals served to Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo were “proper, Muslim-approved food.” He also said the military had distributed 1,300 copies of the Koran, Islam’s holy book, in 13 languages to detainees.

Myers repeated the Pentagon’s assertion that an ongoing military investigation had found five cases in which “perhaps the Koran was handled in an inappropriate way” by prison guards or interrogators at Guantanamo. Military investigators reported Thursday that they had found “no credible evidence” to support a detainee’s claim that a Koran had been flushed down a toilet at the prison.

Noting that the International Committee of the Red Cross “has been at Guantanamo since Day 1,” Myers insisted that “it is a model facility.”

The ICRC, however, has in the past also criticized conditions at the prison at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, where the United States is detaining about 540 prisoners from 40 nations who are suspected of involvement in terrorism. Some prisoners have been held for as many as three years without legal representation.

Myers said that rather than focus on occasional instances of abuse, “the question that needs to be debated” is “how do you handle people who aren’t part of a nation-state effort, that are picked up on the battlefield, that if you release them or let them go back to their home countries they would run right around and try to slit our throats, our children’s throats?”

The war on terrorism is “a different kind of struggle, a different kind of war,” Myers said. “We struggle with how to handle [prisoners]. But we’ve always handled them humanely and with the dignity that they should be accorded.”

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In another interview Sunday, on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Myers rejected criticism by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who said that 100 prisoners had died in U.S. custody since the start of the U.S.-declared war on terrorism.

“This is not systemic,” Myers said. “It is not the policy of this government, obviously. None of us would sign up with that. We want to treat people humanely.”

Myers said some of those who had perished in custody “died from natural causes. Some have died because of maltreatment.” He said each case that was brought up was investigated.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said Sunday that he had asked the administration whether the uniform rules for treatment of prisoners of war, recently adopted by the Defense Department, applied to all agencies of government -- including intelligence services.

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“I didn’t get an answer yet,” McCain said on CNN’s “Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer.”

McCain said the question of detainee treatment was damaging U.S. credibility abroad.

“Those of us who have traveled in the region cannot overstate the impact that Abu Ghraib and other things that have happened have damaged the image of the United States of America in the Middle East,” he said, referring to the prison abuse scandal that erupted last year when photographs showing Iraqis being mistreated at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad were released.

McCain said that he and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) were interested in holding hearings on how the U.S. handled prisoners.

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“I think Congress has a responsibility in a mature fashion to ... make sure that we’re exercising our proper oversight responsibilities,” McCain said.


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